Originally published April 14, 2015.
When I was a kid my sister and I owned a few pet rats. So our parents one day decided to show us a double feature of Willard (1971) and it’s sequel Ben (1972). We immediately loved these movies and often rented them from the store when there wasn’t anything else worth watching. Recently I watched the 2003 re-make of Willard with Crispin Glover in the title role, which then got me in the mood to watch the original two films again which, naturally, progresses to me wanting to watch and discuss movies about rats. I used to really like rats (until a horrible, tragic accident occurred in 2004) so when it comes to movies about “when animals attack” I put rats right there behind sharks. Now if someone could combine the two, have sharks and rats in the same movie….
Willard is based upon a novel called The Ratman’s Diaries which I’ve never read. Bruce Davison stars as the meek title character. Constantly humiliated and bullied by his employer Martin (Ernest Borgnine), Willard comes home each day just hating himself only to be welcomed by and nagged incessantly by his ailing mother. Then Willard meets a rat in the backyard and really starts to develop a connection with the rodents. Two of them in particular, Socrates (a friendly little white rat) and Ben (a cruel sociopath of a rat). When Willard’s mother passes away, his life starts to go to shit but he’s got the rats there to comfort him and he’s got the rats there to help him get revenge upon his tormentors.
Rats really are good pets. I suspect the hatred of rats comes not from their horrifying depiction in cinema but probably because of The Plague and the fact that rats (like any animal) are known to spread disease. Squirrels carry the plague to and throughout the Southwestern United States you’ll see signs saying “Don’t feed the squirrels because their plague fleas will murder you.” So let’s not give rats the full blame for that, okay. What I really enjoy about Willard is how compassionately the rats are shown, Socrates and Willard have a very good friendship and the relationship Willard has with all the rats is pleasant and beneficial (up until he decides to train them to kill). The scene where Martin kills Socrates still brings a tear to my eye.
Willard was a box-office success in the summer of 1971, which surprises me because it has a very quirky and independent feel to it which I assumed never resonated with the mainstream. Up until the 2003 remake I would show this movie to friends and strangers alike who had no idea what it was and thought it was going to be some goofy B-movie. Looking at it now, however, I can see the two elements in that movie that people did latch on to and created a success. The first is the fact that the main character, shown with compassion, is a social outcast. He’s a geek, nerd, loser, really pick whatever insult you want; but he’s human. He commits murder and the audience can not only sympathize with him but cheer along for him. Not many stories at the time created a social outcast as a compassionate villain – usually they were the creepy guy in the spooky house that nobody ever wanted to like and for good reason. This “social outcast as renegade hero,” model continued throughout many stories in the 1970s (think Carrie) and eventually became the template for a good portion of the slasher genre. These days the “geek is king” in terms of marketing and with bullying being such a hot-topic issue, the whole “social outcast as raging villain” story doesn’t resonate with audiences like it used to.
The other thing that came from Willard was a huge trend of ecology-based “when animals attack’ movies which I’ll have plenty to say about later.
This movie came out 12 years ago and I didn’t watch it until now because I thought “oh, yet another remake of a classic movie I love that’s probably gonna suck – PASS.” Turns out, however, that this 2003 re-interpretation of Willard is not that bad. Crispin Glover plays the role with great gusto – the guy even looks like a rat, and wonderful compassion. The effects with the rats (all practical with thousands of live rats) look amazing. There’s also plenty of great nods to the original film (utilizing the song “Ben”, a painting of Bruce Davison serving as Willard’s dad). It’s the same story but with a greater focus on suspense – which I appreciate and certainly fits with a contemporary audience. The 2003 Willard fits for a new generation.
There are few things that really stick out in the remake for me. The first is that Willard’s relationship with the rat Socrates is more clearly illustrated. While there was no doubt of their friendship in the original, we are constantly shown how deep these two love each other. There’s a scene where Willard attempts suicide but this little white rat stops him. Which makes Socrates death scene feel much more significant and tragic (not to mention just how long the camera lingers on that sad little rat corpse). In addition, the rat Ben is painted as a villain whose sick mind often parallels Willards. Ben is a BIG rat (actually a Gambian Pouched Rat a distant relative of the Norway Rat used for every other rodent in the film). All the shots of Ben looking on his fellow rats like some cruel lord are delightful. There is a great scene in the movie where a co-worker who feels bad for Willard gets him a pet cat. In the original film, Willard just dumped the cat off some place and went home. In this version Willard puts the cat in his house and leaves – leading into a wonderfully executed sequence as the rats hunt down and kill this cat (while Michael Jackson sweetly sings “Ben” the whole time).
The sequel to the the 1971 success I just realized is total crap. It’s bad, yes, but it’s such a delightful kind of terrible, one of those movies where the producers tried so hard and failed so gloriously. Ben, the “leader of the rats” from the first film, lives and begins to assemble his own rat army. By night they raid grocery stores and attack innocent people. By day Ben becomes the favorite pet of an annoying little boy with a heart condition. This little boy, Danny, is one of the most grating characters I’ve encountered in film. He’s a spoiled little git whose parents couldn’t dote on him and shelter him and he spends most of his days performing puppet shows and singing songs for a rat. There’s musical numbers…. all sung by this annoying brat and his goddamned puppets. Over the end credits Michael Jackson sings the film’s title song “Ben” (which was a hit and an award-winning song) but having heard this kid with the heart condition crone it badly while hugging a rat for the past 90 minutes it’s difficult to realize that it’s actually not a bad song.
Willard is a compassionate film about a social outcast finding his identity. Ben is just a laughably bad horror film on par with Manos or The Room.
When Animals Attack
Did you know that the 1975 classic Jaws was intended on a way to cash in on the animal-based horror fad of the time. While Jaws went on to establish ‘New Hollywood” and, along with Star Wars give us the current model of blockbuster films, it was made with the exact same intent as 1972’s classic cheese Night of the Lepus. “Ecology horror,” as it was called, became a big thing following the success of Willard. There were all those hippie ‘save the earth” movements becoming big plus an audience’s desire to see more movies about killer animals. For rat lovers Bert I Gordon (Mister B.I.G., he of The Amazing Colossal Man and Village of the Giants infamy) gave us Food of the Gods which took an H.G. Welles’ tale and reduced it to a simple (and goofy as hell) giant animal movie. Some farmers find a magical food that makes all their animals grow to giant sizes (giant chickens, giant cows, etc) and are actually shocked when their giant rats go on a rampage. It has an open ending (with schoolchildren drinking tainted milk from “giant cows”) but it’s sequel Food of the Gods 2 (aka Gnaw) bears no connection to its predecessor. It’s just about giant killer rats.
We also have Bruno Mattei’s 1984 post-apocalyptic horror Rats: Night of Terror. I’m a fan of its director (and to a lesser extent it’s co-director Claudio Fragasso of Troll 2) . Interestingly it’s a double cash-in – marketing on the The Road Warrior hype of a post-apocalyptic wasteland but then doing nothing at all with that aesthetic in order have a group of people fighing off hordes of genetically mutated rats in an abandoned town. It uses the same sets that Sergio Leone was filming Once Upon a Time in America on at the same time; by day Leone shot this amazing piece of cinematic history and by night Mattei and Fragasso covered it in rats and shot some good ‘ol exploitation. I really want to watch this movie again though, like right now, because it’s pretty damn fun. There is A LOT I can say about this flick.
Can’t get enough rats? Well there’s Deadly Eyes from 1982. Scatman Crothers is in it and he’s killed by rats – giant rats that are played by dauschunds in rat suits. There’s Of Unknown Origin from 1983 where peter Weller does battle with one giant rodent living in his basement. Those are the notable ones that I would recommend. There’s plenty more of course: Graveyard Shift (1990), Rodentz (2001), The Rats (2002) but watch those at your own risk. Not that Ben or Rats: Night of Terror are wonderful films, but they do provide a kind of enjoyment, while these other rat movies are just dull.
We need more movies about rats. I want a movie where Templeton from Charlotte’s Web goes on a mad, vengeful murder spree, and eats his screaming human victims. Or maybe a new live-action version of The Secret of NIMH where the “secret” is genetically altered rats murdering patients in a mental institution. I want a new version of Cinderella where she becomes a princess not because of some glass slipper bullshit but rather because she uses her army of killer rodents to stop all who stand in her way.