Oh dear, oh dear. How the mighty – ok, the capable – have fallen. When watching a film like Ratman you’re just left slightly depressed by the pathetic state to which the Italian film industry had sunk by the late 1980s. Here you have a film with a decent director – Giuliano Carnimeo had made his name with some rather good Spaghetti Westerns, and also made the well-above-average giallo The Case of the Bloody Iris – an experienced crew (writers Elsa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti, cinematographer Roberto Girometti and editor Vincenzo Tomassi were all hardly novices) and a wily producer (Fabrizio De Angelis). And yet it is wholly, and uncompromisingly, dismal viewing experience. OK, it has a certain cult following, partially because of it’s so-bad-it’s-good qualities and partially because the whole thing is so ill-conceived that it’s strangely compulsive.
Ratman was essentially constructed as a vehicle for one Nelson de la Rosa. Nerver heard of him? Well, Sr. de la Rosa was the world”s smallest actor (he was in the Guinness Book of Records as the worlds smallest man, but that seems to be inaccurate), coming in at a whopping 2” 4¼”. And, as is the way with Italian exploitation cinema, when presented with a proposition such as this they decided not to look into the ins and outs of living with such a diminished stature, or even to grant the poor guy any kind of nobility whatsoever. Nope, what they did was deck him out with a pair of hokey fangs and claws and have him play a hybrid half-rat, half-monkey creature. Not even half-human, note, half-monkey.
So, anyway, this ”ratman” is created by a nutty scientist on a Caribbean island who looks a little like Jimmy Carr’s alcoholic dad (the actor is uncredited, unfamiliar and phenomenally untalented). He keeps the poor thing in a tiny bird cage, so it’s not big surprise when it escapes. And, seeing as a two foot beastie who probably weighs just over a stone isn’t exactly terrifying, it also has a venom in his fingernails and his teeth – so a mere scratch or bite is deadly – and a voracious appetite for human flesh. Pretty soon, people are turning up dead and mangled all over the place.
Meanwhile, writer Fred Williams (David Warbeck) arrives, hoping to find some inspiration for a new book, and bumps into Terry (Janet Agren), a young woman who is trying to find her sister, Marlis (Eva Grimaldi). Marlis is a model, and has been working on a shoot with photographer Mark (Werner Pocath) deep in the jungle, right where the dangerous little beastie is wreaking havoc. After stumbling across several corpses, they take refuge at the house of the mad professor, unaware that his little creation has decided to come home as well. Fred and Terry, meanwhile, have managed to discover that Marlis is at least still alive – the police seem to insist on claiming that just about every corpse that ends up in the morgue is actually her – and set off to rescue her.
This is all pretty desperate stuff, so let’s look at the positives. Firstly, the whole thing is just so wrong, so tasteless, that it has some kind of awful fascination. I mean, let”s be honest, there aren’t that many films in recent years where someone physically challenged is treated in such a blatantly demeaning fashion. It’s the cinematic equivalent of ”dwarf tossing”. Secondly, you get the feeling that somewhere, deep under the inanity, there’s some filmmaking skill at play. The attack sequences in the mad professor’s house, for instance, are pretty well shot, and the sight of Sr de la Rosa skuttling around is certainly more effective than any amount of CGI would have been.
But… that apart, it’s all pretty hopeless: the production values are extremely low, it somehow manages to look even cheaper than it actually is, the acting is extremely variable and the pacing is all over the place. The main problem lies with the script, which is simply dismal. The plot is stupid, none of the characters are remotely developed, certain plot elements just seem to fade out or make very little sense in the first place and there”s no sense of narrative drive. Briganti and Sacchetti were definitely capable of much better things, and they seem to have decided that the project simply wasn’t worthy of any great attention. It’s actually rather like a replay of their script for Zombi 2, but even more scratchy and wayward, while the film itself reminded me more of Fulci’s lesser sequel to that film, Zombi 3, which had a similarly meandering tone.
According to Sacchetti: “There was a package of six films to do with De Angelis – Larry Ludman – some war films and two crocodile movies. In fact, this was my last film with him and one of the last Italian films to get an international release . Returning from a visit to Santo Domingo, De Angelis showed a local magazine with an article about a guy named ”mouse man”, and told me he wanted us to film it. I did its co-ordinates: a house, a beach and nothing else. I have never seen the film, but I know that Carnimeo had a crush on Eva Grimaldi. I remember little of the story – I was squabbling with De Angelis who had made promises and not paid – beyond the fact that it balanced between splatter and serious”.
The most capable performers, David Warbeck and janet Agren, are sidetracked for large portions of the story, while the action focuses on Eva Grimaldi’s Marliss. Grimaldi appeared in a number of trash favourites (Black Cobra (87), Obsession: A Taste for Fear (88)) as well as some more prestigious projects (Fellini”s Interviste (87), Kinski”s Paganini (89)), and she”s still going strong today. She’s not bad, but the character is underdeveloped and – as with all these 80s films – she has to fight against the awful fashions she”s clothed in.