This summer, I stepped onto my Brooklyn sidewalk after a long trip abroad and was greeted with a rat running straight at me, and then into a wall. It was like a Buster Keaton movie, but real and terrifying and fucking gross. Every day as a New Yorker, I see rats scurrying through the subway, or racing across the sidewalk and into the sewer. I once lived in a walkup at 105th and Columbus that kept the garbage in a cage outside our front door, and the walls would light up with movement every time you walked by. (“You’re going in there solo!” said a friend who was helping me take out the trash, dropping his bag and refusing to move.) In the winter, the rats would run under the front gate and into the lobby, and then back out at you when you opened the door. I accidentally kicked one that ran into my leg. But my most vivid memory is walking home from the subway one night when a particularly big one ran across my path and I felt someone grab my arm from behind. It was a large man with the fear of god in his eyes. “Damn, I thought that was a cat!”
To live in New York is to know that rats will eventually win, but to watch Morgan Spurlock’s new horror documentary, Rats, is to have that confirmed in a flood of shock cuts and closeups and infrared footage of the burgeoning hordes. Spurlock deliberately made his new doc play out like genre, which is why it’s showing in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness section; Spurlock explained in his intro that his parents took him to see Jaws and The Exorcist and David Cronenberg’s Scanners when he was a kid, “and when Michael Ironside made that man’s head explode, it changed my life forever, because that moment was the moment that made me want make movies.”
So when he decided to make a movie inspired by Robert Sullivan’s New York Times best-selling book, also named Rats, he thought he’d change things up. “I said, ‘What if we made a documentary as creepy, as scary, as weird, as dark, as uncomfortable as a typical horror film?’” He and his cinematographer watched a horror movie every night of preproduction, putting together a look book of hallways and shadows and ominous angles, not to mention an immersive sound design in postproduction that makes you feel like the rats are creeping up behind you. Rats opens in theaters nationwide next Friday, and airs on Discovery on October 22, appropriately just before Halloween.
The film begins with grainy black-and-white footage of rats mating, rats hanging from traps, and photos of rat bites and diseased skin, set to horrifying reports of the bubonic plague. Gone is Spurlock’s Super Size Me first-person narration, replaced by doomsday statements from Ed Sheehan, a Brooklyn exterminator for 50 years, who tells it like it is from a starkly lit basement while chomping on a cigar. “Conditions are getting better for rats to thrive. They say there’s a rat for every person in this city — that’s at least 8.2 million rats. I think there’s more,” says Sheehan, who goes on to say how he’s seen rats in the finest hotels and restaurants, in hospitals, in nursing homes. They come inside seeking food; they can even swim up through the sewers. Leaving your dishes unwashed is like extending an invitation. He once got called to a scene where a baby had fallen asleep with a bottle in its mouth. “Eight, nine rats got in there.”
The first destination is Ratsopolis itself, New York City, where the city’s Science of Urban Rodentology center is training new recruits as if for war. Did you know that a rat can carry up to 5 million viruses on just one of its hands? Now you do! The camera takes us down to rat level so we can see dozens of them poking their heads out of sewer grates the second that garbage is put out. Another demonstration kicks a pile of garbage bags and a seemingly endless flow of critters comes flying out. Ever enjoy a nice walk in the park at night? Try jumping up and down on a patch of dirt. Chances are there are rats burrows right underfoot, and you can send them running like Whack-a-Mole.
Next up is New Orleans, where Tulane scientists are capturing and dissecting rats to track the spread of pathogens and disease in the city post-Katrina. If you’re not queasy watching a rat get euthanized and cut into, wait till you see little worms get pulled from their lungs, or a still-living botfly larvae from under the skin. On a later trip the filmmakers visited a woman in Vietnam who specializes in cooking rats. Spurlock had gone into the project wanting to eat rat. “But we shot Vietnam after we shot in New Orleans,” he said, “and once you see a botfly pulled out of a rat, you’re kind of done.”
They visit English farmers who are hunting rats with terriers, and spend the night with a crew of rat hunters in Mumbai who are paid by the government to kill rats by hand because traps and poison aren’t working. They’re supposed to be wearing gloves and close-toed shoes, but instead just pick up the rats and break their necks barehanded, then hand over the sack of dead rats for wages. Yet, somehow none of the guys have gotten sick. “They said, ‘Oh no, we just get some boils sometimes that last for six months,’” said cinematographer Luca del Puppo. As for the film crew, they emerged unscathed and unbitten, despite having rats crawl over them on the streets of New York and as they waded through a foot full of excrement in the sewers of Paris. For my money, the scariest moment was when the crew visited a lab that was testing how quickly rats could mutate and build up a resistance to poison. In almost no time, the lab was filled with rats who would take 20,000 times the dose of poison as other rats to die, and were having a litter of 11 or so super-resistant ratlings every three weeks. Just try to watch the Hulk contend with that. As Spurlock warned before the screening, “Sit back, relax, check under your seats.”