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!
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