Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

[Musophobia] Trilogy Of Terror II: The Graveyard Rats (1996)

Trilogy of Terror II: The Graveyard Rats - Promotional Poster
Promotional Poster
The original TRILOGY OF TERROR was a 1975 ABC Movie of the Week from Dan Curtis, who I like to call the dark Aaron Spelling. It was comprised of three segments that were unrelated to each other aside from the fact that each was based on a short story by Richard Matheson, and each starred Karen Black.

In 1996, Curtis returned with this sequel. Once again, there were three segments, but they stemmed from different sources, and Karen Black had been replaced as the star by Lysette Anthony. For our purposes here, we are concerned only with the quirky but ultimately somehow satisfying first segment, “The Graveyard Rats”.

The aging millionaire Ansford (Matt Clark) learns that his younger wife Laura (Anthony) has been cheating on him, with her very own cousin Ben (Geraint Wyn Davies). After confronting her with videotaped evidence of her betrayal, Ansford offers her an ultimatum: stop the affair and play the adoring wife role, or be cut out from the will and suffer the embarrassment of the sex tape being leaked to all of the major media outlets (which, in those days, was not any sort of guarantee that you would get your own reality show).

Laura agrees to the old man's conditions, and then immediately sets out to cuckold him once again. Laura is a nubile young woman, and Ansford is bound to a wheelchair, so it is quite likely that their sex life is unsatisfactory if not nonexistent. It is understandable, if not forgivable, that she would look outside the marriage for fulfillment. It is not understandable, though, why she would choose her cousin for her bedmate. 

Their blood relation added nothing to the plot and was only mentioned once—had that line been cut, nobody would have known—but the filmmakers opted to include it in the finished film, anyway. In the heyday of subversive cinema, incest was often used to increase the sleaze quotient in exploitation films, as sleaze was basically the yardstick by which they were judged. But this is a made-for-TV horror film from Dan Curtis, not some grainy-stock schlocker playing in grindhouses and drive-ins. It just seemed out of place. But I digress...

Ben has the bright idea of murdering Ansford, so that Laura can collect her inheritance and the two of them can live in sinful luxury the rest of their days. All it will take is a good scare, Ben assures her, and the old coot will drop dead of a heart attack.

Ben breaks into their house late at night, and immediately forgets the plan. Rather than frighten Ansford to death, he tosses him, wheelchair and all, down a flight of stairs. "Just like in the movie," he declares proudly, referring to the scene that always makes him giggle in his favorite film, the classic KISS OF DEATH (1947). The police apparently still believe it was an accident, though, as there is never even the slightest hint of suspicion.

A short time later, Ansford is six feet under, buried in the family plot despite the warnings of Stubbs (Geoffrey Lewis), the kooky caretaker, that that particular section of the cemetery is overrun with the biggest damned rats that you ever did see. They feed on the corpses unless you lay down the extra coinage for one of them fancy metal coffins—which is an expense that Laura is not willing to cover.

Laura and Ben receive quite the unwelcome surprise at the reading of the will, when they learn that all of Ansford's considerable cash had been transferred to a secure Swiss bank account prior to his death, and there is nothing left for them to squander. Unless they can get their hands on the access code, which, they learn, was hidden in a secret compartment in Ansford's pocket watch. The very watch that he was buried with.

They've already murdered a man, so what's a little grave robbery on top of things? When they show up with shovels in hand, Stubbs has nearly beaten them to the punch, looking for anything of value that might be pawned off for a quick buck. Stubbs is unceremoniously dispatched with a crowbar to the skull, and once they locate the watch on Ansford's body, Laura shoots Ben, deciding that cold hard cash beats incest any day of the week (can’t argue with that). But before she can get her mitts on the access codes, a horde of enormous rats grabs ahold of her husband's corpse and drags it through the intricate system of tunnels that they have dug beneath the cemetery's surface.

Trilogy of Terror II: The Graveyard Rats - The Graveyard Rats
The Graveyard Rats
To call the rat effects special would be overstating it a bit. They look like cheesy animatronics and hand puppets, but budgetary restraints can often be overcome by having heart, and Dan Curtis has that in spades—look at the success of his DARK SHADOWS franchise. And no matter how cheap these rats look, they're still nowhere as bad as the MONSTERS episode entitled "Stressed Environment", which was meant to be included in this project, but was so absurd that I found there was nothing left to say. These puppet graveyard rats have glowing red eyes, and they are large, and they are in charge, and they have a definite taste for human flesh.

Most of us would hightail it in the other direction under these dire circumstances, but Laura's greed is such that she chases after them on hands and knees. A plucky one, to be sure, she somehow manages to fight off the mutant rodents long enough to procure the watch. As she attempts to return to safety above ground, the exit is blocked by the pack of rats, and so she has no choice but to venture deeper into the tunnels. What she thinks is another exit proves to be a death trap, as she emerges into an empty coffin that the rats have chewed a hole through. With no place else to go, she is flooded by the greasy critters and devoured alive. The camera pulls way back, and breaches the surface, where her screams of pain can still be heard.

It is a pretty stellar image, and it composes a triple-whammy in that she was forced to crawl through
Trilogy of Terror II: The Graveyard Rats - Buried Alive
Buried Alive
claustrophobic tunnels, she was buried alive, and she was devoured by rats. It’s a true ‘phobics nightmare.

Being the imaginative viewer that I am, what plagues me the most about this segment is what the crime scene would look like to the first responders. That's where TRILOGY OF TERROR III should pick up, if ever there is one made. You've got the caretaker with his head bashed in, the bullet-riddled corpse of another man, an unearthed grave, an empty coffin, a tunnel leading into the earth, and a missing woman. I can only assume that the first policeman to arrive would realize that it was a hopeless case, roll the two corpses into the empty grave, cover them in soil and simply walk away.

At least, that's how I would have handled things.

THE GRAVEYARD RATS is based on a short story of the same name by "weird fiction" author Henry Kuttner. It was the first of his short stories to be sold, and appeared in the March 1936 issue of pulp magazine WEIRD TALES. Kuttner was a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, and contributed stories to Lovecraft's "open universe" of the Cthulhu Mythos. Though this story isn't directly related to the mythos, Lovecraft's influence is undeniable—from the subtle references to odd architectural geometry ("Dark gabled houses still leaned perilously toward each other over narrow cobbled streets...") to mentions of a deeper lore of which the tale only scratches the surface ("The myth of the Pied Piper is a fable that hides a blasphemous horror, and the black pits of Avernus have brought forth hell-spawned monstrosities that never venture into the light of day."), Lovecraft is certainly the devil in the details of this story.

The story itself is a short one, and there are no murderous lover characters, as there were in the filmed
Trilogy of Terror II: The Graveyard Rats - Weird Tales March 1936
Weird Tales, March 1936
version. The only character here is the cemetery caretaker, though his name is Masson and not Stubbs. Masson moonlights as a grave robber, just as Stubbs did, though his exploits are much more explicit in the story. Not only does he pilfer the jewels and trinkets that the dead are buried with, but he also removes the gold fillings from their teeth, an act which occasionally requires a bit of bodily mutilation.

Masson has been eyeing a fresh grave for a few days now, having caught a glimpse of the cuff links and pearl stickpin that the man was wearing upon interment. Finally able to make his move now that grieving family members have taken a respite from visitation, he is shocked and appalled to find that the large rats, which have thwarted his thefts in the past, have narrowly beaten him to his prey. As he throws open the coffin lid, the corpse is already being dragged into one of the endless tunnels that the rodents have dug for themselves.

Just as with Laura, Masson so desperately wants his payday that he pursues the critters into the hollows beneath the Earth. It is a testament to Kuttner's writing that his story more successfully conveys the claustrophobic feeling inherent in this setting than the filmmakers were able to when it unfolded on-screen. He is able to capture the terror of the situation with a few sparse words better than they were able to with reels of colorful celluloid.

Masson meets much the same fate as Laura, right down to being pinned down in an empty coffin. In the end, though, Kuttner's short story is heads and tails above the NIGHTMARES adaptation, and only serves to make it appear even weaker than it would otherwise.

It should be noted that Lovecraft had published two stories of a relatively similar vein in the same magazine more than a decade prior. The Hound (February 1924) was a delightfully baroque short story of grave robbers who get their just desserts from a spectral sort of hell-hound; and The Rats in the Walls (March 1924) is only partly self-explanatory, as it is also a tale of cannibalism and inherited madness.

More interesting, though, is that another contemporary and Cthulhu Mythos contributor, Robert E. Howard, also published a short story entitled The Graveyard Rats only a month earlier than Kuttner, appearing in the February 1936 issue of THRILLING MYSTERY, involving a whole slew of the pervasive rodents coming between two sides of a longstanding family feud. Howard's creation of Conan, Kull and Solomon Kane get most of the attention these days, though there is a special and well-deserved reverence for his short story Pigeons From Hell, to which his own Graveyard Rats is something of a kissing cousin.

Oh...bad choice of words.


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