A 1976 Yugoslav film based on a story by the Soviet writer Alexander Greene, who died in a Stalinist purge. It was presumably slipped past the authorities of the day because it’s an obvious anti-fascist allegory, but must have struck a chord with dissidents under communism. Its vision of inhuman monsters passing among regular folk and who need to be wiped out like vermin might also be a tragic foreshadowing of regional ethnic cleansings to come – like the Dr Mabuse films, it could even have appealed to the Nazis, if its race of hidden-among-us human rats are seen as an antisemitic caricature. However, it’s also a rare Eastern Bloc horror movie, with a nicely gothic, paranoid flare and a richly-imagined world of the threats lurking within.
In the 1920s in a city we take to be Zagreb (it‘s not named and could conceivably be an imaginary country), struggling writer Ivan Gajski (Ivica Vidovic) can’t get his allegorical novel about a bureaucratic plague published, is turned away with other unemployed masses because of an economic downturn and is evicted from his apartment for not paying the rent. While trying to sell his books in the street, he meets cute with Sonja (Mirjana Maurec), daughter of Profesor Boskovic (Fabijan Sovagovic). That night, he is turfed off a park bench but the warden is an old friend who directs him to a suitable shelter, the disused HQ of a collapsed bank. However, in this old building, Ivan finds an unplugged telephone that works (an operator is able to trace Sonja from a slender description) and a stash of food (heavy on the cheese): then, he observes an orgiastic feast (the table forms half a swastika when seen from above) of bawdy folks with odd stigmata (hairy cheeks, Nosferatu teeth) who defer to a shadowy fuhrer flanked by goons in distinctive black leather coats. He overhears the creatures plotting to harm Sonja’s father and, when he finds the Boskovic flat trashed, calls in the police, who find nothing wrong at the bank and treat him as a loon.
Boskovic approaches Ivan and shows him an old book which explains that every so often a ‘rat saviour’ emerges – a rat who can pass for human, and raise his followers to similar status. These beings occur in times of depression, and a conspiracy is afoot to bring the current saviour to power – naturally, the only official Ivan trusts with this information, the Mayor (Relja Basic), is the rat saviour himself. A rat impersonates Sonja, and Ivan tragically can’t tell which is which – it seems he throttles the real girl, but an ambiguous ending suggests he might not have. A chemical will reveal hidden rats when splashed, and Ivan goes around the city sloshing the stuff: in a sequence similar to the reveal at the end of They Live, as folks realise what they’ve been kissing or chatting with. Ivan descends more and more into paranoia, but never submits – however, in a slightly heavy touch, the saviour is defeated only for ominous hints to be dropped indicating that Hitler is due along any minute to replace him. It has a nice pastel period look, and is surprisingly sleazy for an Eastern Bloc film – the nice warden is punished by being shoved naked into a cage of real rats who give him a Willard-style going over, there are fleeting glimpses of nudity, the latter stages evoke Invasion of the Body Snatchers (and prefigure Phil Kaufman’s remake) and the make-ups for the rat people are at once comical and repulsive. Scripted by Ivo Bresan; directed by Krsto Papic.