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 non-Vampira scenes I can think of.
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.
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.