It was never going to be easy to do an adaptation of James Herbert’s classic horror novel, The Rats. Though it has the shocks and zippy pace of a creature feature in print form, it also has the kind of epic-scale carnage and animal attack scenes that would demand a budget in the multi-millions. When it finally made its way onto movie screens in 1982 under the new title Deadly Eyes, this adaptation was a different sort of beast, one that harkens back to the creature features of the ’50s – and if you’re in the proper b-movie mood, it’s a nice bit of popcorn-munching fun.
Deadly Eyes basically throws out Herbert’s source novel entirely, with the exception of the basic “displaced rats go on the attack” premise and a few repurposed setpieces. In this film, the rats have been feeding on steroid-enhanced corn that is destroyed at the behest of health inspector Kelly Leonard (Sara Botsford). No one knows the rats have become mutated from their chemically-enhanced food source: this has transformed into beasts the size of dogs and gives them a new, predatory attitude.
Town officials try to keep the early attacks quiet but Kelly soon figures out how big of a problem these mutated vermin are with the help of nice guy teacher/love interest Paul Harris (Sam Groom). Unfortunately, the rats get bold as the heroes figure out what they are dealing with, making their way out of the sewers and into a new subway system being debuted by the mayor and his cronies. The only thing certain is that there will be plenty of stunts, explosions and marauding rodents before the credits roll.
No one would mistake the results for a serious horror film. Deadly Eyes automatically has a campy vibe because of its gigantic rat villains, a quality enhanced by the fact that the rat attack scenes are achieved with little dogs in rat suits and Muppet-style rat puppets that pounce on shrieking extras. The story also has a certain retro feel because Charles Eglee’s script plays like a ’50s b-movie updated to the early ’80s, also throwing in the obligatory Jaws-style subplot where crooked town leaders hush things up until it’s too late. It even throws in a little cheesecake via a soap-opera subplot with a randy cheerleader (Lisa Langlois) who wants to seduce Harris. To his credit, Eglee plays this material with a light, snappy tone that gives the audience a subtle wink.
Deadly Eyes turns the story’s b-movie qualities into an asset by playing into the inherent ridiculousness of the concept. It was directed by Robert Clouse, a genre-flick journeyman who is best known for Enter The Dragon but also made a fun revenge-of-nature flick called The Pack. He draws on his skills from the latter here, pacing the first hour with period p.o.v. rat attacks and then piling on plenty of budget-conscious thrills during the last half-hour. Said finale features great setpieces where the rats attack a crowd of moviegoers (watching Clouse’s Game Of Death!) and the subway station.
As a result, Deadly Eyes has a charmingly old-fashioned quality to it, even when it’s throwing out a little blood or surprise R-rated sex scene between Groom and Botsford. It also has a welcome sense of humor: highlights include Groom decking an obstructive cop when he has to save the day and a few scenes with Scatman Crothers in a fun bit role as an exterminator. Groom and Botsford make solid leads, wisely playing the thrills straight while showing some sly humor in the dialogue scenes, and fans of Canadian horror will enjoy seeing Langlois vamp it up as the cheerleader on the prowl.
In short, the appeal of Deadly Eyes for each viewer will depend on how they respond to its “dogs in rat suits” monster movie approach. If you can appreciate the budget-conscious charm of such a concept, Deadly Eyes delivers plenty of camp-horror thrills with energy and b-movie verve.