Mousehunt: looking back at an underrated family movie

Mousehunt, starring Lee Evans and Nathan Lane, is a gleefully dark family movie, that's well worth revisiting...

If you’re a horror fan you may have been intrigued by the recent film A Cure For Wellness. A mainstream oddity: a big budget, art-house horror, built on atmospherics instead of jump scares, which seems to be a state of society analysis about the wrongs of humanity, but actually unveils itself to be a Hammer Horror-esque slice of gothic fun.

This from the director most famously known for the Pirates Of The Caribbean films, or more recently Rango and The Lone Ranger. Okay, that’s discounting his US remake of Ringu, but in fact I’d argue this off kilter darkness mixed with a fun aesthetic can be traced back to his feature length directorial debut, Mousehunt.

On the surface it looks like a knockabout comedy aimed at kids, and/or families, especially with a US release date positioning it for the Christmas market of 1997, and an Easter holidays slot here in the UK. The central premise packages it up nicely at that audience, a big bright slapstick comedy, a bit like a live action cartoon featuring two bumbling idiots trying to catch a pesky mouse, pratfalling fun ensues, right?

The casting would suggest this also. Lee Evans may not have been a household name at the time but his star was most definitely on the rise, known for a series of award winning stand up performances, which led to The World Of Lee Evans TV series and a role in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. Nathan Lane was coming off the back of his biggest role to date, in The Birdcage. They would later go on to reignite their double act in The Producers on the West End.

Ad – content continues below

The stage was set for a medium budget film, $38 million, to hit big in the family film market. Unfortunately it was pitted against the titanic success of, well, Titanic, which at the time became the most successful film at the worldwide and domestic box office of all time. Mousehunt achieved a worldwide gross of $122 million, which isn’t embarrassing, but not entirely memorable either.

So why, almost 20 years later, is it worth discussing a film about two hapless suckers trying to catch a mouse? Surely a guilty pleasure for any grown adult? This takes us back to our expectations from the film. Pratfalling fun, you get plenty of that, plenty of slapstick, but how it’s delivered may surprise you. The films tone is odd to say the very least, and for that reason should not be disregarded.

It all begins, quirkily enough, with a quote about string. It reads “A world without string is chaos”. But the opening shot has nothing quirky about it, a low camera angle looks up at a gothic church (are there any other kind?) in the pouring rain. On the steps of the church are a line of people under black umbrellas. We soon see we are witnessing a funeral as pallbearers emerge from the church carrying a coffin. The two lead characters are brothers and they are in front, bickering over if the other is holding up their end of not, and if their suit is black or charcoal grey. Then one of the handles falls off the coffin, it spills out of the pallbearers arms down the steps, and crashes into the funeral car, sending the corpse of their father flying out of the coffin, across the road and…plop. It dives straight down an open manhole that workers are sitting next to having their sandwiches. Merry Christmas kids!

Yes it’s ridiculous, yes it’s slapstick, but also its humour is as black as tar. The next scene concerns the brothers arguing over the will of their recently deceased, and lost in the sewers, father. The plot concerns the house he left them in the will, which turns out to be a lost masterpiece designed by famous architect Charles Lyle LaRue. The brother’s plan to renovate the house and put it up for auction, but are thwarted every step of the way by the previous occupant of the house – a mouse.

Ad – content continues below

Even in sweet scenes which see the mouse running through the walls of the house, behind the skirting board and finally settling down into a makeshift bed, something goes awry. The mouse stares off to a postcard advertising Hawaii, and begins to sweetly dream, but this is undercut by a nail gun shooting through the wall and a chase ensues as the Mouse is disrupted and the nails narrowly miss it. Any ‘nice’ moment in Mousehunt is quickly undercut, no matter who is experiencing a moment of peace or clarity. In fact, watch out if life is going your way if you’re a character in this film, because something awful is about to happen, usually in blackly humourous way.

And if it’s not black humour the film delights in, it instead goes in an offbeat direction. Exemplified in the cameo from Christopher Walken. He turns up as a damaged Vietnam veteran, who now takes pleasure in exterminating household pests.

Arriving in a van with a huge model cockroach on the roof Walken steps out and mercilessly chews the scenery for his entire screen-time. It could be the wackiest that Walken has ever been, and that’s quite an achievement. He tracks the mouse with equipment which malfunctions as the mouse cottons on to what he’s doing and begins threading the cables through the house. The mouse attaches these cables to the tow bar on the cockroach vehicle and reels Walken in: dragging him through the house demolishing floorboards, the staircase and the front doors as he flies out skidding along the snow to his bug vehicle. As he lies there, the mouse crawls over his face, laying a poo on his lips.

Alongside the humour, the tone of the film is almost relentlessly dark and depressing. You could easily see a YouTube trailer being made of this film that could dress it up as a horror film. Rooms look dank, lighting is usually minimal, and for long periods of the film it doesn’t stop raining. It’s a toss up which film has the most rain in it: Blade Runner, Seven or Mousehunt. Mousehunt only loses out as it pays lip service to a Christmas setting in one or two scenes and the snowy setting of the La Rue house on the hill.

It also heaps a whole lot of depressing situations onto the lead characters. Disregarding the fact they’re coping with the death of their father, during the set up of the film Lars is kicked out of his home and facing divorce,and Ernie is sacked from his prestigious job as a chef. This forces them to move to the house that’s been left to them in the will, but also sets up their bleak existence that they have to fight out of for the entire film. Especially as they’re beaten black and blue by a tiny little mouse for most of the film.

Ad – content continues below

There could be an argument that the mouse is a metaphorical haunting by their father, as the mouse works to bond the brothers over string, in a highly unique way. There is a startling deathbed scene, which feels intensely personal, talking about making it as an immigrant in America and trying to bring the brothers together. Something that doesn’t seem to work out, and the pay their penance with haunting by a super mouse.

By writing about this I feel I’ve paid my penance, and that’s not because I view the film as a guilty pleasure. For all the reasons above I view the film as a pleasure. In fact I can’t think of many films I’d actually feel guilty for watching? (Is a guilty pleasure really a thing?) What I feel I’ve paid my penance for is when first seeing Mousehunt I probably didn’t give the film a fair chance. I hope this article leads new people to seek out the film, people that may have written it off as a bit of slapstick fun can hopefully give it a go and find it has hidden weirdness and depth. It’s a real treat…