Three teenagers are down at the local dump one evening where they amuse themselves by suddenly switching on the headlights of their car and shooting the rats they see there. However, there is a tale round those parts of an actual half-man, half-rat hybrid who lives there and scavenges, hiding amongst the discarded detritus, and when the teens think they are being watched by the creature they speed off in a panic. Yet the tale is correct, there is a ratboy (Sharon Baird) living there, and he is about to be captured by a couple of ne'erdowells...
The point being that once a freak of nature is placed in the consciousness of society, they can expect to be exploited for their inherent curiosity value by those looking to make cash out of them. A noble thing to do, taking the side of the downtrodden outsider, but here they wanted you to be on the side of the chief exploiter as well, which might not have been surprising when you know that she was the director and the star. No, Sondra Locke didn't play Ratboy, she played Nikki, an aspiring player in the media world who hasn't even gotten her foot on the lowest rung of the showbiz ladder until she hears about the title character.
She heads off to the rescue, claiming to be a reporter, and with the help of two friends manages to extricate the rodent person from the clutches of his kidnappers. There then follows attempts to tame him, which go fairly well in that he falls for Nikki, or at least he learns to say her name, which brings up all sorts of questions the film is reluctant to answer. Questions like, where did Ratboy come from? Why does he look like a rat? Who were his parents? How did he end up at the dump? Why doesn't anyone look after him? What is he, some kind of space alien? What the hell is going on in this movie? Why am I still watching this when I could be watching a far better version of these themes in The Elephant Man?
Stuff like that. Rick Baker designed the Ratboy makeup, turning diminutive performer Baird into a person who looks like they have a Halloween mask on: surprisingly for Baker, his knack for innovation appeared to have deserted him as the results of his latex labours convinced few. So if even the protagonist is obviously a fake, how did the rest of the movie measure up? It's not really as terrible as its reputation, which sounds like faint praise, but it is hard to see who it was aimed at, as for example, if it was a kids movie why does Ratboy, or Eugene as he wants to be called, get a sidekick played by Robert Townsend who drops the F bomb a few times? It was hard to see adults responding to something that sounds like fairy tale material for infants.
Not that there's anything wrong with updating fairy tales, it can make for novel viewing after all, but if the Brothers Grimm recorded this one, it must have passed most of their readers by. It's difficult to separate Ratboy from the controversy that followed it, as Locke had decided after a few years as Clint Eastwood's girlfriend and screen partner that she wanted to try her hand at directing too, and he financed this; soon after, they had separated, Locke had given up acting, and it all got very acrimonious with both Eastwood and the studio, although whether the failure of Ratboy had anything to do with that is too entangled in legal issues to be clear about. What it did seem to usher into existence was Townsend's cult satire Hollywood Shuffle where he bemoaned the lot of African-American actors having to take broadly stereotypical roles like the one he did in this, so some good came out of it. Music by Lennie Niehaus.