Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Deadly Eyes (1982) dir. Robert Clouse

Logline: After chowing down on some hormone-infused corn grain intended for livestock, Tornoto's rat population grow as large as dachshunds and attack the city's humans. It's left up to a basketball coach with lady problems and his new love interest, a non-corrupt health inspector, to fend off the rodent terror.

Animal of Choice: Viscous, human-hungry, steroid-mutated rats as big as small dogs. But literally: dachshunds in rat suits.

Thinking Ecologically: The cause for the oversize rat problem that looms over this fictionalized Toronto is made plain: a city feed lot containing corn grain pumped full of steroids and hormones was poorly managed and monitored by its owners and operators, which encouraged rats to take residence in the lot and sup off the grain, thus causing the rodents to grow to monstrous sizes and develop a voracity with a predilection towards succulent human flesh. The chief health inspector's reluctance to take action against the feed lot (despite his employee's repeated dire reports) because of the mayor's insistence that local businesses avoid scandal is also to blame.

But the film's first few minutes toss in the totality of thoughtless human action as a potential cause for the disaster, too: our continued degradation of the environment, coupled with the rampant pollution of the air and water, has altered the ecological balance of the Earth (especially in metropolitan areas) and both enabled and stimulated growth of the rat population. While it's good that the film is looking at both the micro and macro for areas of human existence on which to place blame, there's a certain fundamental problem in labeling rats as an unambiguous problem to life on Earth (the film tells us that they destroy property and eat 1/5 of all the planet's food) rather than as a necessary component of the world's ecosystems. Thankfully, the bleak downer of an ending reaffirms that the simple elimination of rats (if humans so choose to try) is nigh impossible.

Thinking About Animals: The film's super-rats distinguish themselves early on by killing and eating a cat. Later on-- in case we didn't mind seeing the cat get his-- they then eat a baby. They growl like angry jungle cats and are rarely shown on screen doing anything but gnawing or slurping on dead bodies. The rodent antagonists of Deadly Eyes are presented as pure evil and the fact that it's not even real rats portraying them (but instead dogs in rat suits) removes any lingering sense of reality from them as living creatures, preventing us from attaining even the basic sympathy we have for the abused but deadly rodents in the later Rats - Night of Terror (1984). It's a bit like watching dirty mops scurrying about and biting ankles, with such distance from actual rat behavior allowing the film to so blatantly demonize them.

It's also worth noting that one of the dachshunds on set died, possibly due to suffocation from being trapped inside the rat suit. Though multiple sources attest to the dogs being generally well-treated during production, this is an undeniably unfortunate incident that raises into question the humaneness of employing animals in such a capacity for film. There's always the puppet alternative.

Evaluation in Brief: Director Robert Clouse (Enter the Dragon (1973), The Pack (1977), Gymkata (1985)) fashions one of the most gleefully entertaining animal terror flicks I've seen. Though running under ninety minutes, the film often loses focus and scampers off on charming tangents of content and tone. A good portion of Deadly Eyes concerns itself with hunky teacher Paul (Sam Groom) rebuffing the advances of his flirtatious student (Lisa Langlois) while falling for the more age-appropriate health inspector (Sara Botsford), so one wouldn't be incorrect in mistaking it for a corny romantic comedy with occasional bouts of hyper violence. Curiously, the exploitation elements are full-force, as the film displays no issues with its rat antagonists messily gobbling up both Scatman Crothers and a toddler from his high chair, leaving a trail of baby blood in their wake. The rat terror is delightful, especially in a climatic theater attack (as patrons watch Game of Death (1978), one of Clouse's Bruce Lee films) with the costumed dachshunds looking simultaneously adorable and a little unnerving as they slurp whatever food was used as bait from the actors' faces. A brisk and sketchily conceived Canadian thriller that nonetheless overcomes its many narrative shortcomings with enthusiasm, chutzpah, and general likeability.

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