a giant rat head busts through a window near a scared woman
A still from The Food of the Gods Credit: Turner Classic Movies

Chicago has a rat problem, and it’s as simple as this: we’re not practicing the Golden Rule with our rodent neighbors. We trap them, we poison them, we run them over, and what have they done to harm us? (Don’t answer that.) Now, I’m no city boy. I’m from a small country town called Pasadena, California—perhaps you’ve heard of it. My rat encounters were few and far between until I moved to Chicago in 2019, and at the time I sincerely believed “rat” was just a derogatory term for a mouse. I was shocked by the anti-rat sentiments that seemed to be shared by everyone I met here, and I count myself as an unequivocal ally to the rat community. They’re cute, they squeak, and they’re abundant, what’s the problem? (Don’t answer that either.)

If rats can’t get fair treatment in the court of public opinion, they can at least get justice from the next best judicial institutions: Hollywood movie studios, where people treat each other right. In the history of motion pictures, the only three unequivocally pro-rat movies have been Ratatouille (2007), The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), and Sondra Locke’s directorial debut Ratboy (1986). If you’re not familiar with the last title, I’d advise from personal experience you keep it that way. The rat revenge movie, however, is a long-respected horror subgenre tapped into by everyone from Stephen King (1990’s Graveyard Shift) to film noir legend Ida Lupino (1976’s The Food of the Gods) to frequent Bruce Lee director Robert Clouse (1982’s Deadly Eyes).

The genesis of this wave of rat horror can be traced directly to Willard, a surprisingly solid 1971 psychodrama about a put-upon 26-year-old whose only companions in life are his loyal army of rats trained to kill, burglarize, and do little tricks for him. What could go wrong? Well, once the rats finish eating him, their leader Ben goes on to star in a sequel several degrees more unhinged than Willard: Ben, released a year later, in which Ben the rat escapes the police and hides out as an unofficial therapy animal to Danny, a child with a serious heart condition. Sounds sweet, and it is (he sings to Ben and performs marionette shows for him!), but here’s the thing: Ben loves to kill. He loves it so much that he sneaks out of Danny’s tender embrace every night, crawls into the sewer, and commands a rodent street gang to murder civilians—and occasionally steal cheesy popcorn from the grocery store.

Ben feels like three unrelated movies spliced together: a Disney tearjerker, a tame but ridiculous killer rat movie, and a gritty police procedural populated by dead-eyed men who look like they got lost on their way to the set of Columbo. As such, it’s filled with bizarre tonal discrepancies, chief among them when Danny’s sister screams upon finding feral rats in his bed and he quizzically responds, “What? It’s just Ben and Mrs. Ben.” Still, the biggest cultural impact of the film is not its strangeness but its number one hit single theme song by then 14-year-old Michael Jackson, a tender ballad about being best friends with a rat addicted to murder.

Danny and Ben’s interspecies friendship is given a counterpoint in 1983’s Of Unknown Origin, a movie about rat-human relations that are soured from the start. Peter Weller, in a pre-Robocop performance, plays Bart Hughes, an investment banker looking to move up the corporate ladder after buying and renovating a new home for his family. While his wife and son are out of town, he plans to work on the project that could earn him his promotion, but he instead becomes increasingly obsessed with the one thing interfering with the picture-perfect life he’s built for himself: a rat in the walls. 

What begins with Bart considering an exterminator rapidly spirals into him manically reciting rat facts at a dinner party (“Did you know your average rat can squeeze through a hole no bigger than a quarter, then swim and tread water for three days?”) and tearing his beautiful brownstone apart to kill his rat rival. At one point, after playing the blunt force angle for a while, he resorts to more psychological methods of intimidation and warns the rat through the walls that he’s “tried dope before, so that’s who you’re dealing with.” The central metaphor can be read in any number of ways: Is it about a man achieving his American dream and still feeling unfulfilled? Maybe the fine line between civilized man and primal violence? It doesn’t matter, because in the time you spent worrying about subtext, Peter Weller has DIYed a baseball bat into some kind of medieval weapon and is thwacking down the walls of his home.

None of this is overwhelmingly positive representation for the rat community, but if you pit an especially mean rat up against an investment banker, I am obviously rooting against the banker, and both Ben and Willard suggest that rats have a capacity for love that coexists with their thirst for blood. Most rat horror movies are less generous than that. 2002’s evocatively titled TV movie The Rats treats them as an instinct-driven hive mind rather than, say, misunderstood and highly intelligent creatures capable of empathy. That movie, which follows an infestation in a department store that escalates to engulf all of New York City, climaxes with Twin Peaks alumnus Mädchen Amick nearly drowning in an olympic swimming pool filled with CGI rats then escaping just as the pool explodes, rats and all. Worse still are The Food of the Gods (1976) and Rats: Night of Terror (1984), both of which feature unsimulated rat deaths onscreen. 

Glorified rodent snuff films like that are upsetting but unsurprising in a city where dead rats are a normalized part of life. I’m a good citizen and close my dumpster lids, but when I come home from work, it brings me a little bit of joy to see my local rats scurrying by, carefree and unbothered by the haters. It takes a big man to stand with the millions and millions of little guys.