Rats is a Midnight Movie combining documentary and horror.
Morgan Spurlock has turned us off from food before. His breakout feature, the Oscar-nominated Super Size Me, may have even changed the world by getting McDonald’s to do away with their extra-large serving options. Now he has a new feature that will completely turn your stomach: Rats. Whether you see the movie in a theater or at home, do not do snack. Don’t even eat beforehand. If the rats themselves don’t make you nauseas, it’ll be the maggots, tapeworms, and other parasitic creatures on display, mostly during dissection scenes. Or it will be, after all you’ve seen regarding the filthiness of the rodents, Hindu people in India sharing meals with rats.
Perhaps that introduction has turned you off from the movie itself, but aside from being real none of it is any grosser than a lot of fictional horror movies. Spurlock aims for Rats to be seen as a horror movie, too, and has even included a few jump scares and a recurring expositional New York City exterminator character who serves as an equivalent of the horror genre’s creepy old man as harbinger of doom trope – the remake could cast Tony Todd in the role. There’s also a lot of manipulative sound design and score, the latter being part of the best John Carpenter-esque music since the Stranger Things theme. The only element missing is human death, I guess.
Instead, Rats features human life to the fullest. Like Spurlock’s best film until this one, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, it is a celebration of people’s passions. Only here those passions may seem even stranger to viewers. There’s that guy who clearly loves being an exterminator. There are scientists in New Orleans who love researching and cataloging diseases being carried by the animals. There are rat catchers in the English countryside who love releasing their terriers on a hunt for farm rats. And then are those Hindus who worship a room filled with hundreds of rats in a temple, honoring them as being the reincarnations of their ancestors.
Also like Comic-Con, this is a rare Spurlock doc where he’s not on screen and doesn’t have any presence at all. That is essential to allowing us to appreciate the characters rather than the vessel around them and without the buffer of the filmmaker as a go-between. Still, Rats does have that gateway shell of horror tropes and an approach to the subject matter from a Midnight Movie selling point. Fortunately, the doc never overdoes its attempt to thrill when the humans take center stage. Some viewers may find its demonization of the natural animals to be problematic, more so than with a fiction film (say, Willard), but it does kind of end on a pro-rat note.
Compared to other recent efforts to make horror documentaries, Rats is the best one in terms of using the genre infusion only as a well-orchestrated gimmick and vehicle for interesting nonfiction characters and stories. It’s not as viscerally effective as Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare, which is memorable more for the feelings and nightmares it evokes than any of its information on sleep paralysis or its character study of those suffering from it. Each of these films offers a different kind of experience and leaves us with different residuals. Interestingly enough, though, Rats is mostly more for the mind but will affect the gut, while The Nightmare is mostly for the gut but will also haunt the mind.
Rats is a great companion to Ascher’s film, which was released last year, and a great continuation for our appreciation of the concept. It’s a very welcome rebound from Rich Fox’s The Blackout Experiments, which came out earlier this year and is an absolute failure that shows no respect for its subject matter, its characters, or its audience. And on top of that isn’t ever clear on what it wants to convey about anything, other than a vague spotlight on a specific brand of participatory theater. There are characters who are compelling, but Fox keeps them at a distance, as strange beings, unlike how Spurlock’s film embraces its subjects. Fittingly, The Blackout Experiments is a grueling thing to get through, but that’s not a positive.
All of these docs premiered in Midnight programs at major film festivals – The Blackout Experiments and The Nightmare at Sundance and Rats just recently at Toronto, and if more filmmakers are able to achieve fusions like Ascher and Spurlock’s docs than this will be a trend worth following. Horror docs aren’t receiving a lot of attention yet, but Rats is screening at this year’s Fantastic Fest and can currently be found exclusively in Landmark cinemas, only in midnight shows, ahead of its TV debut on Discovery Channel in October. It’s not only great to see such innovation in nonfiction cinema but also to see how such innovation broadens the documentary audience.