Written by: James Herbert (novel), Lonon Smith (screenplay), Charles Eglee (screenplay)
Directed by: Robert Clouse
Starring: Sam Groom, Sara Botsford, and Lisa Laglois
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Tonight, they will rise from the darkness beneath the cities...to feed!
Jaws obviously inspired studios and filmmakers everywhere to shepherd their own nature-run-amok scenarios to the big screen, and, if we’re being honest, the best thing to come out of this was the resurrection of the killer rat sub-genre, which was set to rule the world with the likes of Willard and Ben until Bruce came along and wrecked things like an asshole. I am convinced of this because, while Great White sharks are scary, they’re also exotic as hell—when are you ever going to bump into one of those? Sure, Jaws forced an entire generation to swear off swimming, but sharks still manage to inspire fascination and awe since they’re goddamned awesome.
But rats? Nobody likes those. I mean, there’s a reason we call people rat bastards. Fuck a rat. So, naturally, they make for a good horror movie creature. Plus, they’re more practical and don’t involve a giant animatronic screwing up the entire production, so long as you have some dogs or hamsters to stand in for the rodents. At least a few folks figured this out in the wake of Jaws, including our neighbors to the north, who made their offering with Deadly Eyes, a co-production with Hong Kong outfit Golden Harvest, a production company mostly known for its kung-fu output. With action-movie maven Robert Clouse (Enter the Dragon, Black Belt Jones) at the helm, all of the ingredients were in place for Deadly Eyes to challenge for the throne of greatest killer rat movie of all-time.
It makes a pretty fierce play for the title early on; after an early sequence establishes that rats have infested a to-be condemned freighter filled with chemically-altered grains (because you can’t just have mutant rodents running around for no good reason), the scene shifts to a house party involving a bunch of college kids. When most of them get tired of pissing around the house, they strike off to raise hell somewhere else and leave behind a girl to babysit her infant brother. Unbeknownst to her, a colony of rats has scurried up from the basement, and she’s horrified to discover that the tyke has disappeared, finding only a trail of blood leading downstairs. Immediate intrigue and suspense mounts—not so much because you’re worried she won’t make it but because you’re wondering if the movie is going to go there within five minutes. Sure enough, it does—that baby has become rat food, and it looks like Deadly Eyes might even aspire to be the greatest movie of all-time, bar none.
Unfortunately, it has a tough time living up to the opening ten minutes because there's really nowhere to go after you’ve had an infant devoured by giant rats. It’s all downhill from that point (even a scene where the rats attack an elderly guy in a park seems tame in comparison). Not helping matters is the actual thrust of the story: sadly, Deadly Rats isn’t just 87 minutes of huge rats eating people. Instead, it almost winds up being a drama featuring an unexpected romance between a teacher, Paul Harris (Sam Groom), and local health inspector Elly (Sara Botsford) with only occasional rat-munching on the side. Really, the biggest threat to Mr. Harris isn’t the rats—it’s the one of his students (Lisa Langlois), harbors a major crush on him and will stop at nothing to get into his pants.
There seems to be a lot of craziness to unpack here, and, to be fair, that is the case. Somehow, though, the film’s middle stretch manages to deathly dull despite itself. Groom and Botsford are studious enough to be an unexpectedly mature center of a film about killer rats, but there’s just so little heat between them. Their courtship and love scene are terminally awkward affairs, and, while I hate to take on the tone of a mouth-breather, you’re just left wondering why anyone should care about these two given the premise. A compelling case is never made for them to steal the show from the real stars, who spend much of the middle act claiming random victims (in this case, Scatman Crothers’s billed “special appearance” as an inspector entails shit-talking the rats before being eaten).
To their credit, the rats do come roaring back with a vengeance during the multi-pronged finale that has them invading a theater (showing a Bruce Lee retrospective—of all the things these rat bastards do, this is the fucking worst),crashing a bowling alley, and sabotaging the town’s newest subway line (there’s always some municipal event that nature has to run amok over, right?). It’s like the film suddenly jolts awake and remember who the deadly eyes belong to after all (hint: it’s not Botsford, no matter how intently she stares down Groom during that love scene). As much as the film drags for a stretch, it’s worthwhile when the film regains its focus, as the climax is a riotously amusing creature feature complete with grisly rat feasting and explosions. Gore-wise, Deadly Eyes doesn’t quite reach the heights of something like Rats (getting into a schlock-off with Bruno Mattei is a fool's errand), but there’s some gross bits strewn throughout. Really, the thought of being chewed up by rats is disgusting enough.
Obviously, you also can’t ignore how the production brought its rats to life; not content to merely paint up some guinea pigs, Clouse and company outfitted full-sized dachshunds and terriers in rat suits to give the illusion of an entire horde and interspersed close-ups of animatronic rodents to further the trick. It’s laughably obvious, of course, but still kind of admirable because it means a bunch of guys and gals spent several weeks wrangling up dogs for the purposes of amusing us with a killer rat movie. You don’t get that with CGI. Other goofy flourishes abound, like a girl popping back up later in the film, seemingly unaffected that her sister was mauled to death earlier in the movie and the presence of a rat expert (that Groom’s class just happens to hear a lecture from) who adds nothing to the proceedings. When consulted, he shrugs off the notion that steroids could result in a mutant strain of hyper-violent rats.
I wish that sort of stuff was more plentiful and sustained; in truth, even the film’s multicultural origins are rather muted. No matter how much you’d like to see someone dispatch the rats with kung-fu, it never happens, nor is the film obviously Canadian outside of its cast (which also boasts Maple Leaf scream queen Lesleh Donaldson). It’s never clear, but this seems to be one of those Canadian productions attempting to pass as American: there are US Postal service logos at one point, plus there’s an early scene where one of the kids is asked to turn his music down at the party, and, instead of cooperating like a polite Canuck, he just proceeds to be an asshole by playing air guitar.
Deadly Eyes has been a personal curiosity of mine for years due to its elusiveness on DVD. Thanks to Scream Factory, this is no longer the case, as it’s the latest in their line of Blu-ray/DVD combo packs, which should be a revelatory experience for those who have only seen it on VHS. The high-def transfer is especially strong—Deadly Eyes is a very dark film at times, but the shadow detail holds strong in this generally crisp presentation. And despite the lack of “Collector’s Edition” branding here, the disc is still packed with plenty of extras, including interviews with writer Charles Eglee, effects artists Allan Apone and Alec Gillis, production designer Ninkey Dalton, and a trio of the film’s stars (Langlois, Donaldson, and Joseph Kelly). All told, the interviews add up to nearly 90 minutes of recollections about the film and the participants’ other work (naturally, the effects artists delve into the decision to dress up dogs as rats quite a bit). A TV spot rounds out a release that’s been a long time coming—I’d like to say waiting so long for Deadly Eyes was worth it, but it really only lives up to its promise during the first and last fifteen minutes. Still, I hope its release results in a killer rat renaissance and that maybe—just maybe—Willard and Ben will see the light of day on DVD or Blu-ray soon. Rent it!
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