A shopper in Manhattan is bitten by a rat at the dressing room in Garsons Department Store. When she contracts Weil's disease, manager Susan Costello (Mädchen Amick) is assigned to hire and give all necessary support to the best exterminator in New York: Jack Carver (Vincent Spano). Along with assistant Ty (Shawn Michael Howard), Jack uncovers evidence that an underground colony of mutated rats are staging vicious attacks including one on Susan's cute little daughter Amy (Daveigh Chase) in a public swimming pool. Though Jack tries to alert the city officials, unfortunately health department administrator Ray Jarrett (David Fonteno) puts the economic interests of powerful groups ahead of public safety. So it falls to Jack and Susan to save the city from a plague of hungry, flesh-eating mutant rats.
James Herbert's 1974 pulp horror favourite The Rats reached the screen in the compromised form of a Canadian production re-titled Deadly Eyes (1982). Twenty years later this similarly titled made-for-TV movie premiered on the Fox Network that, somewhat insultingly, did not even acknowledge Herbert's source despite blatant conceptual and plot similarities. That said the 2002 version of The Rats is more competently made than its early Eighties predecessor. As a TV movie it does not deliver the strong shocks or crowd-pleasing gore hardcore horror fans would want but director John Lafia makes a valiant effort to keep the ick factor high. Aside from a strange prologue with rats gnawing on electrical cables inside the Statue of Liberty the film does a solid job counterbalancing the inevitable computer graphics with more effective sequences involving real live rats. Among the set-piece images: a swarm of rats encasing a slobby janitor, attacking kids in a public pool and terrorizing passengers on a packed subway train all prove suitably gross. The rat attacks are well staged with, for the most part, minimal computer graphics save for the undeniably nightmarish finale wherein a key character is buried beneath a swarm of rats. Hardened horror fanatics may shrug this off but these scenes will rattle any rodent-phobic viewers.
Lafia melds grainy, verité New York visuals with prowling rat-cam and flashy MTV-style editing whilst downplaying the familiar grindhouse tropes. To their credit the filmmakers avoid going the all-out camp route of more recent SyFy Channel fare like Sharktopus (2010) or Piranhaconda (2011). While no masterpiece by any means, The Rats is sincere, competent, lively, trashy fun. Twin Peaks star Mädchen Amick elevates the material with a polished performance as the appreciably smart, proactive heroine who proves as capable as the male hero when it comes to problem-solving. Indeed the film has surprisingly well drawn relationships and likable characters including Vincent Spano's rugged action-hero exterminator and Daveigh Chase's adorable moppet. The young actress was everywhere in 2002, voicing Lilo in Disney's Lilo & Stitch and portraying spooky Samara in the Hollywood remake of The Ring.
Screenwriter Frank Deasy draws a handful of pertinent social observations, drawing a parallel between the collapsing eco-system and cycle of civic disinterest and lack of personal responsibility that leads to a crumbling infrastructure and urban decay. Yet while the film raises a few eco themes early on they are quickly abandoned for daytime TV-safe suspense. Interestingly The Rats plays a dual game in laying the blame on reckless science and animal testing whilst taking a pretty dim view of animal rights or the ecological balance. Even little Amy says: "Kill 'em all, mommy." Another thinly-veiled rip-off of James Herbert's novel arrived the following year with Killer Rats (2003).