Pest in Show

In yesterday’s post, I raved about the macabre brilliance of the Stephen King adaptation 1922, but I have to admit: it is not even the most frightful rat-related work currently streaming on Netflix. This other endeavor just might be the most unnerving film I’ve ever seen (I can’t remember ever cringing and exclaiming in horror so many times in one viewing). What makes the film that much more difficult to endure is that it’s not even fictional. I’m talking about the 2016 Morgan Spurlock documentary Rats (inspired by the Robert Sullivan book of the same title).

Appropriately enough, the documentary opens in the “ratropolis” of New York City. As someone who used to live and work in Manhattan, I know there’s a tendency to try to ignore the omnipresence of rats, but this film graphically undermines such willful blindness. Again and again, the surreptitious scourge is shown surfacing on food runs, finding a bountiful harvest in curbside garbage bags (one man’s trash is many rats’ treasure). Spurlock reminds us that there’s a biting nightmare lurking just underfoot in the City’s sewer drains, and it is a lot nastier than Pennywise.

From New York, the filmmakers venture down to post-Katrina New Orleans to follow the efforts of a research team at Tulane to track the various diseases carried by local rats.  The cut-in photos of infected humans are haunting enough alone, but viewers are also treated to nearly-unbearable scenes of rat autopsies (beware the botfly-sac extraction!).

There are unpleasant surprises aplenty, but I won’t spoil them by cataloging them all here. I’ll just say that the segment about the preparation of captured rats as Vietnamese cuisine had me ready to declare a hunger strike. And just when I thought matters couldn’t get any worse, the documentary concludes with a visit to a Hindu temple in India, where worshipers happily share space–and food and drink(!)–with thousands of venerated vermin.

I don’t want to misrepresent Rats as sensationalist, merely concerned with creating dismay or sparking disgust. The documentary ultimately aims to open eyes, not force people to avert their gazes from the screen. It was interesting to learn about the intelligence of rats, about their behavioral adaptations (outsmarting the latest attempts at extermination) and evolutionary mutations (developing resistance to the most potent poisons). Humanity appears to be making little progress in its prolonged war against these rodent opponents, and it’s not out of the realm of imagination to consider that someday the earth’s dominant species will be subterranean.

While definitely not for the squeamish, the grimly-fascinating Rats is a film well worth catching.

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