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25 September 2005

Rattus norvegicus: Hamelin, Herzog's gift to Delft, Nazis, psycho Japanese doctors

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Time Magazine (USA)
Thursday 20 March 2003

That Old Feeling: Rats!
Richard Corliss tries purging
a primal fear with this tribute
to Nature's creepiest creatures

by Richard Corliss

In 1995, on my first visit to Hong Kong, I was taken to dinner by Tony Rayns, distinguished film critic and all-round lover of things and people Asian. He chose a restaurant so far from the center of town that we had to take a subway and a taxi, then walk for a few blocks. Tony's habit with his favorite food joints is to befriend the staff so completely -- woo them with his knowledge of their language and cuisine -- that he virtually becomes one of them, and dines with them. So there we were, in the grimy restaurant basement, feasting on raw fish (I am not bold but I am reckless) and ripe film anecdotes.

Toward the end of the main course, Tony looked behind me and said, "Oh, look. There's a large rat in the corner." I did not look. I also did not care to be nibbled by an Asian rat. With as much subtlety as I could muster, I raised my legs and eased them onto the seat of an empty chair at our table. The conversation continued -- Tony eloquent, me distracted -- until, over desert, he glanced beyond me again. "The rat?" I asked apprehensively. "No," Tony said brightly. "His bigger brother."

I hate rats. I say that easily, and have said it for decades, as millions would, without much reflection. I hold many maverick opinions, but in this one I have confidence that the world agrees with me. Hatred is an apparently natural human reaction to these creeping, creepy vermin.

Why? Why the gonadal clutch at the sight of a rat? Perhaps because rats spread disease, poison food, inflict harm. Perhaps it is the rat's ugly disposition, his relentlessness, his avidity to devour anything, including his fellows: "were he not a cannibal," William Faulkner wrote in "The Reivers," "he would long since have inherited the earth." Perhaps it is the educated surmise that in large cities the rat population equals or exceeds the human. I have the notion of a subversive, subterranean army, in numbers that can be reduced but never eliminated, with a voracious appetite matched by their cunning, liable to strike at any time and for no reason. Rats are nature's tiny terrorists.

And they give me the willies. Always have, since as a kid I read Henry Kuttner's short story, "The Graveyard Rats," and perused Hans Zinsser's quirky study of the Black Plague, "Rats, Lice and History" (I concentrated on the rat chapters). Still do. I shudder at the memory of rat visions I never experienced but only heard about: like my wife's visit in the 70s to an exterminator's shop in Les Halles, with the largest rats hung in the window as mink stoles might be at a furrier's; or our friend Davie Lerner's tale of lifting the lid of his basement toilet and finding a rat attempting to scale the porcelain sides.

Nor can I forget the story told by a one-time acquaintance who in the late 60s had been the assistant manager of Broadway's De Mille Theatre, where a nest of rats lurked. One afternoon, he recalled with much amusement, he led a birthday contingent of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' children and their friends to the theater's most rodent-infested section ...

Rats in films have a special immediacy for me. I wonder if they are crawling through the movie house as well as on-screen. (Why did William Castle, the old entrepreneur of many in-theater shock gimmicks, never make a rat movie and let some of his critters loose in the Bijou?) When the feral crap-classic "Willard" came out in 1971, I was obliged to review it, but the sight of those rampaging rodents, even as they devoured Ernest Borgnine's hairy carcass, stoked now-and-then nightmares.

I confess there's nothing logical about my fear and loathing of the world's Bens and Templetons. I have never been directly menaced by a rat -- never found one staring at me on my pillow as I awoke, or leaping out of a trash can as I opened it, or marshaling his brethren into a teeming back-alley street gang. I also know that whatever their shock value, I'm bigger; they can't step on me. ("You ever wonder how it would be," a character in Stephen King's "Graveyard Shift" muses, "if we was little and they were big -- ") I know too that they are as likely to scurry away from me as I am to freeze at their sight.

That is, I think I know. I am reminded of the conversation of two policeman in "Ben," the 1972 sequel to the original "Willard," as they approach a house full of malevolent rats. "Give them a chance and they'll always run away from you," one cop says complacently, and the other replies, "I know that, and you know that, but do they know that?"

All of which makes a delicious ordeal of my current assignment: to connect my abhorrence of rats with some comments on the new remake of "Willard." I offer this column to you, dear reader, as a microcosm of horror, and a diversion from the greater atrocity unfolding on your TV screens this week.


Our prime text is "The Rat: A Perverse Miscellany," written and designed by Barbara Hodgson, and recommended unreservedly to ratophobes and ratophiles alike. (Are there rat lovers? Oh, yes. Check the websites. One of them has a photo of a rat suckling at a woman's breast. And may I say, for all of us, "Jeeesh!"?)

In Hodgson's handsome paperback -- handsome, that is, to those who don't mind hundreds of rodents pictured around the margins of the text -- you will find rat facts and myths from around the world. You will visit the Jain temple at Deshnoke, its floor carpeted with rats revered by the locals, and Alberta, Canada, which prides itself on being the world's only rat-free province. (Did Tom Green never try infesting the place?) You will learn of such extermination devices as the Ratapault: "heaves its victims as far as 15 metres into a waiting bucket."

Ratteurateurs will rejoice in Hodgson's compendium of rat lit, from the 20th century masters such as Lawrence Durrell, Georges Bataille, Gunter Grass, H.P. Lovecraft (whose "The Rats in the Walls" is the finest depiction I know of rat-anxiety) and Jerzy Kosinski (whose "The Painted Bird" includes an especially gruesome devouring by rats) back to the earliest English use of the word -- "No-one can rest, with rats out at night" -- in William Langland's "Piers Plowman." The year was 1378.

Two years earlier (July 22, 1376, the legend goes), in a town near Hanover, Germany, the millennium's most famous rat story was hatched. Hamelin was overrun by a nuisance of pestilential proportions. Robert Browning would later describe the situation in inspired doggerel, suitable for consumption by (and scaring of) children:

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks' own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men's Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women's chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats ...
Anything like the sound of a rat
Makes my heart go pit-a-pat!

Like Heaven's surrogate, a stranger appears in their midst, to promise the miserly burghers to rid the town of rats -- for 1000 guilders. The Mayor and the Corporation agree, or say they do. The Pied Piper is as good as he word: he plays a few shrill notes, and every rat dives suicidally into the River Weser. Finally, though, the Browning version of "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" is a fable not of rats' evil but of man's venality. The Mayor refuses to pay the Piper. And the Verminator, like Pan or Peter Pan, leads the town's children away from their irresponsible parents -- into a mountain, gone forever.

Rats in literature are frequently the messengers or minions of infernal beasts, as in "Dracula." For other 19th century writers, particularly journalists, rats were the expression of man's bestiality to man. When Charles Dickens came to Manhattan, in 1842, he was appalled by the conditions in the Tombs, a Manhattan prison, where the corpses of detainees are left to rot, and a man "is half-eaten by rats in an hour's time."

The severest circumstances can heighten ingenuity and lessen dietary scruples. After the Battle of Gettysburg, a group of captured Rebel soldiers was held at Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island. Here is a recollection of one prisoner, Captain John S. Swann: "Not long after my arrival I heard a cry "Rat call! Rat call!" ... A number of prisoners were moving and some running up near the partition, over which a sergeant was standing and presently he began throwing rats down. The prisoners scrambled for the rats like school boys for apples.... Of course but few were lucky enough to get a rat. The rats were cleaned, put in salt water a while and fried. Their flesh was tender and not unpleasant to the taste."

And what if rats are the tasters, not the tastees? That's the purring motor behind "The Graveyard Rats," the begetter of my pre-teen rat-reticence. In his first published story (the March 1936 issue of Weird Tales), Kuttner relates the grim saga of Masson -- caretaker of an ancient Salem cemetery -- and his battle with the creatures who keep stealing coffin treasures (diamond stickpins, cufflinks and the occasional laboratory corpse) that Masson wants for his own. One night he opens a coffin to see that the rats have just dragged a corpse through the gnawed-out end of a coffin. Grabbing a flashlight, he follows the cadaver and its verminous thieves into the cemetery's tunnels, when ...

"Agonizing pain shot through his leg. He felt sharp teeth sink into his flesh, and kicked out frantically. There was a shrill squealing and the scurry of many feet. Flashing the light behind him, Masson caught his breath in a sob of fear as he saw a dozen great rats watching him intently, their slitted eyes glittering in the light. They were great misshapen things, as large as cats, and behind them he caught a glimpse of a dark shape that stirred and moved swiftly aside into the shadow; and he shuddered at the unbelievable size of the thing."

But I can quote no more. Find it, read it and soil yourself with fright.

ROOM 101

In the 20th century, the great literary anatomizer of rats was Eric Blair, who wrote as George Orwell. Rats find him, or he them, in his memoirs of public school days, of service in the Burmese police, of indigency in Paris and London. "Animal Farm," his parable of Soviet Communism, begins with a supposedly egalitarian society, but even in the rosy dawn of socialism rats are the natural enemy and victim of dogs and cats.

In "Homage to Catalonia," a vibrant recollection of fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell's revulsion for rats reflects his growing disillusion with Iberian Communism. He writes of a barn where he and his squad waited to attack the fascists: "the place was alive with rats. The filthy brutes came swarming out of the ground on every side. If there is one thing I hate more than another it is a rat running over me in the darkness. However, I had the satisfaction of catching one of them a good punch that sent him flying."

These recollections are similar to those of the Civil War soldiers: in dire circumstances, the rat is likely to be man's first companion and adversary. But the idea of rat -- as that thing that goes scratch in the night, as the lurking evil -- can be more terrifying than the grinding reality in an enforced community of rat and man. Orwell dramatized this in "1984," when the hero Winston Smith must face his worst fear in an interrogation session with his torturer O'Brien. He must enter Room 101, which is literally a rats' nest.

"'The worst thing in the world,' said O'Brien, 'varies from individual to individual ... In your case,' said O'Brien, 'the worst thing in the world happens to be rats.'

"... the cage with the rats was not two metres away from him. They were enormous rats. They were at the age when a rat's muzzle grows blunt and fierce and his fur brown instead of grey.

"'The rat,' said O'Brien, still addressing his invisible audience, 'although a rodent, is carnivorous. You are aware of that. You will have heard of the things that happen in the poor quarters of this town. In some streets a woman dare not leave her baby alone in the house, even for five minutes. The rats are certain to attack it. Within quite a small time they will strip it to the bones. They also attack sick or dying people. They show astonishing intelligence in knowing when a human being is helpless.

... "'When I press this other lever, the door of the cage will slide up. These starving brutes will shoot out of it like bullets. Have you ever seen a rat leap through the air? They will leap on to your face and bore straight into it. Sometimes they attack the eyes first. Sometimes they burrow through the cheeks and devour the tongue.'

"The wire door was a couple of hand-spans from his face. The rats knew what was coming now. One of them was leaping up and down, the other, an old scaly grandfather of the sewers, stood up, with his pink hands against the bars, and fiercely sniffed the air. Winston could see the whiskers and the yellow teeth. Again the black panic took hold of him. He was blind, helpless, mindless."


I don't recall any trauma-inducing rat movies from my youth, but watching them now can leaves wounds on my inner child. Sitting deep in my seat for the new "Willard," I was edgy from the film's first line" a Mother Bates-type voice shouting, "Willard, there are rats in the basement!" Willard (Crispin Glover) treads downstairs looking for rats. He dutifully sets traps. Later, he hears them all snap shut, but when he checks he sees that all are empty. Then the critters scuttle into view.

A good beginning to a medium-spooky movie. Willard finds that one of the invaders, a white rat, seems brighter than the others, a leader; Willard calls him Socrates. The lad also finds a huge brown rat (Gambian, if you care to adopt one) whom he names Ben, for Big Ben. Soon Willard leads his brood into a revenger's tragedy against his sadistic nemesis Mr. Martin (R. Lee Ermey). He packs them in a satchel, takes them to Martin's garage and in a trice they've gnawed through the bottom of the wooden door and demolished Martin's beloved sports car. Pursued by a neighborhood mutt, Willard impulsively tosses the dog into the satchel, but shortly opens it and allows the dog to escape unharmed.

The PG-13 horror-movie code apparently ordains that canines may not be devoured alive by rats. Ah, but felines... Later, an anxious Willard tosses a cat into his house. The cat is pursued by Ben and his carrion legion; it jumps to the top of a china cabinet, whose legs the rats methodically gnaw away. Down goes the cat toward the floor and the eager incisors of a hundred ravenous rodents. (Stay tuned for word of the ultimate cat-rat movie, "Men Behind the Sun.")

By this part of the movie, I had ceased being a pathetic ratophobe test case and was now only an interested observer. Allow me to explain. For me, the frightening thing about rats is their movement: fast and furtive, out of nowhere, into my path. (No, the rat would say, "my path"). This flash of motion jolts my sluggish nervous system, like a shock cut in a horror movie. I know I'm not at serious risk; it just takes a scary second for my brain to tell my body. And once I know the creature is there, on screen or on the street, I can accommodate myself to a general unease. So my favorite parts of "Willard" are the early scenes, when I tested my reactions against director Glen Morgan's timing -- his ability to send a rat across my field of vision without my being prepared for it.

After that, the game was not Beware of the Rats but Spot the Movie References. The main ones are two Hitchcock films: "Psycho" (Norman and Mother Bates, the creepy house, the corpse-love) and "The Birds." In a passing pretty moment, one rat after another climbs up the back of a couch and perches there, like the crows massing on the "Birds" jungle gym. This is the prelude to the eat-the-bad-guy moment, which is muddied rather than enhanced by too many digitally applied rats. But then, horror movies, like comedies, rarely end as exciting as they begin. It's the nature of the genre.

The film's genuine oddness derives mostly from the presence and performance of Glover, eccentric actor extraordinaire. Curiously unlined and young-looking at 38, he portrays Willard as daft from those first steps downstairs; he already lives in the basement of his derangement. For a foretaste of his Willard, check out his playing of the title character in the recent film adaptation of Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener." And for hints to Glover's own mindset, do search out his book "Rat Catching," a kind of brilliant-child's defacing of an 1896 English work, "Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching." It's mental deconstruction as its most instructive.


Here are ten rat movies, memorable for good reasons and bad, and researched mostly in the quivering gut of my recollection:

10. "L'age d'or" by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, 1930. Scorpions battle a rat.

9. "The Abominable Doctor Phibes" directed by Robert Fuest, 1971. Rats attack a pilot in his, er, cockpit.

8. "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" directed by Robert Aldrich, 1962. The revelation of a rat on a silver platter struck the teen me as a major Hollywood shock, and a significant breach of movie decorum -- because, unlike the corpse in "Diabolique" or the mommy-mummy in "Psycho," the awful dead thing was real.

7. "The Great Conqueror's Concubine" by Stephen Shin, 1994. Toward the start of this 3hr. imperial epic, the fabulous Gong Li and the nearly-so Rosamund Kwan are bathing in a large wooden vat. Rosamund screams when she spots a large rat swimming toward her. With a what's-the-big-whoop shrug, the Gongster grabs the rodent and tosses it out of the vat. Watching this scene, strong men across Asia fell in love.

6. "Truly Madly Deeply" by Anthony Minghella, 1991. It was supposed to be a tender post-mortem love story: a Brit "Ghost" for grownups. To me, it was a documentary about rat infestation: the huge creatures keep crawling over Juliet Stephenson's bed. (Minghella says he based the incident on the actress' testimony about her own apartment. But still ...)

5. Francis Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula," 1992. Van Helsing locates the vampire seemingly sleeping against a wall. The caped figure metamorphoses into a thousand rats, which collapse en masse to the floor and rush toward Van Helsing.

4. "Nosferatu the Vampyr" by Werner Herzog, 1979. They're everywhere! everywhere! (And they were, too: Herzog let loose 15,000 rats in the medieval town of Delft, and not all were recovered.) In one memorable scene, a couple surrounded by rats resolutely finishes an al-fresco lunch before the creatures clamber up the table legs to devour the leftovers. Most "Dracula" movies underline the demon's infectious sexuality. Herzog's, like F.W. Murnau's 1922 original, emphasizes the charnel aspect. As incarnated by Klaus Kinski, this Dracula is a true rat-man.

3. "Rats -- the Movie" by James M. Felter. I haven't seen this documentary; I can't swear it was ever released. But the "exhaustive synopsis" on its website suggests a horrifically edifying experience. A study of the rat problem in Washington, D.C., the movie begins on Willard Street (no kidding!) and "an ill-maintained and misused dumpster" that "becomes a Mecca for hordes of hungry vermin. Squeaks and squeals punctuate the social positioning and frenetic acrobatics that fuel a universal cultural phobia: the night is coming alive with RATS." Some of the neighborhood's homeless are used to them: "They crawl right up over your head to get inside those blankets on a cold night. They won't bother you a bit -- just crawl in and try to keep warm -- just like you. And when you move they just scamper out." Let's go, PBS. Show this soon on "The American Experience."

2. "The Men Behind the Sun" by T.F. Mous (Mou Tunfei), 1988. The most notorious fiction film about rats, though they appear only briefly. Based on the true, and truly deeply mad, experiments by the Japanese physician Shiro Ishii and Squadron 731 in Manchuria during the Japanese occupation of China, this solemn Taiwan-Mainland co-production includes some mighty grisly scenes: of a man whose intestines explode out his anus (faked), of a dead boy slit open to have his organs removed (supposedly using a child who had died the day before). But the big one is when a live cat is thrown into a room filled with hundreds of rats, and eaten alive by the devouring horde. The doctor looks on and offers this moral: "A small rat can beat a cat. Fleas and germs can defeat bombers and guns. This is the basic theory behind 731."

Quizzed in 1991 about this two-minute scene by critic Donato Totaro, Mous replied: "I know the English love animals -- I like animals too. As the director, that scene has a meaning -- it's up to you to discover what it means." He squirmed and added, "I'd like to change the subject, if at all possible." No question that Mous meant "Men Behind the Sun" as a serious indictment of Japan's wartime outrages. Also no question that the cat-rat scene could bring pleasure only to sadists ... and rats. But if the latter keep watching the film, they'll get a jolt. At the end, the same creatures who devoured the cat get set on fire and burned alive. Interestingly, not many viewers have complained about the wanton destruction of all those rats.

1. "Der Ewige Jude" / "The Eternal Jew" by Fritz Hippler, 1940. The vilest of all Nazi anti-Jewish hate films. The entire "documentary" is revolting: it finds Jews ugly, unclean, pestilential, and hopes the German moviegoer will too. In the most infamous sequence, shots of rats are intercut with scenes of Jewish life, as the narration reads: "Wherever rats appear they bring ruin, by destroying mankind's goods and foodstuffs. In this way, they spread disease, plague, leprosy, typhoid fever, cholera, dysentery, and so on. They are cunning, cowardly, and cruel, and are found mostly in large packs. Among the animals, they represent the rudiment of an insidious and underground destruction -- just like the Jews among human beings." It is a mark of the popular view of rats that, of all the egregious lies spread in "The Eternal Jew," this is the one to stick for more than 60 years.

Interviewed shortly before his death last year by Adam Tanner, Hippler went the only-following-orders route: "I just did what Goebbels told me. I didn't want to debate this topic with Goebbels because it would have been useless. Of course I didn't feel that one could compare Jews with rats." Of course he didn't. But rather than debate the subject, Hippler went ahead and fashioned one of the most odious films ever to stain celluloid.


On September 11, 2001, New York City was attacked by vermin 500 feet up. That was novel. We are used to pests scurrying below eye-level: on subway tracks, down our alleys, through the flowerbeds in front of the Plaza Hotel. The largest rat I've ever seen in person was trying to squeeze into a crack in the Time + Life Building on 50th Street.

I occasionally see rats in my Manhattan neighborhood, Tribeca. A flourishing family lives in a building on Worth Street between West Broadway and Hudson. Once a rat scurried under my feet as I walked by the house with my wife and our friend Jim Hoberman. Since then, I've noticed them quite a few times; they seem to know of my scholarly interest and emerge to perform. One evening not long ago, after I rode past in a taxi without seeing the usual occupants, I stepped out at the end of the block and nearly trod on a dead rat by the curb.

Rats, like humans, like good food. When the posh restaurant Bouley was housed in the building adjoining ours, and the staff refused to keep their garbage properly encased in metal cans, Tribeca got a much larger, plumper, more sauntering species of rodent: gourmet rats. (Was David Bouley breeding them for feeding his customers?) I have often seen rats scurry from a cellar in a house between restaurants on Greenwich Street, and from beneath the flower boxes outside the Odeon Cafeteria into the gutter.

Do rats have the same fondness for children? That suspicion keeps the Pied Piper exterminators busy around Public School 234 -- where late one night I saw a swarm of them crossing Greenwich Street toward that building -- and around Washington Market Park, where the occasional sight of a dead rat is both encouraging (the poison is working) and revolting (ugh! a dead rat!). The nearest greenery to my home is Duane Park, a triangular sliver that is much admired by architecture historian Paul Goldberger, and which faces the high-rise residence of AOL Time Warner boss Dick Parsons. There I sometimes hear the rustle, see the slinking of rats. But the more evident marauder is pigeons, thanks to the sandwich crusts left by lunchers and the feed spread by misguided bird fanciers. One summer afternoon I saw, twice, pigeons hop from the ground onto lunchers' laps to peck and pilfer their food.

The existence of rats in Tribeca long predates the neighborhood's recent flourishing into the upper-middle-class. In the 19th century the area was known as Washington Market; butter-and-egg businesses, vegetable wholesalers, meat packers guaranteed an underground economy of rodents. The New Yorker reporter Joseph Mitchell wrote about them in his classic 1945 essay "Rats on the Waterfront" -- required reading for a lonely night when the floorboards start creaking. (Try finishing this sentence without slipping deeper under the covers: "a stableboy tried to kill a rat with a mop; it darted up the mop handle ...") Much of Mitchell's piece is set in Washington Market and its northern sibling, Gansevoort Market: "Before this part of the market was abandoned, in 1942, the rats practically had charge of it. Some of them nested in the drawers of desks. When the drawers were pulled open, they leapt out, snarling."

I'm 46 years beyond my first reading of "The Graveyard Rats." Yet these creatures still snarl in my dreams. And now that I've unburdened myself of my phobia, Doctor, do you think I'll sleep soundly any time soon? Or could it be that, these days and nights, rats are not what worry a Lefty peacenik like me?


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