'Rats': Film Review | TIFF 2016

An icky but engrossing docu-chiller that may provoke OCD-like ratproofing.

Morgan Spurlock's latest doc, about these ubiquitous and unkillable rodents, plays much like a horror film.

Prepare for some heebie-jeebies, o ye who would watch Morgan Spurlock's Rats, a skin-crawling hour and a half about the vermin who share our cities and live on our trash: The documentarian who flirted with body-horror in Super Size Me goes full-tilt here, offering shock-cut inserts and skittery sound effects in a film that already has little trouble keeping viewers on edge. Focused mainly on establishing that a) there are a lot more of these disease-carrying beasts around you than you think, and b) our attempts to kill them off are not just doomed, but backfiring, the movie (based on Robert Sullivan's book of the same name) will play well in its pre-Halloween Discovery timeslot, but gets a serious boost from big-screen presentation.

Knowing a gem when he finds one, Spurlock punctuates his globe-spanning narrative with sit-downs in a dark basement, where cigar-smoking tough guy Ed Sheehan, a Brooklyn exterminator for 48 years, tells us what he's learned. Sheehan is as magnetic an interviewee as a filmmaker could want, dishing out hard truths about rats. Not only has he attacked them in the ritziest joints in Manhattan, but he knows from experience how well they learn: Listen as he imagines a crew of them sending a weakling off to sample that new poison you've set out, only to avoid it like the plague once poor Barney goes belly-up.

Speaking of the plague: Spurlock and his experts run down a list of horrible diseases humans catch from rats, complete with photos of pustular flesh revolting enough for an Army STD-prevention film. Lest the doc start to sound like an exploitation flick, this talk of disease comes largely from straight-laced city employees and scientists, whose attempts to (respectively) quash rat populations and gather specimens for study make for edifying viewing.

Don't expect Rats to get less gross as it goes. We watch Tulane researchers dissect rats and pull long parasitic worms from their lungs; we gasp in horror at the giant, still-throbbing sac of fly larvae that one extracts from a gaping hole in a rat's skin. By the time Spurlock visits Cheltenham, England, for a hunt in which 22 terriers go after rats in an absolute bloodbath — DP Luca Del Puppo shoots the countryside with filters appropriate for a zombie apocalypse — the violence is cathartic.

And yet, Spurlock has time to show some humans who've made peace with these utterly detestable creatures. In Vietnam, we're shown restaurant dishes we might eagerly eat if we were told the meat came from chickens — and really, are the confinement pens of a modern chicken farm that much less gross than the claustrophobic cages in which a Cambodian trapper ferries hundreds of rats to that Vietnamese chef?

For viewers truly ready to open their minds, the film concludes in Rajasthan, where the 600-year-old Karni Mata Hindu temple is home — intentionally — to 35,000 rats. Pilgrims come from great distances to spend time with critters they believe are reincarnated humans. "These are my family," says a man who eats chopped vegetables from a kettle with rats crawling in it and laps milk from a pan swarming with them. If you can't beat 'em ...

If the pic's creepy-crawly photography and colorful subjects weren't enough — and they are — a sharp score by Pierre Takal keeps us slightly agitated without ever becoming intrusive.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Midnight Madness)
Distributor: Discovery
Production companies: Warrior Poets, Dakota Films, Submarine Entertainment, Discovery Channel
Director: Morgan Spurlock
Screenwriters: Morgan Spurlock, Jeremy Chilnick
Producers: Morgan Spurlock, Jeremy Chilnick, Suzanne Hillinger
Executive producers: David Koh, Josh Braun, Dan Braun, Stanley Buchthal
Director of photography: Luca Del Puppo
Editor-composer: Pierre Takal
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine

Not rated, 88 minutes