As a young lad and embryonic movie geek, the lure of the forbidden led me to sneak age-inappropriate sleaze which I, and some like-minded little weirdos, devoured with alternating glee and giggling revulsion. Of course our quest for the forbidden and revolting led us to the one video store in town that stocked the original Faces of Death whose combination of obvious (even to our quickly-jading sensibilities) fakery with some squeal-producing genuine newsreel death seemed right up our alley. Fun times, but even for a darkened basement full of budding gorehounds it was the footage of animals being killed that freaked us into ashamed silence. Sure, there were understandable reasons underlying the killing of slaughterhouse animals and clubbed seals, but the very fact that such systematic butchery was being presented as a freakshow for our entertainment made us feel dirty and ashamed in a way that even the real human grue did not. Maybe it’s because, unlike filmed human deaths, the killing of animals for our amusement was something queasily available, attainable. The stark reality of it made us look into ourselves, and see something like darkness there.
Of course, that was thirty years ago. Now typing two choice words into a search engine (safe search off!) will flood you with images and videos that make Mondo Cane as shocking as an episode of Murder She Wrote, and even network television, under the umbrella of a TV-14 rating or an advisory warning, is fully in the business of animal abuse as entertainment (see Swamp People). Enter Rat Bastards, Spike’s newest entry in the genre which combines the distasteful onscreen hunting of giant rodents with reality television’s signature mockery of poor, undereducated Americans behaving badly.
Opening with a disclaimer that no one should attempt to duplicate the upcoming methods of the “heroic Americans” we’re about to see, the show begins with an overdramatic narrator praising the six brave Americans who have gathered together “to wage war on a foreign invader”, a none-too-subtle undercurrent of breathless patriotic xenophobia that flows through the show. One Bastard, a former army sniper, compares his service overseas quite seriously to “fighting the foreign invaders back home,” and the narration drops phrases like “mankind’s worst enemy”, “foreign invaders”, “men hired to strike back for mankind”, “our homeland is under attack”, and “when Americans stand shoulder to shoulder, there’s no enemy they can’t defeat” throughout. And while it’s true (as a brief voiceover history lesson explains) that the nutria, or, in deference to the title, river rat, is indeed not indigenous to the Louisiana swampland, it’s also more accurate to say that Americans kidnapped nutria from their South American gnawing grounds to breed them for their fur (the source of George Costanza’s hat), and that they’ve only become the destructive pest they undoubtedly are because we were too careless to keep track of them. But such nice considerations are not the strong point of Rat Bastards, or the Rat Bastards themselves, a sextet of hirsute, heavily armed Louisianans determined to fight the furry menace in the increasingly-denuded swamplands they’ve invaded in their nefarious plan to eat lots of leaves and generally be left alone.
At this point I must concede that nutria aren’t any prize: squat 30 pound rodents, their most distinguishing feature a set of diseased-looking fang-y front choppers the color of rotting pumpkins are alarming, and their voracious plant-icide (which is eroding great swathes of land) is undeniably a major menace to the Louisiana ecosystem. They’ve clearly gotta go-it’s Rat Bastards’ facile assertion that the solution to this very real problem is an unregulated gaggle of trigger happy good ol’ boys with their own reality show, alongside an utter lack of reflection on the whole “animal slaughter as entertainment” idea, that’s objectionable.
As for the Bastards themselves, their show does them the usual reality show disservice of rendering non-actors stiff and unconvincing once a camera crew asks them to act naturally. That’s coupled with the fact that the guys are presented as easily categorized stereotypes, each complete with a handy, one-characteristic nickname. There’s Clay (the Steady Hand), Rigger (the Idea Guy), Squirrel (the Bayou Bloodhound), Shane (the Sniper), Skeeter (Godfather of the Bayou), and Kridda (the Rookie) and, as the six quickly pair off on three separate nutria hunts (with a bounty of 10-15 bucks per head), their actions don’t do much to broaden their characters. In the show’s brisk 24 minutes, each team is allotted one defining plotline (Rigger’s GPS tracking idea vs. Clay’s suspicion that the Idea Guy doesn’t know what he’s doing, Skeeter and Kridda’s troubled mentor/Daniel-san relationship, Squirrel’s “this time it’s personal” reluctance to risk his new hunting dog because of its predecessor’s deadly nutria-related death), and then it’s on with the varmint shootin’.
As the three hunts reach their inevitable conclusions and Rat Bastards’ body count mounts, the questionable value of the whole concept is brought to the fore in the form of televised animal killing and bloody, limp corpses in hairy, soggy piles. No subject is off limits for entertainment, just as no topic is off limits for humor-it’s all in the presentation. And Rat Bastards’ lowbrow blend of cornpone humor, unearned self-importance, and casual animal killing shoots far too low to be anything but distastefully unnecessary.
-With the foolishly-imported nutria eating all the vegetation, wouldn’t it be great if they only ate the foolishly-imported kudzu that, in a reverse-nutria move, blankets the south with too much vegetation? Just let them fight it out...
-Did Rigger excitedly referring to a rat habitat as a “honey hole” wig anyone else out, or was it just me?
-”That machine gun in your hands, it’s almost like a woman. It feels real good.” Again, I think Rigger bears some watching...
-Adding a little roaring sound under the nutria’s already alarming defensive hissing was a journalistically questionable touch, wasn’t it?
-After Kridda’s hasty shot almost hits him, Skeeter asks the camera, “What the hell this boy doin’?! Do I look like a rat?!” Skeeter looks like a dirty, decrepit Santa Claus, but definitely not a rat. Bad shooting, Kridda.
-Next week: one of the Bastards kidnaps a female nutria in heat and uses her as bait! I think I saw that in a horror movie somewhere...
-The opening anecdote aside, neither my childhood friends nor myself have become serial killers. To my knowledge.