The One That (Thankfully) Got Away

By movie buff standards, my DVD collection is fairly modest. (No Blu-ray as of yet.) Still, shelf space in my humble lair is currently at a premium—at a premium because my lair is humble, you might say. Some recent reorganizing alleviated the situation, but I’m not about to stop buying movies, and space will be a problem soon enough. Still, at least the time of indiscriminate purchases, which resulted in my being the proud owner of turkeys like AVP 2: Requiem and Constantine, is over. Until I’m able to upgrade from crypt to castle, space considerations force me to evaluate more closely what I buy.

Regular readers (all three of you!) know that I like to rummage through DVD bargain bins. Since I’m a fan of almost every genre, I’m usually able to find a movie I like. Or six. (Recent non-horror additions include Serpico, The Elephant Man and Goodfellas.) In September, I came across Rats: Night of Terror, a slice of slightly tempting Italian cheapo horror from 1984. As is my habit when I only kind of want something, I dithered. Long story short, I didn’t buy Rats: Night of Terror. In fact, if memory serves, I left the store empty-handed. But soon after, in time-honored fashion, I began to regret my decision.

At least they had a nice one-sheet.

A few weeks later, I bought watchable Jaws rip-off The Last Shark, which happened to include the trailer for Rats: Night of Terror among the extras. Luckily, by a wide margin, it turned out to be the worst trailer I’ve ever seen! The horrendous costumes, wooden acting, and atrocious dubbing made me feel sorry for anyone involved with the movie. And the guinea pigs, which were used in lieu of actual rats(!), look to have been treated appallingly. The whole thing appears to be a sad, stupid and incompetent mess. And remember, these are supposed to be the good parts, the parts that make us want to see the movie! Only one shot, of city streets being fumigated by ominous government types, is noteworthy.

"Excuse me, why are we dressed like Adam & The Ants?"

Everything considered, I don’t particularly enjoy lousy movies. Oh, I have five Ed Wood, Jr. movies in my collection, and a few other duds like this one and the aforementioned pair, but I rarely seek out bad movies because they’re bad. (Wood’s oeuvre is an exception.) Competent storytelling, with a touch of invention or even artistic integrity, is perfectly doable on a small budget. Also, I suspect that connoisseurs of crap watch rotten movies because it makes them feel superior. That’s a pretty smug agenda, and not entirely compatible with being a true fan. So with the clear indication that Rats: Night of Terror would have been a real pain to sit through, I was relieved that I hadn’t bought it.

"Remember to eliminate every trace of this rotten movie, men!"

Reading about terrible movies can often be more fun than actually watching them. The IMDb bio of the late Bruno Mattei, who directed Rats: Night of Terror, claims that he “eventually had more pseudonyms than any working director in the world” and that he’s been called “The Italian Ed Wood.” Various sources also allege that the rodent epic was his personal favorite, and that’s is easy enough to believe. When your résumé sports titles like S.S. Extermination Love Camp and Women’s Prison Massacre, Rats: Night of Terror sounds like a Bergman-esque work of cinematic art by comparison. You know, now that I think about it, I seem to remember Rats: Night of Terror just barely losing out to Out of Africa at the 1985 Oscars …

Voiceover from the trailer:

“Rats! What do they want from us? Rats! Why are they man’s enemy? Rats! They’re watching! Waiting! Rats! Their time has come! Why do rats repel us? What is it about those little furry bodies that’s so frightening? Just think of them close to you in the night! Who can stop them? And how? Rats are here, under our feet, all around us!”

But not in my DVD collection. Phew!

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Belated Props to Karl Malden

Giallo, that distinctly Italian crime subgenre, has some signature characteristics. There’s usually a ludicrous whodunit plot, some striking visuals, and a groovy soundtrack. Fans like me watch these movies for the flash, since there’s precious little substance. And we’re seldom given anyone to really root for, becauseall the characters, even the heroes, are frequently utter jerks. Dario Argento’s Terror at the Opera (1986) provides a fitting example when a stage manager tells the protagonist, an opera singer, that a stagehand died while she was singing. Apparently, it was “molto strano”. With his very next breath, he tells her to leave her costume in the dressing room for refitting. She hangs her dress on the coat stand, turns back, and asks him to accompany her to the opening night party. Yikes! There’s cold, and then there’s heartless, know what I mean?

"Some guy just died. It's pretty weird. Wanna go to a party?"

To compensate for the insensitive weasels and shrill hellcats that often populate these callous movies, Italian filmmakers will usually include a character that’s so innocent and goody-goody as to nearly induce vomiting. This person, sometimes an ebullient colleague of the main character or some absurdly kind neighbor, inevitably suffers a grisly death at the hands of the killer. This person adds nothing of value—other than a cool death scene. To craft a genuinely sympathetic character in a giallo, the actor has to do all the work, through sheer talent and star power. As it happens, that’s just what veteran character actor Karl Malden did in Argento’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), in which he plays a blind one-time reporter. His Franco “Cookie” Arno has inane dialogue like everyone else around him, but Malden’s acting chops and charisma help him rise above the material. And although his is a small part, it’s one of the better performances in the Argento back catalogue. Leonard Maltin once wrote that he “brings his innate dignity to every role he tackles,” and that quality is certainly on display here. Imagine, dignity in a giallo!

Malden's blind ex-reporter gets the feel of a crypt.

When Malden passed away on July 1st, at the ripe old age of 97, the media was already in a frenzy. Six days earlier, some controversial pop star or other had expired from an accidental drug overdose, and consequently most people were far too busy elsewhere to notice that a Hollywood legend had died. It’s pretty disconcerting that a suspected pederast gets saint-like status upon his death, while a genuinely decent guy and top-notch actor is practically ignored. Watch Cat o’ Nine Tails to see how Malden injects sincere warmth into otherwise trashy, but certainly entertaining, material.

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