If you were among the squeamish who could never quite stomach the premise of Pixar’s “Ratatouille” — in which a Parisian sewer rat becomes top chef in a tony French restaurant — then perhaps Morgan Spurlock’s “Rats” is more your style. Here is a film that presents rats exactly as millions of humans imagine them: as disgusting, dangerous, disease-carrying vermin, just waiting for their chance to take over the world. Best known for gorging himself on Big Macs in “Super Size Me” (and, no doubt, a fair amount of rat droppings in the process), Spurlock attempts a different kind of horror movie this time around, daring audiences to see just how far they can go before losing their lunch.
Debuting Oct. 22 on Discovery Channel, followed by a few quick-sting theatrical screenings, “Rats” is that rare breed of nature doc, one designed not to foster greater empathy for a misunderstood species, but rather to exploit our preexisting fears of the filthy critters in question. Spurlock and his trademark handlebar moustache are nowhere to be seen in “Rats,” which instead offers Gotham exterminator Ed Sheehan as its host. Sitting at the center of a basement-cellar set, chomping his cigar and bathed in the harsh glow of a bald overhead bulb, Sheehan shares anecdotal (albeit unscientific) evidence of how diabolical he considers rats to be, based on nearly half a century spent trying to oust them from New York’s fanciest restaurants and hotels.
Taking a page from Robert Sullivan’s deep-dive “Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants” (literally, more than you would ever want to know about New York’s rat population), Spurlock doesn’t limit himself to the Big Apple — although he delights in revealing just how widespread the infestation has become in a city where rats may well outnumber humans. Selecting a different strain of scary music for each country he visits (from spine-vibrating “Inception”-style bass to unnervingly exotic, ritualistic-sounding Eastern riffs), Spurlock and his crew go on a global search for the strangest rat-related customs they can find. In Rajasthan, India, he visits the Kami Mata Temple, where rats have the run of the place, believed to be the reincarnated souls of beloved relatives. In Cambodia’s Kendal Province, peasants are paid to trap live rats, which are then shipped to nearby restaurateurs, who drown, dice, and cook them up for patrons whom Spurlock films in garish closeup, slurping down the stomach-churning dish.
Granted, “Rats” is super-disgusting, and there are plenty of eyeball-scarring images contained therein that audiences simply can’t un-see (as when a New Orleans science crew wearing hazmat suits extracts live worms and a Hershey’s Kiss-sized fly larvae from inside the corpse of a dead rat). Even so, rarely has a filmmaker more blatantly manipulated the material he has collected to game his audience. As if the ominous music weren’t enough, Spurlock layers in skin-crawling sound effects, from loud thumps to the shrill, wheedling cries of rats, whether or not it corresponds to what appears on-screen.
But of course he feels compelled to do that: Any other movie featuring this much animal murder would seem downright inhumane, unless the audience can be convinced to root for their extermination. And so the path is clear for night-vision footage of rats caught in traps, Mumbai night-patrol teams who bop the critters on the head before snapping their necks with their bare hands, and English “ratters” (custom-bred terriers) chasing down and disemboweling poison-resistant field rats on command.
While we’re unlikely to see a pro-rat lobby coming to the species’ defense, it’s worth noting that most of the filmmaking tricks Spurlock employs are so broad, they could be used to denigrate virtually anything — and though this could be a comparison too far (or unfair), the film’s opening black-and-white montage of scurrying rats recalls a loathsome sequence from the infamously anti-Semitic 1933 Nazi propaganda film “The Eternal Jew.” Still, that coincidental (one hopes) comparison underscores the way “Rats” relies on cheap tactics to cast its subject as a horror-movie menace — just as Pixar pulled emotional heartstrings to turn rats into instantly cuddle-worthy companions. Neither is quite fair to the animals in question, who would surely view this as a grisly, “Faces of Death”-style marathon of murder.