Revulsion. Like all of the most unpleasant sensations it serves a valuable purpose. We enter a room full of rancid stink, and we say to ourselves, “Selves, let’s go in a different room.” We take a bite out of rotten food, and we say to ourselves, “Selves, this food sucks.” But then of course, we hear a movie might be the most disgusting movie ever made and we say to ourselves, “Bring it on.”
Or more accurately, your editor says that for you. I was recently challenged to attend the amazing Beyond Fest in Los Angeles and watch the new documentary RATS by Blumhouse’s very own Rebekah McKendry, with the specific caveat that it was building a reputation as the most disgusting movie ever made. My boss thinks of me when these opportunities come along. It is, indeed, a hard-knock life.
RATS is a film by Morgan Spurlock, the director best known for exposing the health risks of fast food in his 2004 movie SUPERSIZE ME. Once again, he is up to his confrontational tricks. RATS may lack some of the gimmickry of Spurlock’s more notable documentaries – in which, for example, he tried to find Osama Bin Laden personally and condemned the world of product placement by producing a documentary full of product placement – but this new film is not without its obvious selling points. Spurlock is exploring the repugnant world of rats and the way human beings interact with them, but he films it very much like a horror movie, complete with “boo!” scares and shocking revelations.
We are, as one of the subjects of Spurlock’s documentary points out, hardwired as a species to react unfavorably towards rats. They may be small and, objectively, rather cute little rodents. But they helped kill millions of people with the bubonic plague, and to this day they carry deadly diseases and debilitating parasites. They swarm our sewers and sneak into our homes, dropping feces and urine onto our fine dish ware. We understand in our heart of hearts that rats are the symptoms of putrescence and decay. There’s a reason why so many horror films use rats as a dire metaphor, from both versions of NOSFERATU to George P. Cosmatos’s man vs. rat thriller OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN.
So for some, a documentary like RATS is going to be pretty revolting just because it shows an awful lots of rats, all the time. They scurry throughout New York City’s trash and across the countryside, with glowing white eyes in the film’s night vision photography. It’s gross, but it’s not necessarily the grossest thing you’ve ever seen. I myself once had a pet rat named “Zippy The Wonder Rat,” and that adorable little scamp more or less inoculated me to the base repugnance of the existence of rats in general.
But Morgan Spurlock isn’t content with cheap rat scares… even though RATS has its fair share of them. RATS explores so many strange venues of humanity’s connection with rats that at least one of them is bound to stick in your craw. RATS was based on Robert Sullivan’s nonfiction book, RATS: OBSERVATIONS ON THE HISTORY & HABITAT OF THE CITY’S MOST UNWANTED INHABITANTS (check it out here), which explored the relationship between these scavenging rodents and their dwelling in New York City, but the film spirals out across the whole world to cover the use of wild rats as comfort food, and religions in which rats are revered.
Also, it will become abundantly clear very early on that some animals were harmed in the making of RATS, specifically the rats. Spurlock’s documentary highlights multiple forms of pest control, from government-sponsored programs in America to less refined practices abroad, like haphazard kill squads that prowl the streets of Mumbai at night, without gloves or solid shoes, keeping the city’s rat problem at bay by hitting them with sticks or grabbing them and simply pulling at both ends like a Christmas cracker. We see packs of Jack Russell Terriers, those cute little canines that rose to popularity after the success of the sitcom FRASIER, being led across the British countryside, burrowing into the ground and ripping rats asunder as their owners smirk and consider this a job very well done.
It’s all pretty darned gross, but again, is it the grossest movie ever made? I didn’t think so until about two days later, when I realized that I kept thinking about one scene from RATS over and over and over again, and not for the most cheerful of reasons. A team of scientific researchers in New Orleans captures a handful of rats and brings them back to their lab for analysis, yanking out wire-shaped parasites from of their lungs, counting the bright white ovular cysts on their livers and, finally, carving out a lima bean-sized botfly larva from one of their chests… a larva which is still alive and quite eager to get away before they finally drop that Cronenbergian monstrosity into formaldehyde, at which point it withers and struggles for the briefest of moments and then horribly dies.
In other words, your mileage might vary, but there’s probably something Morgan Spurlock’s RATS that will revolt you. It’s an informative and sickening documentary about a topic many of us take for granted, and while it may not be the next CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST or SALO it’s bound to freak many people out in one way or another. You’ll come away knowing some interesting new facts about rats and probably carrying at least one new knot in your stomach.
RATS will premiere on the The Discovery Channel on October 22, 2016.
And Los Angeles’ Beyond Fest is running now through October 11th. Be sure to check out their website for a full screening schedule of what other horrors they have in store.