BHFF 2019: Carlen May-Mann’s ‘The Rat’ (2019) And Its Gnawing Sense of Dread

The horror genre has a fascination with teens. Whether werewolf, ghost, masked killer or clown, the threat always comes for teenagers first if it can. I believe the teen is most often burned on horror’s bier because of their uncertainty. They are children in many ways, but on the cusp of being a grown up. They are creaking, unsteady ships crewed by swashbuckling hormones and seasick emotions, drifting in the unsafe seas between childhood and adulthood. They matter to horror because that uncertainty makes them vulnerable. Their youth makes them fanciful and dramatic, and their experience makes them rebellious and jaded. They smash all the lights in their parents’ homes only to find themselves still scared of the dark. 

These teenage troubles and vulnerabilities are the road where Carlen May-Mann’s (Burn, Baby 2014) short, The Rat, lives. I caught the film as part of the 2019 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival. The story follows Renee, an 18-year-old played by Isabel Shill (Manson’s Lost Girls 2016), as she heads to a party with her boyfriend, Jim (Collin Kelly-Sordelet: Wildling 2018 – read our review here). When Jim pulls off to surprise Renee with a trip through a haunted house, she has to confront something terrifying and upsetting about herself and what she fears most. 

The Rat explores a fear that plays expertly with the anxieties of being a teenager, a woman, and a horror fan. Using overplayed tropes and a familiar setup, we know exactly who Jim is the minute we see him with his giant truck, Letterman’s jacket, and easy smile. We also know who Renee is supposed to be, with her small dress and nervous glances in the cold, early scenes of the film. We are dropped squarely in that space between: being grown-up and seeing the strings of a competent horror setup while assuming where this is all going; and being children who are committed to Renee’s safety above all else. When Jim hits a red light and makes an unexpected turn, our stomachs tighten with all the statistics we’ve read and stories we’ve heard. 

As a credit to her craft and skill as a storyteller, May-Mann pivots again to another trope, the haunted house. The ominous creaks and groans of a restless place dance well with the cinematography from Maria Rusche (Going In Style 2017) and editing from Chris McNabb (Whose Streets? 2017) to instill an immediate sense of fear in Renee as she walks through doorway after doorway, finding a room with a mattress on it. Again, we are seized by the nightmare of what could be, the horror we’d rather not see, even as horror fans. Suddenly, we pivot into another eddy of calm, another place of horror that we’d rather visit than another young woman being treated badly. 

This back-and-forth is at the heart of May-Mann’s short film and it shows. In her short dress, Renee looks cold before anything else. When she wanders the dark house, she looks more scared than objectified. This sensitive playfulness keeps the short film electrified and engaging throughout its 12-minute runtime. 

The performances from Isabel Shill and Collin Kelly-Sordelet are so perfect to the genre that every one of May-Mann’s tricks works as planned. Shill has the openness and vulnerability of a quintessential horror teen, which acts as a tarp to hide something more intricate and compelling beneath the tropes. Kelly-Sordelet is so much the Freddy-in-Scooby-Doo jock that it makes you grateful for every second between you and every memory of high school. 

Now streaming exclusively on the platform ALTER, The Rat is a manifesto, an engaging story, a fierce satire, and a welcome respite from the usual onslaught of thoughtless horror films all at once. Carlen May-Mann is a bright star whose next project is going to hit the earth like a meteor, wherever and whenever it strikes.

About Billie Wood

Billie is a horror obsessed writer with a love of Giallo, Vincent Price, and any horror movie set in the West. She can't wait to tell you about how Videodrome is a sci-fi horror love letter to trans girls like her.

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