I bet it’s Bin Laden, that rat bastard.
Indie horror films often don’t feel very, you know, indie: they ape plot- and FX-heavy, character-light studio films and fail, often, because they cannot transcend the limitations of their low budgets. But Mulberry Street, screening as part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s Midnight program, is an ultralow-budget horror with a style and flavor all its own, driven by character and reveling in its utter lack of coin as, it seems, the freedom and permission it needed to be clever and original. Director Jim Mickle, who cowrote the script with one of his stars, Nick Damici, spins a tale of the newly aggressive rats of New York City turning on the human population: vicious bites transmit a virus that mutates the victims into murderous, mindless “rat-people.” Yes, it’s another entry in the “infection noir” subgenre that has bubbled up out of the zeitgeist in the era of SARS and avian-flu fears, but Mickle limits the visual gore, relying instead on squishy sound FX, low light, and the audience’s imagination to scare up unease and anxiety, and he skillfully utilizes the inherent craziness of the city as free backdrop: there’s always a siren, a crowd, cops standing around on a corner to be surreptitously shot. But what lingers is the Noo Yawk City-ness of the film: The story focuses around the residents of an old tenement building on the title street, appropriates their genuine paranoia and pragmatism to create more credible characters than horror films typically can muster. I haven’t seen an ultralow-budget film this sophisticated, in all ways, since, well, Mickle’s 2002 short “Underdogs”, which won Best Independent Film at the I-Con Independent Film Festival in 2003, at which I was a judge — though I swear, I didn’t connect the two films till after I’d seen and been astonished by Mulberry Street.