Grain feed contaminated with steroids produce large black rats that begin feeding on the citizens of Toronto. A college basketball coach (Sam Groom) teams up with a local health inspector (Sara Botsford) to uncover the source of the mysterious giant rats. When they discover that the rats are living in the subway, they try to prevent a new subway line from opening before all hell breaks loose underground. This is man’s last desperate, bloody battle to preserve the existence of the human race! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
Killer animal and eco-horror movies seldom work as straight horror movies. The best of them tend to be character-based dramas where the angry critters are used thematically, as in the cases of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1953) or Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), or with a satirical slant, as in Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978) or Lewis Teague’s Alligator (1980). For whatever reason, it seems to be very difficult to cull genuine, straight-faced horror from the subject, which is weird, because human beings have a built-in and easily exploited fear of being eaten by other animals. Difficulties are then compounded when industrious filmmakers try to make previously unthreatening and small creatures frightening by increasing their size. The results are (almost) always inadvertently hilarious. But accidental laughs and high-camp concepts aren’t all bad – some of our greatest giant animal movies are, in fact, so-bad-they’re-good. Movies like Ray Kellogg’s The Killer Shrews (1959), William F. Claxton’s Night of the Lepus (1972), and Bert I. Gordon’s The Food of the Gods (1967) all prove that turning cuddly rodents into man-eaters, however inept, can produce enduring cult classics.
So where does Robert Clouse’s oft-forgotten 1982 giant rat shocker, Deadly Eyes, fall on the spectrum? Loosely based on James Herbert’s popular and controversial pulp novel, The Rats (New English Library, 1974), and co-written by Dexter and The Walking Dead executive producer Charles Eglee, Deadly Eyes is remembered by fans and detractors not for its scares, but for its singularly unconvincing creature effects. Minus a Hollywood-sized budget, the filmmakers were forced to improvise their mutant rodents by putting dachshunds in the cutest little rat suits you’ve ever seen, though the puppets used for close-ups are, in all fairness, more convincingly grotesque. To his credit, Clouse was an under-valued filmmaker who did the best he could with Deadly Eyes, despite the project’s notable limitations. The film scores big points for personable characters (hampered by unconvincing romantic strife), a better than average cast, and a willingness to get really nasty when the rats attack (the first victim is a cat and the second is a toddler). With a less conventional plot, quirkier twists, and brisker pacing, it might have worked as a companion piece to Larry Cohen’s ‘70s/’80s genre output.
Alongside the adorable doggie costumes and lack of real scares are surprising connections to martial arts cinema. The film was produced in Canada by Golden Harvest – the Hong Kong-based company behind a number of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Tsui Hark classics. Clouse was more or less the go-to guy for North American co-produced martial arts movies throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, including Enter the Dragon (1973), The Big Brawl (1980), China O’Brien (1990), and Gymkata (1985). Even the movie theater in the background of this film is showing Bruce Lee’s Game of Death (1978), which was a film Clouse attempted to complete after Lee’s death. His talents extended to an under-seen Rod Taylor vehicle Darker Than Amber (1970) and a decent killer dog movie called The Pack (1977).
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack marks the first North American digital home video release of Deadly Eyes. There appear to be questionably legal DVD versions available from China, Australia, and the UK as well, but I can’t imagine they’ll compare to this new 1080p, 1.85:1 HD transfer. The only problem I can find here really worth noting is that the contrast/gamma levels may have been cranked a hair too high, blowing out and crushing some of the finer details. Otherwise, this is actually one of the studio’s better transfers. Grain levels are fine and consistent throughout even the darkest sequences. Edges are tight, details are crisp, and complex textures show only minor haloes. Clouse and cinematographer René Verzier depend on a lot of gloomy, desaturated colors to help their mood (the fiery opening titles being an obvious exception), but can’t escape the tacky interiors and fashion senses of the early 1980s. The pea green kitchen paint and lavender sweater/pant combinations are plenty vivid without blooming too much. There are stints with print damage throughout, but all of these are brief and easily ignored.
Scream Factory has opted for the original 2.0 mono soundtrack, which is presented here in DTS-HD Master Audio. There are some minor inconsistencies in the volume and clarity of softer dialogue tracks, which I’m guessing has something to do with the application of noise reduction software. Sure enough, you can hear the otherwise muted background noises punch up a bit as characters speak. The best explanation for this (other than the tracks being just too fuzzy) is that the sounds of dog trainers calling orders were audible on the old VHS version. The puppy-rats snarl like lions (exactly like lions), but accentuating scares are otherwise left to Anthony Guefen’s score, which, due to its by-the-numbers melodies and flat sound quality, kind of sounds like a collection of library tunes.
Deadly Eyes: Dogs in Rats’ Clothing (24:10, HD) – A retrospective featurette with co-writer/co-producer Charles Eglee (who admits he probably didn’t read Herbert and just ripped off John Sayles’ Piranha script, then says his chief job as producer was keeping Scatman Crothers’ weed supply flowing), bemused special effects artist Alan Apone (who went on to bigger, though not always better things), and production designer Ninkey Dalton (who ended up marrying Eglee after meeting him on set). It includes super-cute pictures of the dogs getting their costumes put on.
Interview with actress Lisa Langlois (18:50, HD)
Interview with actress Lesleh Donaldson (13:50, HD)
Interview with actor Joseph Kelly (13:20, HD)
Interview with special effects artist Alec Gillis (14:10, HD)
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.