Horror 365, Movie(s) 41: Rat Movie Round-Up

I had the original Willard on while writing the Fade To Black review, partly for background, partly because I hadn’t seen it in a while, and partly for fact-checking. It also reminded me that I love rats.


Especially in movies. Maila Nurmi reading poetry with a rat on her shoulder is one of the few scenes in A Bucket Of Blood worth watching.

Naturally this idea gnawed at me (surely you saw that coming–just gettin’ warmed up) until I could no longer resist the thought of revisiting a few of my favorite rat reels.

Willard (based on Ratman’s Notebooks, Stephen Gilbert)


Poor, downtrodden Willard (Bruce Davison). I love this movie despite the things I hate about it. Specifically I hate Ernest Borgnine in just about anything, and I really hate the killing of Willard’s white rat, Socrates.


What’s important about Willard is that it paves the way in part for several later movies, not the least of which arguably being Carrie (I’m willing to bet Stephen King was familiar with Willard). There’s also Kiss Of The Tarantula, both involving young people with secret powers they use to wreak havoc on the vicious rat bastards who make their lives miserable.




The poster doesn’t lie. The 1972 sequel to Willard really does pick up immediately where Willard leaves off. The police arrive at Willard’s house and start piecing together what happened. The focus of the movie is not only the obvious Ben but also Danny, a little boy who befriends him. Danny is a young loner, sickly (some unspecified heart problem), and a little annoying, but he and Ben have each other.

The highlight of the movie is when some kid starts bullying Danny only to have Ben’s pack rush to his defense by biting the little thug’s legs. Kinda thing always warms my otherwise cold, dark, godless heart, it does. Anyway, despite the ending, I always think of this movie as sad. Not like Old Yeller sad, but still. After all, like almost anyone, Ben just wants to be loved.


Of Unknown Origin (based on The Visitor, Chauncey G. Parker III)


The thing about this movie is that the rat is supposed to be the bad guy. The problem is, with one notable exception forthcoming, I’m always on the rats’ side. In this case, it doesn’t help that the rat making Peter Weller’s life hell is kind of adorable.

One downside to this movie is that it’s 70 minutes of Peter Weller losing his shit and only about 20 minutes of rat. Another downside is needless cat death. Still, Cosmatos (Leviathan and Tombstone among others) rat-chets up and sustains tension nicely and handles the source material well. I suspect Parker put a mountain of research into his novel because, it turns out, the rat behavior is pretty spot-on.




With the exception of another unnecessary cat death, this 2003 remake ain’t bad. It’s got three things going for it. First, Crispin Glover. He’s already strange as hell anyway and does an even better job than Bruce Davison of being rat-like. Second, R. Lee Ermey is ir-rat-ating as hell, and it’s as much fun watching him get wiped out by rats as Ernest Borgnine. But best of all is Ben. He’s supposed to be bigger and smarter than the other rats, so in this version, they used a Gambian pouched rat.

rat2 rat

Another key difference is the original Willard was socially inept and mildly unlikeable. Glover’s Willard is meanspirited and downright cruel. This is especially clear in his preferential treatment of Socrates over Ben who, like his original counterpart, just wants some love and attention. The remake may also be somewhat more in line with the novel. Clever nods as well to The Shining and Psycho.


Rats (based on Rats: Observations On The History & Habitat Of The City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, Robert Sullivan)


Morgan Spurlock’s shockumentary works better as a horror movie than many a horror movie. This is the notable exception I mentioned earlier. I’m not on Team Rat for this one, and for several days after, I wanted to find a way to live in space or underwater. Even then, as Spurlock would suggest, the little fuckers would probably find a way to smuggle themselves along.

There is nothing comforting about this film. Exterminator Ed Sheehan strongly implies that the only reason rats tolerate our presence at all is that we provide them with a constant supply of food. Be on the lookout for some very Kubrick/The Shining-like combinations of segment titles, sound design, and aerial shots, most notably in the Cheltenham, England segment. An excellent pairing if you really want to freak yourself out would be a Rats/Of Unknown Origin double feature.


So there’s my cu-rat-ed list. Call me ir-rat-ional, but I’m still full of love and ado-rat-tion for rats. I’m confident there’s one in my future.

Be-rat-ed, if you will.

Horror 365, Movie 40: Phenomena

As with Stanley Kubrick, I have a love/hate relationship with Dario Argento. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is one of my all time favorite movies. Also like Kubrick, Argento can be every bit as sadistic with sound design. In fact, I’m not willing to argue who learned it from whom. I suspect the influence may have been mutual.

I had a sneaking suspicion that Phenomena might have at least slightly, uh, “borrowed” from Kiss Of The Tarantula. An adolescent girl who can control insects is mercilessly bullied by her peers and discovers a murder plot involving an authority figure. I assumed Phenomena’s Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly) would follow in the footsteps of Kiss Of The Tarantula’s Susan.

Despite what I thought was a damn good prediction, I was wrong. In fact, take away the bugs, and these two movies have zero to do with each other. In fact, they don’t even both use insects.

Cuz tarantulas.

But Argento is by no means off the hook. Not far into Phenmonena, I kept being reminded, over and over again, of Suspiria.

Which brings me back to my love/hate relationship. I like Suspiria a lot. If nothing else, it’s stunningly beautiful just to look at. And there’s that sadistic sound design I mentioned. Tough to say if Argento (well, Goblin) cadged this from A Clockwork Orange or helped reinforce those ideas as Kubrick steered his demented ship straight into the sun that became The Shining.

The similarities between Phenomena and Suspiria are striking, so much so that it’s tempting to ask, “Is it plagiarism if you rip off one of your own films?” Jennifer in Phenomena and Suzy (Jessica Harper) in Suspiria both attend exclusive schools.

Both schools have domineering headmistresses and teachers (whenever I see the name Frau Brückner, I expect to hear horses whinny). Both schools have areas the students are forbidden to enter. Both girls have nightmare visions of what’s going on unbeknownst to the other students, and these visions lead them right into said forbidden areas (yep, shocking).

There’s more, like the shattering window scene in the first six minutes. It’s not nearly as visually arresting as the stained glass of Suspiria, but the similarity is all there. There’s also a third person narration at 13:45 in Phenomena describing Jennifer’s arrival at the school, echoing that from Suspiria. Both are also unwillingly subjected to psychological examinations/treatments after their quasi-psychic experiences.

That said, there is much about Phenomena I just don’t follow. On one hand, that’s a pretty standard giallo feature. On the other hand, Jennifer can summon insects, but the most this amounts to is the swarming of the school and, later, only one actual physical attack. If I could get insects to do my bidding, well, let’s just say things would get really messy for an alarming number of people.

Nor do I fully understand the killer. The first murder is committed with a pair of scissors and occurs near a house that never gets associated with the school. The other murders are at least indirectly associated with the school, but now involve a much different weapon which is also never explained.

Also, how does a chimpanzee manage to find a shiny, brand new looking straight razor in a public garbage can, and why do I care more about her than anyone else in the movie?

Such are the things that keep me up at night.

This is not to suggest that Phenomena is without appeal. Certainly it paves the way for movies like Castle Freak which has more in common with Argento than it does with Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” (on which it is nominally based). There are some good kill-offs and gross outs, including a pit of corpses that’s more than reminiscent of Poltergeist.

It’s also nice to see Donald Pleasance in a far less Michael Myers-y capacity.

Phenomena doesn’t stray far from Argento’s giallo roots either. Supernatural elements aside, the plot is deliciously convoluted, not at a Bird With The Crystal Plumage or Four Flies On Grey Velvet level but still. It also comes complete with not one but two, count ’em, two climactic near-death moments and one (spoiler spoiler spoiler! ) razor-wielding, vengeful chimpanzee.

Overall, Phenomena is certainly worth seeing. If you’ve never seen Suspiria, I recommend watching Phenomena first. It gives you an advantage I didn’t have after which you can watch Suspiria and see how Argento played these ideas out more successfully the first time around.


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Horror 365, Movie 39: Near Dark

darkI was going to start by saying I truly do loathe most vampire stuff. That would be ill-advised, not to mention inaccurate. I mean, just look at the name of this blog. No, what I can’t stand is pretty much every iteration of Dracula.

Stoker’s novel, Browning’s movie, Coppola’s movie, Hammer films (despite their glorious Christopher Lee-ness), Frank Langella, Blacula. You can have ’em. All of ’em.

On the other hand, I’m a big fan of any original and compelling spin on the Nosferatic, something that happens surprisingly often.

Michael Morbius will forever be my favorite. Lestat runs an extremely close second. Mr. King did a fine job with ‘Salem’s Lot. I love every single bloodsucker Jean Rollin put on the screen. Fright Night was fun. So was Lost Boys. And From Dusk Til Dawn. And Nosferatu, Shadow Of The Vampire, Vampire Hunter D, The Hunger, dozens more.

Ranking high is Near Dark, the pre-Twilight (ugh) love story of a young cowboy who gets bitten by a pretty vampire girl, turns into a vampire, and has to choose between his family and hers.

This movie is black ice slick. Unlike The Lost Boys that same year and Fright Night in 1985, you don’t hear the word “vampire.” Nobody gets staked. There’s no holy water, coffins, reflectionless mirrors, or garlic, and the only crucifixes to be found are on the handles of the vampire leader’s pistols.

There’s a hotel room shoot out that Rob Zombie must have had in mind doing The Devil’s Rejects. Same goes for some of Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn barroom sequences.

Put that checkbook away. There’s more.

After nearly thirty-five years, Near Dark holds up extremely well visually too. The vampire clan routinely steals beat up old junkers. The costume design is leather, long coats, cut off shirts, and cowboy boots. I can’t say how far ahead Bigelow was thinking, but precious little in this movie ties its look directly to the 80s (as opposed to, say, Night Of The Demons one year later).

How about a less traveled path? Let’s talk about family, specifically the sacred myth of the traditional nuclear family. Lance Henriksen is Jesse Hooker. Jesse’s been a vampire since the Civil War. His “wife” is Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein). They have two “sons,” Severn (beautifully vicious Bill Paxton) and Homer (Joshua Miller). Sort of an undead Leave It To Beaver except for Jenny Wright who plays Mae.

So there it is. Mom, Dad, 2.5 kids.


maeYes. Mae meets (and bites) Caleb (Adrian Pasdar). Incidentally, my favorite scene. She’s eating an ice cream cone. He asks, “Can I have a bite?” She says, “Bite?”

I’m a sucker (heh) for that kinda thing. Once Caleb is turned, Mae becomes unsure where her loyalties lie, her heart now half with the family, half with Caleb.

So yeah, the two “sons” are loyal. Mae is half loyal. How’s that for math?

No matter how many times we stake it or expose it to the harshness of daylight, this soul sucking idea of the “traditional” family keeps coming back in one retelling, remake, or sequel after another.

Like, y’know, a vampire.

In contrast, Caleb’s family isn’t the traditional picture. It’s him, his father, Loy (Tim Thomerson), and sister, Sarah (Marcie Leeds).

Spoilers. The good guys win.

In the process, Bigelow skewers a few other family traditions. The bloodsucking Brady Bunch shows up in an RV, sort of a vamp-ily vacation. The barroom scene is a gory Norman Rockwell family dinner complete with a body on the table. Jesse becomes a corrupt caricature of the protective father when Mae turns Caleb.

When Near Dark was first released, New York Times critic Caryn James lamented how “Kathryn Bigelow… searches desperately for a style.” I disagree. I mean come on. The end for our undead Ozzie and Harriett arrives where? Behind the wheel of a station wagon.

One last big, flaming, well-deserved middle finger to one more stereotype.


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