When I think back to the worst moment of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival I will be transported back to a noon the screening of “Rats,” Morgan Spurlock’s documentary on history of rat infestations in the world’s biggest cities. Going in hungry and trying to eat a sandwich while watching the skin-crawling creatures blown up to the size of a football field did nothing for my appetite, and in fact may put me off eating for ever. Not since “Willard” or “Ben” have rats enjoyed a close up as vivid as the one Spurlock gives them in his new doc.
If I was doing the advertising copy for “Rats” I might write something like this, “Rats, coming to a city near you… actually they’re probably already there,” because apparently the beastly rodents are everywhere. They’ve been in Manhattan for 250 years and it is estimated there are more rats in New York City than people. And that is just one of the metropolises Spurlock focuses on.
In New Orleans researchers, checking for pathogens the rats might be carrying and spreading in the aftermath of Katrina, find a smorgasbord of disease and parasites. In Mumbai, India rat catchers kills hundreds of rats by hand and in Cambodia we see how rats are prepared as a dinnertime treat. “It’s important to get the rats while they were still alive,” says the chef, “that way you know they’re fresh.” In one a small Indian town rats are worshipped at a 600-year-old Hindu temple teeming with 35,000 of the long-tailed rodents. “We all die and in in the next life we become rats,” says one man. “They die and in the next life they become man.”
Presented as a horror movie, complete with scary movie music cues, “Rats” tells us pretty much everything we need to know about the creatures we share our cities with. They taste like chicken but sweeter, they are diabolically clever and when the food runs out they start eating their babies. No detail is spared in the depiction of life among the vermin, get ready for an eyeful of parasites and bloodthirsty terriers tearing rats limb from limb—“Terriers are bred for vermin control,” we’re told, “you don’t have to train a terrier to kill rats.” Yet the scary stuff isn’t the blood and guts of rat autopsies but the scientific data derived from them. Rats mutate quickly, becoming immune to rodenticides and diseases. In other words they are carriers of nasty stuff that will kill a human but not its rodent host.
Like Jason Voorhees they are relentless, breeding quickly and constantly on the lookout for food. But why are they so hard to get rid of? They learn from their mistakes and every action on our part will cause a reaction on their part. That is scary stuff. “We are hardwired to be repulsed by these animals,” says one rat expert, “probably for our own survival.” Another urban rodentologist with almost 50 years experience says, “When a rat jumps at me I still jump back.”
“Rats” is often more unsettling than anything you can make up because these little horrors aren’t hidden. They’re everywhere. “I’ve even seen them in graveyards,” says a ratologist ominously, “I wonder what they’re eating?” If that doesn’t put you off your sandwich, nothing will.