Possibly one of the most frustrating things about a duff Stephen King adaptation is the choice of certain filmmakers to allow the deeper meanings of the story slip through their fingers as nimbly as a greased rodent while they fully embrace the more audience friendly horrors that lurk on the surface. A good example of this is the virtually forgotten 1990 killer rat movie, Graveyard Shift that came out amidst a slew of King adaptations and promptly sank without a trace.
Still, maybe it was for the best, for as anyone who knows pulpy, 70’s horror literature would know, even though it was published four years later, James Herbert’s 1974 novel, The Rats is the far better known rodent story despite containing many similarities that’s a little too close for comfort.
Anyway, there’s actually a very real sense of a missed opportunity here – which is odd for a movie about legions of hungry, man-eating pests – as the movie wastes a good cast, great sets and a nifty monster in order to punch below it’s weight and dumb down a movie that could have had loftier ambitions.
You could accurately describe the Bachman textile mill in Maine as something of a rat-pit, but that would be still selling the facility far short. You see, despite the hellish working conditions (the cotton picker can only be worked during the night due to the intense heat) and the sadistic, bullying foreman Warwick, it seems that within the walls are an endless supply of rats who seem to be getting more brazen everyday – but rumours start to swell when a worker falls into the picker under suspicious circumstances and Warwick seems utterly uninterested in getting matters sorted out. Into the void created by the mulched employee enters recently widowed drifter John Hall, who stirs up a friendship with female worker Jane Wisconsky while simultaneously invoking the ire of his bullying workmates as he sets to work grinding his way through the graveyard shift. Meanwhile, the more distasteful working practices of Warwick are slowly brought into the light as it’s revealed that he not only deliberately cuts costs and pollutes the area, but he gives female workers promotions to get them out of the grimey work floor in exchange for sex as he plays small time god within his small, decaying kingdom.
However, despite how much they all seem to hate one another, an opportunity for double pay throws everyone together to clear out the rotting basement for health and safety purposes, but an abundance of rats aside, Hall, Wisconsky and the rest are about to find that Warwick isn’t the alpha predator of the mill he once thought as deep beneath the foundations lurks a mutated beast who’s attempts to sate its appetite are only getting started.
So let count off the good points first because, believe it or not, Graveyard Shift, much like it’s ratty antagonists, has some deeply hidden aspects that belies its starkly forgettable nature. The first is the cast who contains a few familiar faces here and there including David Andrews as the lead; but while he’s saddled with a rather vanilla lead, there’s still some underplayed aspects to the character that stand out such as the fact that he’s a widower with a reluctant need to do the right thing – like a Clint Eastwood archetype thrown into the wrong genre. However, while our hero’s quiet nature could have been deeply intriguing, there’s two other roles that stand out among the crowd of sweaty, greasy character actors and the first is Brad Douriff in a relative bit part who swings for the bleachers with his frazzled Vietnam vet who now makes a living getting revenge on rats for the things he witnesses during the war. Crazier than – yes – a shithouse rat, he immediately launches into his wartime monologue as he obviously seems to be going all out to be that year’s recipient of the imaginary Robert Shaw Award of Quint from Jaws homages and he brings an insane amount of life to a throwaway character who doesn’t even meet his end at the paws of his furry, little nemesis – still, having his head crushed by a rickety gravestone is still fairly memorable. The other performance that’s noticable is Stephen Macht’s completely overblown performance as cruel workbooks Warwick who portrays one of King’s trademark human villains who revels in being almost supernaturally nasty to literally every human being he meets. Drawling in an accent that I assume is supposed to be from Maine but often slips into sounding more like Gambit from the ’97 X-Men cartoon, the actor is obviously not going to let small things like subtlety get in the way of having his fun as his character illogically spends the majority of his workday simply appearing behind people when they least suspect it, dropping a threatening/sarcasting comment and then simply leaving. Truth be told, he isn’t exactly Undercover Boss material.
Alongside some genuinely promising characters, director Ralph S. Singleton is also gifted with some impressively imposing sets that set the scene nicely and a rubbery, yet still cool, central monster in the cow-sized rat bat hybrid that’s doin’ all the chewin’, but all he really seems focused on is staging just another animals run amok movie when some more detail on the humans would have made the film impressively ahead of it’s time. You see, there’s a lot going on here concerning women’s treatment in the workplace and the habit of business owners dehumanising their staff in order bully them into working in dangerous conditions for gruelling hours that stands in stark contrast to the pack mentality of the rats that are eagerly waiting to devour them. Elsewhere, while I understand the necessary evils of budget restraints, it’s still a shame that the movie didn’t get a chance to adapt the short story’s entire, varied ecosystem of mutant rodents that have bred below ground like something out of a H.P. Lovecraft story if the nameless, alien beings had been switched out of nose twitching vermin.
Unfortunately, despite this laundry list of pros, the movie renders all of it into a sweaty mush as potential avatars for corrupt big businesses become mere pantomime villains and wronged female workers are devoured by a giant, winged monster long before any #metoo claims can be made long before the movement was ever a thing. So, once again, a Stephen King story bristling with social commentary and flawed characters desides instead to shoot for the lowest common denominator – but it’s here where Graveyard Shift’s greatest sin lies. If you going to ditch the commentary in favour of people staggering around mineshafts, being eaten by giant rats, at least make the kill scenes interesting, because if you fail to exploit the exploitation, why did you bother in the first place?
While King’s themes of shitty bosses ruling impressively lethal working conditions have been broached by filmmakers since (hello Tobe Hooper’s utterly bizarre The Mangler); it seems no one yet has managed to nail it and this is one, underachieving rat movie that should have crawled back into the hole it came from…