In his directorial debut Super Size Me, documentarian Morgan Spurlock put himself on a fast food diet that made him vomit. In his latest, Rats, he aims to make his viewers do likewise. If the visuals of rats in the garbage and the toilet doesn’t do it for you, footage of parasitic worms and larger, chestburster-like fly larvae being removed from the bodies of recently deceased rodents will. Spurlock has basically made a horror movie as only a documentarian can.
Seated in a basement that wouldn’t be out of place in a Saw sequel is stogie-sucking exterminator Ed Sheehan, essentially a real-life Kevin Durand in The Strain. From this dark base of operations, he narrates much of the movie, warning us that rats are smart, adapt counter-measures to every form of attack we use against them, and that there will always be more of them than there are of you, especially if you live in New York. Just to prove the point of their numbers, he offers a charming anecdote about putting four of them in a box until they quickly became a family of 37. Once that number grew further to 52, he took away their food and let them eat each other, noting that they killed off the weak ones first. He has observed that, in the wild, they will watch such runts approach unfamiliar things that might be traps. If the trap springs, they warn each other by urinating on it to ensure their brethren and sistren steer clear from then on.
From NYC to New Orleans and Mumbai, Spurlock looks at people dealing with the rat problem, whether with chloroform, or bare hands and feet. And just to alarm you, he throws in jump scares, via quick shots of diseased flesh, and reenactments of rats swimming up through the toilet to bite you on the butt. Yes, that can happen. Unlike in his earlier works, the director does not appear on-camera to do double-takes when new gross facts are pouted—and he doesn’t need to, because if you’re looking for that, just turn to the person next to you. (Unless that person happens to be my wife, who undermined Spurlock’s frightful intentions by asserting, “D’awww! They’re so cute!” every step of the way… That is, until we got to the sequence shot in England, where small white terriers hunt down country rats and rip them to pieces like chew toys. At this point, the cute-on-cute violence proved cognitively dissonant.)
While it’s a myth to think any documentary is truly objective, most often try to throw in some opposing arguments to at least show they’re trying to rebuff something. But what Spurlock gives us isn’t “They make good pets!” or “We can try out cancer drugs on them!” It’s a weirder, more metaphysical direction that I won’t spoil, though it’s possible it comes from the book by Robert Sullivan that inspired this movie in the first place. And it emphasizes the fact that Rats as a film really isn’t especially educational; it’s a haunted house of a movie, throwing creepiness and grossness in your face for cheap thrills, then letting you gently down on the way out. A classroom supplement this is not, but an alternative scare selection for people who want non-traditional Halloween fare? That it is.
And I can’t wait to see what Doug Benson, who has of late made a career of doing weed-centric parodies of Spurlock docs, counters with. Feel free to leave suggestions in comments below.
3 burritos out of 5 for Rats. Don’t leave any leftovers lying around!
Image: Discovery Channel
Luke Y. Thompson is Nerdist’s weekend editor. Rat him out on Twitter @LYTrules