After a very dry, but stern, lecture from the amiable Professor Louis Spencer (Cec Linder), high school (?) teacher Paul (Sam Groom) plays dumb (it’s actually more like he’s simply disingenuously oblivious) to the amorous advances of student Trudy (Lisa Langlois). Off to a good start. Meanwhile, Department of Health worker Kelly (Sara Botsford) condemns tons of corn contaminated with steroids (she doesn’t need to test it to know there’s ‘roids in there) and sets it all on fire at night (maybe because she hasn’t been to a bonfire in years and wants to relive some of her youth?). What does this all have to do with mutant rats? Well, the rodents were living in the corn (surely they realized this gravy train wouldn’t last forever) and now they have to move on and find different accommodations. And food.
I have never read James Herbert’s The Rats, the novel on which Robert Clouse’s Deadly Eyes (aka Night Eyes) is ostensibly based, though it has been on my list of things to do for some time. Truth be told, I have never read any of James Herbert’s work, but from what little I know of him, I imagine his style and approach to horror is similar to that of Guy N. Smith, an author whom I have read. As I was watching this film, I was put in mind of Smith, and I believe that his pulpy, exploitive approach (and I can only assume Herbert’s by extension, because these are the sort of tenuous connections that partially ameliorate my existential angst, and, to be fair, exploitation in pop culture has been around about as long as pop culture, so…) is what informs much of its appeal. In a Smith novel, there is a bland protagonist. Said protagonist has at least one child (almost invariably one child) who will be placed in harm’s way. The protagonist has marital troubles. The protagonist is seduced by another woman and, at least in Smith’s world, succumbs. There’s some torrid sex (with the temptress or not, but usually with). There are graphic scenes of violence wherein background characters are ripped to shreds by whatever beastie is the antagonist. This extends to the idea that absolutely no character, young or old, man or woman, is safe (one of the more interesting aspects of things like this). The protagonist does something mildly heroic to defeat whatever malevolence he confronts. Life returns to some semblance of normality, though it’s still pretty bleak, all things considered. All of these elements are represented in Deadly Eyes, if not specifically, then at least in as much as they can be in a mainstream horror film. Let’s take them one at a time.
Paul is dispassionate. He’s as go-along-to-get-along as a person can be. The main excitement in his life is deciphering the instructions on a Hungry Man frozen dinner. He is an Everyman to the nth degree, and rather than allow us to empathize with his workaday life, his monotonous existence simply bores (Paul, all you have to do is look at the photo on the box to determine which compartment on a frozen dinner tray houses the dessert). Paul has a son, Tim (Lee-Max Walton), who is just as uninteresting as his old man, but Paul needs a direct reason to get involved in what’s going on in his city, so Tim is present in the story. Plus, children in peril equal instant dramatic tension. Paul has an ex-wife whom we never see, but we’re told that all she does is harangue Paul with ex-wife things. Trudy is hot for teacher, and she handles these feelings with the subtlety of a compound fracture. She fantasizes about banging him, because she thinks that older men are all that, and dumb teenaged boys (like her current beau Matt [Joseph Kelly]) are immature (mentally and physically [read: boys just want to party and have sex, a theory which makes little sense since Trudy just wants to party and have sex but with an older guy]). In fact, she goes so far as showing up at Paul’s apartment and hanging out in his bedroom in nothing but her skivvies (while clueless Timmy sits in the parlor praying to the church of the cathode ray). She even makes a show of bending over to pick up her jeans for both Paul and the audience (in classic Eighties fashion, they’re brown). Paul is tepidly exasperated by all this. Yet, it’s the taboo angle of this subplot that generates interest (prurient or other, but mostly prurient), even if it’s not developed or paid off all that well (not that they had to have sex, but that it’s all so blindingly superficial, something for which we can’t really hold an exploitative horror film accountable). Kelly is the other temptress (if one can be tempted away from an ex-wife), but at least she is age appropriate to Paul. I was a little surprised at how salacious their sex scene is (nipple sucking is involved, something I can’t think of happening all that often in mainstream cinema, even on the low budget end, but I admit I’m pretty naïve sometimes). Just about every character we meet in the film is gnawed on by the rats, and there is blood galore. Early on in the film, a toddler is killed (offscreen), so we know that everyone (including dull, wee Timmy) is on the menu for the rat feast. Paul has a swift, entirely not-thought-all-the-way-through brainstorm on how to defeat the rats, which anyone with half a brain would realize likely wouldn’t be as thorough as Paul thinks it will be. Finally, you get the bludgeoningly (I’m just making up words now) obvious “shock” ending; perhaps the only facet that strays (just a little) from the work of Smith and company, but this is a horror film from the early Eighties, so fair play. Thus concludes this study in parallelism.
Films like this are the filmic equivalents of “beach reads,” and on that level, they typically work fairly well. I found myself enjoying much of Deadly Eyes, though whether this is because of my interest in pulp horror or not is a bit muddy in my head. I don’t think that you need to like books like Night of the Crabs in order to like this film. The film ticks all the boxes it needs to tick for exploitation/horror fare, and though it and books like it are close in method, they are far enough apart to intrigue in slightly different ways (while still fulfilling the same fantasies). I also thought the special effects were effective, even knowing that the rats in long shots are small dogs in large rat costumes, and the puppets for the closeups were repulsive enough to please my gorehound side. The big issue with the film (and unfortunately it’s big enough to drag the experience down, the same of which can be said of novels of this ilk) is that it’s poorly structured. We get a little exposition, a little melodrama (none of which is handled here with anything approaching the appropriate level of emotion), and a little exploitation (sex or violence or both). Anything that may have been intriguing to develop (including and especially the characters’ relationships) remains unmolded. After much build up, the Trudy subplot is forgotten about for longer than it should have been, and then is dispatched out of hand simply to set up one of the big, chaotic set pieces of the climax (which also feels more obligatory than anything else in the sense that teens in horror films need to be punished for being teens). So, while I like this film, and I do see myself revisiting it, I can’t say it reaches pantheon levels of low budget horror. Unless you’re a fan of dogs in rat costumes.
MVT: The rat attacks work well. They’re nasty enough and revolting enough and bloody enough, and that’s really all they need to be.
Make or Break: The attack on the child was somewhat shocking (and rather deftly handled), and it lets us know the high stakes of the film’s threat.