Some animals are guaranteed to inspire feelings of disgust and fear in cinema audiences, and none more so than the humble rat. While a few people keep rats as pets, even they will see a difference between their domesticated companions and the sewer-dwelling, disease-carrying vermin that we are continually told that none of us is ever more than six feet from (an urban myth perhaps, but with a certain basis in facts – there are a multitude of rats in the world).
Collective memories of the black death, horror stories about rats climbing out of toilet bowls or being found in babies cribs and the mere possibility of waking up to find a rat siting on your bed, possibly eating your face (and yes, it’s happened!) ensure that rats will never be seen as cuddly by the majority. And with news stories about oversized ‘super rats’ or claims that they are becoming resistant to poisons, it’s not hard to see why rats make many people shudder. There is nothing we can do to stop their rise, it seems, and if filmmakers are to be believed, even a nuclear holocaust won’t slow them down.
Rats have long been used by writers and filmmakers as shorthand for disgust, decay and dirt. Think of how many times you have seen someone exploring an old building, a gothic castle or a disused warehouse in a horror film where the sense of creepiness is emphasised by scuttling rodents. Rats have also been the food for mutated throwbacks and subhuman monsters, to show how depraved they are – having your character snatch up a rat and start munching on it is sure to repulse the audience.
In George Orwell’s futuristic fear of a totalitarian state novel 1984, protagonist Winston Smith is driven to breaking point when confronted with his worst fear – rats – in Room 101. This was memorably shown in the controversial BBC TV version of the story broadcast live in 1954, with a pre-Hammer Films star Peter Cushing suitably terrified as a ‘rat helmet’ is placed on his head. Viewers of early British TV were thrilled and appalled in equal measure. This showed the power that rats had to terrify not only Smith, but viewers in general.
In The Flesh and the Fiends (1959), a tale of graverobbers in 1828, William Burke (George Rose) taunted William Hare (Donald Pleasence) by waving a dead rat in his face although it was a minor scare. Oddly, it wasn’t until the 1970s that rats became central figures in horror movies.
British eco sci-fi series Doomwatch gave a hint of the rodent horrors to come in 1970 episode Tomorrow, the Rat, in which a new strain of voracious, flesh eating, intelligent and poison-resistant rats is created by a scientist – as you do – and some inevitably escape to attack Londoners. It’s an interesting story, let down by some frankly laughable special effects – the scenes of rubber rats sewn to the clothes of actors who frantically try to look as if they are under attack became a staple of comedy shows looking to sneer at low budget productions of the past, and truth be told, these moments are pretty ludicrous. But the episode as a whole – and the series in general – is worth a look. Also in 1970, a live rat was killed on camera in the German art house horror movie, Jonathan.
The most famous and successful rat movie was Willard, made in 1971. The film follows social misfit Willard (Bruce Davison), who develops a strange relationship with the rats that surround the old, dilapidated house he lives in with his mother. After the old woman dies, this odd relationship increases, as a large number of rats begin living in the house and he develops a close bond with two unusually smart one – Socrates (who is, rather impossibly, white) and Ben. He soon starts using the rats to take revenge on those who have made his life a misery, namely his exploitative boss Mr Martin (Ernest Borgnine). But when Martin is torn apart by the rats in revenge for him killing Socrates, Willard is snapped back into reality and decides he must get rid of the rats – but by this time, it’s too late.
An intriguing and effective psychological horror film, Willard was a surprise box office hit and would inspire imitators like Stanley (where snakes took the place of rats) as well as spawning a sequel, Ben.
Also in 1971, rats were one of the Biblical plagues used by The Abominable Dr Phibes to take revenge against the doctors he blamed for his wife’s death. Actually, rats were not one of the plagues in the Bible and the scene where a handful are found in the plane being piloted by Dr Kitaj (Peter Gilmore) is possibly the weakest of the film, with the clearly disinterested rodents hardly looking like much of a threat.
Ben, made in 1972, sees the titular character – who is considerably smarter than the average rat – leading an army of rodents after escaping the purge on the household after the events of Willard. While the scenes of rat attacks and vast colonies of the creatures in sewers ramp up the horror of the first film, the movie hedges its bets by also introducing a maudlin story where Ben is adopted by a sickly child. This rather schizophrenic storyline ensured that the film would be less successful than Willard, and allowed for the inclusion of the teeth-grindingly sentimental title song, performed by Michael Jackson (who would trouble the horror genre again many years later, with Thriller) – possibly the only love song to a rat that has ever entered the pop charts.
The popularity of Willard didn’t see a massive explosion of rat cinema – most imitators copied the story but used other animals – but the producers of Andy Milligan’s The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! tried to ride the wave in 1972.
This film had started life in 1969 as one of Milligan’s London-lensed low budget period horror films, this time about a family of werewolves, but had sat on the shelf of infamous producer William Mishkin until 1972, when the director was instructed to add around 20 minutes of rat footage to the film in order to cash in on Willard and Ben. The resulting film is as weird as you might expect. Milligan has seen a degree of critical reassessment over the last few years, and it’s true that much of his work is less ‘bad’ as it is bizarre. The unique Milligan style is on full display in this film.
Meanwhile, over in Australia, Terry Bourke (Lady, Stay Dead) created a thoroughly downbeat and nasty entry for a proposed TV series called ‘Fright’ in 1972. The pilot episode, Night of Fear, features a young woman being terrorised and eventually eaten by rats in the outback. A thoroughly grim affair, it was understandably never shown on television, receiving only a limited theatrical outing.
Also possibly showing some influence from Willard at this time was The Pied Piper, a British version of the famous fairy story made in 1972 by French director Jacques Demy. This is a darker tale than you might expect. Set at the time of the Black Death and with English folkie Donovan as the Piper, it mixes in corruption, revenge, anti-semitism in a film that is often an uneasy mix of children’s fantasy and adult drama.
Towards the conclusion of this offbeat production, the piper takes his revenge on the corrupt townsfolk by unleashing the rats he has promised to rid them of, resulting in amazing and unsettling scenes of rodent rampage – at one point they even burst out of a wedding cake! It’s a curious, unique film that is sadly rarely seen today, possibly because of the strange mix of styles it contains.
Paul Naschy battled rats in his appearance in the title role of The Hunchback of the Morgue, one of his livelier films. In a controversial scene in this 1972 film, when he finds them eating his beloved’s corpse, Naschy sets the rats on fire – no special effect this, real rats were burned!
If regular-sized rats are scary, then imagine how much worse giants rats would be! That, I assume, was the thinking of legendary B-movie maestro Bert I. Gordon, when he embarked on a ‘loose’ (to put it kindly) adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Food of the Gods in 1976. Mr BIG had long had a fixation on oversized creatures – his earlier films include The Amazing Colossal Man, War of the Colossal Beast, Earth vs. The Spider and Village of the Giants, and he would follow this film with Empire of the Ants.
In The Food of the Gods, a couple discovers mysterious and miraculous foodstuff, resembling porridge, bubbling out the ground and start to feed it to their chickens, as you do. This causes a massive growth in the birds. Unfortunately, the local rats, wasps and worms have also developed a taste for the stuff, and soon a small band of survivors are being terrorised by the giant rodents (the wasps and worms only play a minor role in the proceedings).
This is a surprisingly slow-moving and unsurprisingly inept effort, with Bert’s trademark shoddy special effects, yet it proved to be an unexpected box office hit.
In 1989, an overly belated direct-to-video sequel was made – Food of the Gods 2 (aka Gnaw: Food of the Gods II) that had no connection to the earlier film, this time telling the unlikely story of a misguided scientist who grows giant rats whilst trying to find a cure for baldness! These oversized rodents are released by animal rights activists and cause the expected amount of chaos in a film that is notable only for making the original Food of the Gods look like art.
The same year, Yugoslavian satire The Rat Saviour sees a writer discover that rats are learning how to imitate and ultimate replace humans. Much like Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, the film is a comment on the loss of humanity and a biting criticism of the socialist state.
Also in 1976, British TV series The New Avengers took a rare step into the fantasy world with the episode ‘Gnaws’ by Dennis Spooner. While the 1960s series The Avengers was often fantastical, this 1970s spin-off tended to be more ‘realistic’ and concerned itself with espionage rather than science fiction on the whole. Yet, there were exceptions, and Gnaws was the most obvious, with Steed, Purdy and Gambit chasing a giant rat through the London sewers!
Showing alongside The New Avengers on TV in 1976 was Beasts, a horror anthology by Nigel Kneale, which included the episode During Barty’s Party. In this two hander, a middle aged couple find themselves besieged by ‘super rats’ (the titular radio show fills in what is happening in the outside world). We never see the rats in this story, the horror being effectively conveyed by sound effects and the growing panic of the couple.
The 1922 Nosferatu had featured scenes of rat filled coffins that added to the general creepiness of the film (and similarly, 1931’s Dracula added rats to the creatures infesting the Count’s castle), but Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake emphasised the rat infestation much more, showing Dracula as, quite literally, the plague – the rats he brings with him spread disease just as much as the vampire does.
In 1974, James Herbert’s novel The Rats had become a massive success in the UK, spawning a whole ‘animal attack’ pulp fiction sub genre and eventually leading to several sequels. This graphic and lurid novel about giant rats seemed ripe for filming, and in 1982, it was finally shot by Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse for Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest.
Relocating the action to Canada (doubtless for the tax breaks that encouraged many productions during this period), the resulting movie was decidedly less outrageous than Herbert’s novel, and proved to be a pretty ineffectual and slow moving affair. Things were not helped by the low budget, which didn’t allow for decent rat effects – notoriously, the giant rats were played by dachshunds in rat suits, which fooled nobody. In Britain, the film was released on video as The Rats, but elsewhere – where Herbert’s novel was less well known – it went out as Deadly Eyes, which probably just confused potential viewers more.
Curiously, it wasn’t the only Canadian rat film at the time, as 1983’s Of Unknown Origin also features rampaging rodents, though this time on a more domestic scale, as Peter Weller (future Robocop) find himself becoming increasingly obsessed with catching a huge rat that is in his house, even if it means destroying the property in the process. As much an allegorical tale as anything (Weller’s character is literally caught in a rat race and his desperation to the marauding beast represents his ineffectuality in face of his desire to ‘own’ his own space), the film is well worth seeking out. For a more comedic version of the same story, check out the 1997 film Mouse Hunt.
Director Bruno Mattei had featured a scene involving a zombie rat in his entertainingly trashy Zombie Creeping Flesh in 1981, and he later expanded on the idea in Rats: Night of Terror, a post-apocalyptic tale where survivors of the nuclear holocaust stumble upon a village full of food and water. Unfortunately, it’s also full of mutant rats… deliriously trashy and gory, it’s no surprise that the film has built up quite a cult following over the years.
Rats appeared briefly in 1982 science fiction mummy movie Time Walker, when two university security guards are startled to discover a cupboard overrun with the vermin.
1983 horror anthology Nightmares featured the tale ‘Night of the Rat’, in which a young couple argue over what to do about a rat that is apparently living in their house – Clair (Veronica Cartwright) wants to call in an exterminator, but Steven (Richard Masur) is convinced he can sort out the problem with rat traps. However, as things get worse, with huge holes appearing in the walls and the family cat vanishing, it soon becomes clear that this is no ordinary rat, but a giant variation. Directed by Joseph Sergeant, the film was originally made for TV, but was considered too scary for the small screen and so benefitted from a successful theatrical release.
Giant rats were also among the horrors facing survivors in the post-apocalypse comedy Radioactive Dreams, made in 1985. This is a typical ’80s film as you could hope (or dread) to find, and the giant rodents are a mere aside to the action involving cannibals, mutants and roving bands of Mad Max-inspired punks.
The same year saw Terror in the Swamp, in which a mutant cross between a nutria (a type of swamp rat) and a human, being bred for the fur industry, escapes and goes on a killing spree. Set in Louisiana, this is a classic example of a local horror production and is probably for rat horror completists only.
In 1987, the spectacularly tasteless Ratman emerged from Italy, courtesy of director ‘Anthony Ascot’ [aka Giuliano Carnimeo]. Starring dwarf Nelson de la Rosa, this was the story of a homicidal rat/monkey hybrid creating by a mad scientist in the Caribbean, for reasons that are never made clear. Italian exploitation veterans David Warbeck and Janet Agren turn up in this bizarre effort.
Epitaph (1987) features a scene in which a female psychiatrist is tied up and a metal bucket with a rat inside is tied round her waste. The psychotic mother heats up the bucket with a blow torch and so the rat gnaws into the poor woman’s stomach to escape (recalling a poorly-staged similar set-up in The Beast in Heat), only to emerge shortly afterwards.
Stephen King’s short story Graveyard Shift was filmed in 1990. The film takes place during the night shift clean up of an abandoned mill that has just reopened, where the workers find themselves attacked by rats… and something much worse.
The film invariably pads King’s original story out with ‘personality conflicts’ that add little to the story – you would be better served to stick to the prose.
The third season of TV series Monsters, broadcast in 1990, opened up with Stressed Environment, where super-intelligent rats bred by scientists fight back against plans to close the lab and exterminate them, even crafting miniature weapons to attack their enemies with. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s rendered ridiculous when we see the rats, which are terrible stop-motion models. I’m not sure the sight of spear-carrying rats could ever be certain to cause shrieks of horror rather than shrieks of laughter, but the monsters here are especially rotten.
1991’s The Demon Rat is set in the near future, when environmental pollution has reached new levels and toxic chemicals have created mutant animals, including a giant man-rat! This Spanish film mixes science fiction and satire in a fairly effective manner.
In 1995, Bram Stoker’s short story Burial of the Rats was adapted – if that is the word – by producer Roger Corman. As the plot involves a young Bram Stoker being captured by scantily clad female warriors who use hungry rats to punish evil men, it should go without saying that any connection to the original short story begins and ends with the title. It should not be confused with the 2007 Japanese film of the same name, which has no connection to Stoker or rodent rampages.
Also in 1995, Mind Ripper (“Wes Craven Presents”) includes a shot of a couple of rats in an experimental underground facility chowing down on a human eyeball. Yeuch!
Trilogy of Terror II, a belated made-for-cable 1996 sequel to Dan Curtis’ 1975 cult TV movie, features the effectively creepy tale ‘The Graveyard Rats’ which, perhaps rather obviously, features giant rodents running amok in a run-down cemetery. It was adapted freely from Henry Kuttner‘s eponymous short story. The overarching TV anthology, which stars British actress Lysette Anthony in three different roles, is well worth seeking out.
Altered Species, made in 2001, sees rats attacking partygoers after the scientist host pours his new formula down the sink. For some reason, one of the rats has mutated into a giant.
Also from 2001 is Tara (like Ben, the name of the titular rodent), which was retitled Hood Rat to flag up its blaxploitation slumlord theme. Ice-T stars as a nasty soulless rent collector and the film is more drama-based than horror, with only some CGI-laden rat attacks to enliven its inner-city tale of woe.
2002’s The Rats has no connection to James Herbert, but instead has a department store infested by mutant rats – clearly, regular rats were no longer cutting it as horror creatures by this time. A year later saw the release of the similarly titled Rats, which takes place in a multi-purpose institution that houses both rich drug addicts and the criminally insane. It also turns out to be home to an army of super-intelligent giant rats, the result of past medical experiments of Doctor Winslow (Ron Perlman).
2001 German movie Ratten: Sie Werden Dich Kriege (also known as Revenge of the Rats) sees an army of rats brought out onto the streets during garbage collectors strike. To make things worse, these rats are carrying a deadly virus! Jörg Lühdorff’s film was popular enough to spawn a 2004 sequel, Ratten 2 – Sie Kommen Wieder!
2002’s Nezulla is a Japanese film in which a half-rat, half-human monster that has been created by American scientists goes on the rampage in Tokyo. Inevitably, the film is let down by its shot-on-video visuals although it might appeal to fans of Eighties monster movies.
Willard was remade in 2003, with Crispin Glover in the title role. Directed by Glen Morgan, the film sticks pretty much to the story of the original film, and is quite effective in its own right, yet seemingly failed to connect with audiences.
2006 film Mulberry Street sees an infection turning people into mutant rat creatures. Closer to the zombie genre than usual rat movies (the film was retitled Zombie Virus on Mulberry Street for UK release), this is one of the better recent films in that overdone genre.
Razortooth (2006) may be the giant mutated eel star of this creature feature but huge rats are still a problem for the local bayou eatery. Helpfully, the short-order cook suggests: ” You wanna get rid of them rats? Feed ’em some of your chilli!”
Rat Scratch Fever (2011) sees giant mutant space rats, who have stowed away on a spaceship and are now terrorising Los Angeles. Ultra-cheap, trashy and unashamed, the film is perhaps likely to appeal to anyone who enjoys watching lower-than-low rent giant monster movies on SyFy.
In Sinister 2 (2015), a video shows a murder scene in a Lutheran church in which a family is nailed to the floor with bowls placed on their chests, encasing a live rat (echoing an infamous scene from the 1977 Italian Nazisploitation movie The Beast in Heat). When hot coals from a stove are placed on the bowls, the rats burrow through their abdomens to escape the heat, causing them to bleed to death (the clip is called “Sunday Service”).
In Universal’s 2017 The Mummy (a flawed attempt to launch their ‘Dark Universe’ of movie monsters, albeit with action-packed plots), there is a supposedly terrifying scene in which Tom Cruise’s bemused adventurer character is besieged by an army of CGI rats in a British backwater. All the rodents do is scamper all over the Hollywood star before he is saved further travails by the arrival of their controller, a resurrected Egyptian mummy princess.
Soon, yet more enterprising filmmakers will hopefully realise that rats are both omnipresent and terrifying for many, and exploit that fear to its full potential…
Article by David Flint, with additional material by Adrian J Smith