Saturday, 25 January 2020

Mouse Hunt (aka Hitler with a Tail, The Omen with Whiskers, Nostradamus didn't see this!)


We've already talked at length about how enduring a horror motif is the image of the rat in the walls, a tiny encroacher whose very presence is enough to bring all sense of domestic stability crashing to the ground. But what of the rat's smaller cousin, the mouse? Technically, the very same principles should apply - the Mus musculus within the home is as much a symbol of chaos and contamination as the Rattus norvegicus, the only obvious difference being that rats have a clear size advantage. And yet popular culture has been altogether more favourable to the mouse, who is instead likely to be heroised as the little guy succeeding in a big world. As we've observed from numerous Tom & Jerry shorts, the encroachment of the mouse is traditionally treated not as the breakdown between wilderness and civilisation, but as the gleeful subversion of an assumed order, the mouse a valiant Robin Hood figure who survives by pilfering from the spoils of the rich and powerful. You won't find many villainous mice in film or literature, one of the rare exceptions being the Mouse King from E.T.A. Hoffmann's story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" - and even then, some adaptations do prefer to make him a rat, I suppose because "Mouse King" sounds considerably less intimidating than does "Rat King". With all that in mind, is there such a thing out there as mouse horror - that is, media that pushes in the precisely the opposite direction, and makes the miniature interloper into a big and threatening presence? As unlikely as it sounds, Mouse Hunt, an unassuming slapstick comedy from 1997, and the debut feature of Gore Verbinski (who went on to direct the first three installments in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise), may well be the closest we've ever come to getting a legitimate mouse horror. As pratfall-heavy family films go, Mouse Hunt is a strange beast - it promises endless goofball antics and it certainly delivers, but takes such a coldly skin-crawling approach that for a lot of the time it plays less like a riotous farce than a disorientating, PG-rated nightmare.

The family films of the 1990s don't have much of a reputation for being dark and downbeat, certainly not compared to the family films of the 1980s, although thinking about it, I'm not sure that's an entirely fair assessment. Rather, I'd argue that they were dark and downbeat in different, more beguiling ways. Gone were the dangerous fantasy worlds of The Dark Crystal (1982), The NeverEnding Story (1984) and Labyrinth (1986), or the rating systems chasms that enabled more family-leaning horror fare like Poltergeist (1982) and Gremlins (1984) to go surprisingly far on a PG rating. The 1990s saw family films return overwhelmingly to the domestic setting, where they played deceptively like sitcoms, and seemed altogether more colourful and upbeat in tone - darkness persisted, but was to be located largely within the cracks spanning the banalities of contemporary living. Home Alone (1990) got the decade off to a brutal and ugly start, although I'm not convinced that Home Alone itself is really smart enough to grasp just how brutal and ugly it is. Also of the early-90s Macaulay Culkin boom was the nostalgic My Girl (1991), an ostensibly lightweight film that dealt with heavy subject matter, in that it's about a mortician's daughter coming to terms with the omnipresence of sex and death in the world, and how the two necessitate one another. Elsewhere, The Addams Family (1991) and The Addams Family Values (1993) were love letters to the strange and the macabre, Casper (1995) went to some fairly morbid territory, and Matilda (1996) is easily the most endearing and vibrant film you'll ever see on the subject of child abuse (and unlike Home Alone is actually self-aware enough to follow its ruminations all the way though to their logical conclusion). Even Babe (1995) had an evident appetite for the grotesque (consider that scene where Babe takes a wrong turning into an abattoir), which was ramped all the way up to eleven in its sequel in 1998 (for better or for worse). And then we have Mouse Hunt, which might well be the greatest oddity of them all. The theatrical trailer, which seems deliberately reminiscent of the trailer for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), clues you in that you're in for an experience slightly off of the beaten track. The horror elements are played primarily for humour, but there is something faintly unsettling about that dexterous mouse and his eerie refrigerator shadow play.

(Note: Before I get into the film itself, there is some discrepancy regarding how the title should be spelled. Is it Mouse Hunt, MouseHunt or Mousehunt? I've seen all three variations used across different sources. For the purposes of this review, I'm going with "Mouse Hunt", simply because that's what's on the billing block of my VHS copy of the film.)

Mouse Hunt opens on a somewhat similar story beat to Casper, with a recently deceased parent whose thorny relationship with their disaffected offspring is manifested in the derelict old building they see fit to unload on them in their will. As with Casper, the ostensibly worthless building might actually be the doorway to a tremendous fortune, but the recipients' prospects of accessing it are hampered by the unusual vermin they discover lurking on the premises. The heritors here are a couple of brothers, Ernie (Nathan Lane) and Lars (Lee Evans), the sons of a once successful string manufacturer, Rudolf Smuntz (William Hickey, in his final film role), whose business has fallen into decline. Lars, the younger and more conscientious of the two sons, has been dutifully running the string factory since Rudolf's ailing health forced him to step down, while Ernie, who's spent much of adulthood estranged from his father, has enjoyed a more illustrious career as a celebrated chef in a top restaurant. All Rudolf has to leave them in his will, besides the dwindling string factory and a handful of low-grade personal possessions, is a decrepit old mansion that neither son assumes they'll have any use for, but fate has fiendishly cruel twists in store for them both. Ernie's career and reputation is obliterated overnight following an incident involving a lobster, a cockroach and the city's beloved mayor (none of whom survive the experience). Meanwhile, Lars refuses an enticing buyout offer for the factory from a rival company, thus honoring a promise he made to his father on his deathbed, but incurring the wrath of his wife April (Vicki Lewis), who tires of his lack of financial drive and boots him out of the house. Cast out and shunned by the wider world, the brothers now have no one to turn to but one another, and nowhere to go but that run-down old property they inherited from Rudolf. Just when things appear to have hit rock bottom, Lars and Ernie uncover blueprints revealing that the mansion is in fact a lost work by esteemed architect Charles Lyle LaRue and, if properly renovated, multiple admirers of LaRue would be interested in bidding for the property, among them a particularly fervid collector named Alexander Falko (Maury Chaykin). Things finally seem to be looking up for the Smutnz brothers. There is, however, a fly in the ointment, for the mansion is also home to a tiny but resourceful squatter who could potentially throw a wrench into their plans - a mouse who's quite set on staying where he is, renovations be damned, and whose gnawing presence slowly but surely drives Lars and Ernie up the wall. The war is once again on between man and rodent for domestic dominance - and, of the two, guess whose best-laid schemes are about to go seriously awry?


Plotwise, Mouse Hunt bears some resemblance to Of Unknown Origin (1983), in which a man is gradually driven off the rails by his obsessive vendetta with the rat living within his walls, although tonally it plays more like a Laurel & Hardy picture for the post-Home Alone generation, in that the narrative is largely an excuse to unleash a barrage of punishments of an especially cruel variety upon our leads for most of its runtime. For sure, Mouse Hunt has a thin premise, and is somewhat hampered by the inevitably episodic nature of the plotting; there is a long stretch around the middle portion of the film that consists of little more Lars and Ernie and attempting various methods of mouse eradication - an onslaught of traps, a maniacal cat, and then a creepy, coprophagic exterminator portrayed by Christopher Walken (working his characteristic Walken magic) - all of which play out as disastrously as you might imagine (and worse). And yet, I think that Mouse Hunt succeeds overall as an unashamedly sour, off-kilter family comedy, in part because Lane and Evans have a likeable comic chemistry that ensures that we remain engaged even when the plot is in danger of sagging, and also because the film's persistently unsettling tone gives the proceedings quite a bit more character than you might imagine. Despite appearances, Mouse Hunt is not a cute film about a tiny creature battling the odds, but a strangely disorientating experience about a small problem coming to seem ever more oppressively monstrous. It's a peculiar film, and that goes in its favour.

At times it's surprising how far Mouse Hunt is willing to go with its gruesome slapstick humour, and occasionally the consequences get undeniably nasty in ways that they never did in Laurel & Hardy or Tom & Jerry, or even in Home Alone (where no one was ever seriously hurt, despite the extreme amount of physical punishment endured). Take the sequence involving that unfortunate cockroach and the equally ill-fated mayor played by Cliff Emmich, which is the part that really got to me as a kid. I'm aware that I affix the "childhood trauma" label to everything that I found even vaguely unsettling back then, to the extent that it's probably lost all meaning by now, but trust me when I say that that sequence haunted me for days afterward. Even now there is a lingering question that continues to bother me about this particular plot point - namely, am I supposed to have any feelings at all toward the poor sap who died? One would presume not, since he's more a plot device than an actual character and the sequence in which he devours the bug and then suffers a heart attack upon realising his mistake is played purely for laughs (and, with hindsight, as soon as you hear the words, "Will your recent triple heart bypass affect your campaign strategy?" you should know this guy's a goner). All the same, his wife and kids were present and witnessing the full traumatic incident, and that doesn't sit so well with me. Actually, the kids don't seem terribly bothered; while their father is being loaded into an ambulance they're running around and playing with the police barricade tape - when we learn that the heart attack proved fatal, however, the family are never brought up again, and I can't help but feel slightly aggrieved on their behalf. Elsewhere in the film, we get a particularly brutal throwback to Tom & Jerry, when the Smuntzs enlist the services of Catzilla, a cat with an excessive amount of killer instinct, which results in the cat taking a tumble down a dumb waiter shaft and presumably leaving a cat pizza down in the basement - unlike the cartoon cat he's homaging, Catzilla doesn't get back up again. In a perverse way I think it's admirable how prepared the film is to attach genuinely grim consequences to its cartoon violence, so that it intermittently plays like an anecdote to the kind of frivolous sadism on show in Home Alone - here, the participants can get hurt, even killed, and it makes the mayhem seem all the more uneasily doubled-edged. Having said that, there are numerous other places in which the film fully embraces those cartoon sensibilities to an insane degree - notably, a sequence where Lane's character endures a freak accident significantly worse than anything Catzilla went through, and comes out unscathed (it involves being rocketed through a chimney by a gas explosion and ending up at the bottom of a frozen lake - by god, no person could survive that). The slapstick may be uneven, but it builds toward a satisfying climax in which we get to see the various participants at the LaRue auction go at one another tooth and nail as the man-to-rodent warfare finally reaches breaking point. It is very obvious where that's all headed, but if you're not laughing at that point then you lack a pulse.

Mouse Hunt was a modest success in 1997, grossing 122 million worldwide against a budget of 38 million. It's the kind of film that I imagine would absolutely sink like a stone in today's box office, but back in the 1990s audiences still had a taste for the kind of all-out schadenfreude orgies popularised by Home Alone, and live action animal pictures were likewise big business then (nowadays that particular market appears to have completely dwindled, that one about the dog's purpose notwithstanding). Critics were less enthusiastic, although among the minority who did like the film, strangely enough, were our friends at Halliwell's Film Guide, who awarded it two stars out of four (Halliwell's rating system is slightly confusing, but for them that's basically good), observing that the film succeeded as a modern reworking of Laurel & Hardy and Tom & Jerry, although even they seemed taken back by the "dark, Gothic tone" of the film. Less charitable was Roger Ebert, who also gave it two stars out of four (Ebert's rating system is less confusing, and in his case that's not so good), criticising the film's over-reliance on visual effects at the expense of more substantive comedy, and its overall lack of character refinement. Ebert raises a valid point in his review, in that the film does not make it clear which of the warring factions we're expected to side with. On the one hand, the mouse is superficially adorable, and there is an obvious David and Goliath attraction in seeing it outwit an assortment of foes much larger than itself. On the other hand, we see the story predominantly through Lars and Ernie's perspective, and we're acutely aware of what the stakes are for them. This is something that I've always found vexing about Mouse Hunt - as an audience, we don't really know who we're rooting for, or if indeed we're rooting for either side in particular, which makes it difficult to gauge where exactly we want this whole scenario to end up. But then there's a lot about the movie that seems deliberately dislocating, from its gloomily grotesque aura to its ambiguous temporal setting (for much of the time, the film looks beguilingly like it takes place in the 1940s, but...it doesn't. Rather, it seems to be set in a parallel universe where the 40s never went out of style).

There is one sequence that seems curiously out of the step with the rest of the film - a sequence that occurs early on in the plot, in which the viewer is called unambiguously to sympathise with the mouse. We see the mouse innocently sleeping among a collection of hoarded knick knacks, whereupon Lars disturbs it with a nail gun and comes close to skewering the momentarily helpless rodent, albeit unwittingly. Curious, because this is the only moment (for a long stretch, anyway) in which the mouse comes off as genuinely vulnerable and without the upper hand. Elsewhere, while we presumably are expected to delight in seeing the mouse defy the Smuntzs' every attempt to destroy it, the mouse is presented as a surprisingly sinister figure, a creeping presence who spies on the two brothers and has an uncannily astute handle on their every weakness. All the while, the mouse is still wretchedly adorable, but it's adorableness comes increasingly to seem like a front to mask the full terror lurking within. It's on this level that I think Mouse Hunt plays like the strangest kind of horror film, in which the sheer magnitude of what the Smuntzs are dealing with is only very slowly revealed. Imagine if we'd seen Home Alone from the reverse perspective, with the Wet Bandits as our protagonists, and if, like them, we assumed that Kevin that was just a dumb and helpless child and only gradually realised what a sociopathic little monster they were up against? With hindsight, the moment in which the mouse is made to look innocent and helpless feels like a trap, its purpose being less to align our sympathy with the mouse than to pull the rug out from under us when the mouse proceeds to demonstrate its vindictive nature and causes Lars and Ernie to drop and write off the expensive hot tub they were hauling up the stairs.

Ebert didn't particularly take to the mouse in his review, pointing out that the mouse commands little sympathy because we know effectively nothing about it as a character: "Is the mouse intelligent? Does it know and care what is happening? Or is it simply a movie prop to be employed on cue? We aren't told, and we don't know." While I agree with Ebert that the mouse is not exactly a sympathetic figure (because its very presence is so unnerving), I would disagree about it being an "ingenious prop", and I believe that a number of the questions Ebert asks are answered, or at least the answers are strongly inferred. In that yes, the mouse is intelligent and yes, it does understand and care what's going on. At the very least, it's aware that the Smuntzs are conspiring against it, and it's entirely capable of conspiring back. For their first attempt to destroy the mouse, the Smuntzs leave out a trap baited with an olive, which the following morning they discover has been activated, with neither the mouse or olive in sight. On closer inspection, Lars discovers the stripped olive pit lying next to the trap and deduces that the mouse purposely left it there to rub in their failure and let them know that it was one step ahead. Ernie dismisses Lars's reading as pure anthropomorphism: "He's not sitting in his hole in a smoking jacket, sipping cognac, giggling, I left the pit!" Everything Ernie says is logically sound, and yet so naked is his hubris that we know, intuitively, that he's wrong, and that he's setting himself up for a royal humbling - which arrives almost immediately when he discovers the mouse lounging nonchalantly in his cereal box. The mouse's unnatural intelligence gets even more unsettling during the Catzilla ordeal, in which it knowingly lures the unsuspecting moggy to its death, and by the outcome of Walken's sequence, we realise that we've wandered into serious Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy territory, with the mouse's scheming and abilities going disturbingly off the charts. We're informed at the start of the film that the previous tenant of the building was found locked in a trunk in the attic (it's never confirmed if they were found dead or alive, either), and it's subsequently revealed that the same thing happened to Walken's character following his own heated confrontation with the rodent. The implication being that the mouse somehow locked them in? It's at this point that the mouse goes from being a freakishly cunning specimen to something altogether unearthly - less a rodent than a demonic entity in a deceptively unassuming form. (It gets even more eerie when you contemplate that it was actually the mouse that enabled the Smuntzs to come across the all-valuable blueprints in the first place, suggesting that it may even be toying with them for sport.)

I'll say this much in the mouse's defence, though - it doesn't actually become a problem until the brothers insist on making it one. It is technically the Smuntzs who trigger the inane, if deadly warfare, in leaving out traps baited with olives, once Ernie decides that the mouse is a blemish on their plans to renovate and auction off the property. Lars questions if a single mouse is really worth the effort, but following his mishap with the cockroach Ernie isn't inclined to be charitable toward vermin, believing that the mouse could become an issue later on if they don't nip it in the bud. But of course, the reverse plays out, with this seemingly minuscule problem becoming ever more gargantuan the more and more punches the Smuntzs throw into the ring. The mouse may be a dangerous force to trifle with, but there is a sense that the brothers' increasing obsession is what's causing the matter to magnify, and that they could back out at any time they wanted if they weren't so fixated on not letting this diminutive beast get the better of them. Mouse Hunt is fundamentally a film driven by an underlying gag and an underlying moral, the gag being that Lars and Ernie start out dealing with a tiny house pest but end up battling a force of nature much, much greater than them. There's a sequence where Lars, in attempting to operate the string factory while the workers are on strike, gets his clothing caught in the machinery, which seems to signify the idea of everything unraveling from a single pulled thread.


The moral of the film is difficult to miss (albeit phrased in slightly oblique terms) since it gets its own title card right at the beginning, and is echoed at two points throughout the course of the film itself - that is, a quote attributed to the deceased Rudolf Smuntz: "A world without string is chaos." Lars later repeats this phrase, as if it were a family mantra, and at the very end of the film we see that the brothers have immortalised their father's words on a plaque at the factory. That the phrase is displayed so prominently before the film has even begun clues us in as to how integral it is to the overall meaning. The implicit image is of severed connections, and a fundamental lack of unity binding things together, which ultimately results in calamity, and it calls attention to the festering tension that is constantly underpinning the characters' interactions - the brothers' unspoken resentment toward one another and their mutual malaise regarding their late father, a conflict established in the very first scene, where the discord between the two brothers at their father's funeral causes their pall-bearing to go awry and Rudolf's corpse to be lost down the sewage system (a macabre set-piece that also paves way for the film's darkly irreverent tones). Lars and Ernie manage to avoid any particularly heated confrontation until the third act, when the various failed attempts at pest control take their toll and the brothers finally explode and have it out with one another. Ernie expresses his grievances over Lars supposedly being the favourite son and his frustration over his repeated failure to win his father's approval, while Lars voices his dissatisfaction over being tied to the family business and his thwarted career ambitions, hinting that he greatly envies Ernie for being able to break away and forge his own path. One senses that their relentless pursuit of the mouse has been nothing more than the misdirection of this unexpressed anger, something they can wave a broom at while not addressing what it is that's been clawing away at their inner egos all this time.

If Mouse Hunt, for all of its grisly trappings, is really a fable about the healing of broken-down family relations, we might question how the mouse fits in with all of that. I think there two potential schools of thought. One is that the mouse is the literal reincarnation of Rudolf, the troublesome father the boys assume has left them for good, but has actually returned to trouble them in another guise. This would fit in with the mouse ultimately being the one who convinces the Smuntzs to embrace their family heritage, but we also need to consolidate it with the fact that Rudolf's spirit seems to manifest elsewhere in the film, in the form of a portrait that hangs in his office at the string factory, and apparently observes and reacts to everything going on around it. Either way, there is a sense of Rudolf continuing to haunt the brothers from beyond the grave, as a lingering presence that, like the mouse, is not entirely benevolent - the cockroach that harpoons Ernie's career, after all, emerges from the box of cigars that Ernie picked out of Rudolf's personal belongings, and it strikes like a final mocking manifestation of Rudolf's disdain, a feeling underscored by Ernie's preceding remark of "Just like the old man to die before I hit it big." Of course, the suggestion that Rudolf would purposely murder the mayor just to spite his older son is maybe going a bit far, but the image is nevertheless evocative of the idea that Rudolf's memory remains a thorn in Ernie's side and is impeding his ability to move forward, despite his attempts to casually shrug the loss off. Which leads us into the second interpretation - the mouse is a demon, although not in the conventional sense. Rather, the mouse is a personal demon; the Smuntzs' anxieties, self-loathing and general bitterness at the hands life has dealt them all wrapped up into an impossibly tiny package. After stumbling across the blueprints, Lars and Ernie assume that they can leave their miserable old lives behind and move onto a better one, but find that their various unresolved conflicts cannot be so readily discarded and continue to follow them as they head toward the big leagues. It is a tiny imperfection that the brothers assume that they can easily blot out, but it continues to nibble away at them, and before they know it their obsession has devoured them and their entire world is in disarray.

The broken threads between the brothers and parent are symbolised in the piece of string Rudolf presents to his two sons on his deathbed, a good luck charm he claims to have picked up on his first day in America. It is Rudolf's parting plea for Lars and Ernie to come together and take shared responsibility for their future, a message that's lost on the brothers, particularly Ernie, who nonchalantly asks if they should cut the string in half. Later, when the Smuntzs assume that they've vanquished the mouse once and for all (having accidentally stunned the mouse, they find themselves seized unexpectedly by mercy, and instead attempt to mail it to Cuba), Lars represents the string to Ernie, who accepts it, a sign that the brothers may finally be putting their troubles behind them and developing a genuine unity. Unfortunately, attempting to toss the underlying problem away does no good - when the package is returned from Cuba due to insufficient postage, the mouse resurfaces and its first action is to seek out and devour the piece of string, undermining the Smuntzs' newfound stability, and seemingly eliminating both their past and their future in one fell swoop. And yet, following the house's inevitable destruction, the string is miraculously recovered from the wreckage, as if from the ashes of their defeat the brothers find that they have the renewed strength in them to rise again. They do not even appear to regret their loss too much - perhaps it is even a relief for them to see the object that had them consumed with so much avarice and paranoia destroyed. As they hold the string, they accidentally pull it into two threads of equal length, echoing Ernie's prior suggestion, although the implicit symbolism is no longer of severed connections, but of the brothers finally understanding the importance of sharing whatever burdens lie ahead.

Lars and Ernie leave the ruined house once and for all and head to the only other avenue that's open to them - the string factory from which they have long yearned to get away, and where the spirit of their father, whose shadow they have not been able to come to terms with, still lingers in one form or another. The Smuntzs' dread and anxiety is not subsiding; to prove it, the mouse, who also miraculously - if not unexpectedly - survived the wreckage, attaches itself to the undercarriage of their vehicle and rides along with them in the style of Max Cady from Cape Fear. Nonetheless, when they finally return to the source of their malaise and confront it head on they discover that what they have been avoiding this entire time was never really as bad as they supposed. Inside the factory, the mouse takes on a more benevolent presence and shows the Smuntzs a new way forward, leading the film into a surprisingly upbeat conclusion in which all three characters are able to prosper by combining their individual talents to one end. Using Lars's managerial skills, Ernie's culinary skills and the mouse's discerning taste buds, they give up the string business and re-purpose the factory for the manufacturing of a popular line of string cheese, with the mouse serving as taste tester. Ernie also expresses a desire to make the mouse the company spokesperson, taking inspiration from some other people "who've used a mouse as a spokesperson."  The message, then, is that the only way to move past one's personal demons is not to resist or cast off those demons but to make peace with them. In doing so, Lars and Ernie facilitate peace not only for themselves, but also for Rudolf, whose portrait is finally seen smiling at the end. The closing image of the film shows the plaque bearing Rudolf's motto, and above it the string he gave to Lars and Ernie, the two separate threads now firmly entwined. It is a curiously optimistic ending for a film that, up until now, has taken such a mean-spirited stance, one that ascribes a sort of duality to the mouse as a character, in that the level of threat it poses ultimately seems to come down to Lars and Ernie's perspective. Having made it through their seemingly endless night of animosity and self-loathing, the world seems like a brighter, more hopeful place in the light of day. The mouse is really two sides of the same coin - it spends most of the film embodying the chaos of the universe, but in the end it's also the string.

A happy and prosperous Year of The Rat to you all.

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