Review: Rats!!!! The Strange Cases of Willard and Ben

If you don't like rats, then you should stay away from this lengthened review. Andrew reviews Willard, Ben, and the 2003 remake of the classic.

In 1971, a horror film emerged which would change the face of movie protagonists and antagonists for years to come.  No longer were the forces of good and evil fought merely between men or the kinds of monsters you’d find in a local drive in.  Here, the forces of darkness would be found within the forces of nature, either a natural earth disaster or an epidemic involving animals.  In the case of Willard, the stampede against humanity would be fought by rats with the social human outcast title character as their ringleader and guide.  Inspiring everything from Jaws, Cujo, and even the ridiculous Night of the Lepus, Willard proved natural animals starring in horror films had enormous box office potential.  A year later a sequel named Ben was made and even managed to garner an Academy Award nomination for its Michael Jackson song of the same name.  Sadly, both films disappeared almost completely from the marketplace and have never been released on DVD.  Almost 32 years later, Willard was remade with Crispin Glover in the title role and even managed to use Michael Jackson’s song in addition to a new, bizarre rendition by Glover.  With this article, I will attempt to purvey this unnamed trilogy of rats as man’s best friend (or fiend, depending on your point of view).
Willard (1971 – directed by Daniel Mann)

"Dear god!!! You've been
reincarnated as a circus rat!!"
Loosely based on the novel Ratman’s Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert, Willard stars Bruce Davison as a social misfit working a small time office job for his domineering boss Al Martin (Ernest Borgnine) while living at home with his aged, cantankerous mother in her decrepit home.  A constant subject of humiliation from his mother and berated endlessly by his boss, he finds solace in a family of rats nesting in his backyard.  He takes a liking to one particular white rat he names Socrates.  Soon after, more and more rodents appear including an oversized black rat he names Ben.  It doesn’t take long for the withdrawn, increasingly sociopathic Willard to build a private army of rats with which he can unleash havoc on an unassuming public at large.

Simultaneously a tale of psychological horror while preying on the everyman’s fear of pestilence, Willard was a massive commercial hit when first released in 1971 and promptly spawned a sequel which would follow the exploits of Ben, the most devious and violent rat of the bunch.  Not so much for its creepy rat infestation as its hapless protagonist, Willard struck a chord with viewers who saw in it their own feelings of alienation and social ineptitude.  It gave face to the geek, the outsider who longs to fit in and finds acceptance with a group even less tolerable than he.  Bruce Davison, as Willard, perfectly embodies the socially inept antihero who transforms from the receiver of wrongdoing to the giver.  Ernest Borgnine, of course, has boundless fun hamming it up as the loudmouthed blowhard boss, shouting his lines and opening his wild eyes wide. 

Willard was hugely successful upon release in 1971 and managed to garner critical acclaim as well as production on a sequel which would follow the exploits of Ben.  However, Willard hasn’t aged well in the eyes of cinephiles and the film, to this day, remains unreleased on DVD.  While many will dispute it’s validity against the 2003 remake with Crispin Glover, I myself am of the opinion that Daniel Mann’s Willard is inferior to the remake and feels far more dated than other films of the same era.  When production began on Ben began a year later, Daniel Mann stepped down from the director’s chair, and perhaps in the process, the quality of Ben would step down with him.

Ben (1972 – directed by Phil Karlson)

"My name is Michael
and I support RAHK, rats
against human kind.
Please donate."
Picking up where Willard left off with the ending re-purposed into the film’s prologue, Ben follows the title’s leading rat as he leaves Willard and his army of rats behind and befriends a young boy named Danny.  Danny, like Willard, is an outcast and struggles daily with bullying and a debilitating heart condition.  Unbeknownst to Danny, Ben has a checkered past of murder and mayhem.

Ben is best remembered for being a bad movie with an Academy Award nominated original song by Michael Jackson of the same name.  In the years that followed Ben’s release, Jackson would perform the song at the height of his career and in the TV movie The Jacksons: An American Dream, light would be shed on Michael’s own story involving a childhood love for a pet rat. 
Despite the popularity at the box office and recent fascination with Michael Jackson’s career and the song in question, Ben is an exploitation film.  It weakly repeats the same trajectory of its predecessor while failing to provide an interesting human character to carry the picture.  We’re stuck with a poor little boy we could care less about, all the while Ben and his rats cover and kill more humans.  It’s a forgettable effort which could only have appealed to fans of Willard at the time and is only remembered for the Michael Jackson song.   

Willard (2003 – directed by Glen Morgan)

"I'm very upset right now.
My only friend is riding
on my shoulder."
In the new millennia of remakes of old classics being the norm at modern multiplex, it was fitting that Willard would eventually receive the same treatment.  In 2003, the story was retold with Crispin Glover in the lead role as the withdrawn, mercurial titular character, with former drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey taking the reigns of Willard’s corrupt boss.  With the remake came newfound interest in the predecessors, and a resurgence of interest in casting Crispin Glover in mainstream movies.  The film also makes the welcome casting choice of Mulholland Drive star Laura Elena Harring as Willard’s affectionate, caring co-worker who even tries to show kindness to the outsider by providing him with a pet cat, much to the delight of his ravenous rat populous.

A rare break with tradition, the 2003 Willard manages to combine the best elements of both original films and build upon them in a way that feels new and fulfilling in ways the other films aren’t.  In addition to reusing the Michael Jackson song, the 2003 Willard also gives us a cover of the song by Crispin Glover, performed with gusto in all of his eccentric, unsettling glory.  Although the remake makes overt references to the original, with Bruce Davison in a family photo as Willard’s father, it’s a bit shocking to see how much more complexity Glover imbues the character with.  While most only know Glover as George McFly from the Back to the Future films and some of his personal oddities, simply put, he’s absolutely spectacular here.  Contrary to the Davison character, the new Willard seems to suggest the rat infestation may in fact be purely psychological and not just a modern day plague.
Stylistically, Willard is exceptional, shot in moody widescreen with many wide-angle shots and a far more cavernous, otherworldly mansion of a home for its protagonist and rat infestation to wander.  Although one can make the argument about the use of CGI versus real rats in the original, the effect here carries a magnitude missing from the 1971 film.  There’s also an emotional weight the original films never reached, coming both from Glover’s affecting performance and the film’s overall tone of tragedy.  While some have argued the ending is somewhat more optimistic than its predecessor, I have to confess I sat staring at the black screen as the credits rolled, stunned by how drained it left me as a viewer.  If I were to make a list of remakes that better their source material, the 2003 Willard would most certainly be in the top 5.  Although Mr. Glover has gone on to make personal projects like What is It? and providing bit appearances in mainstream films, it’s a shame he hasn’t carried a mainstream film on his shoulders since.  It’s a terrific film with an even better performance by its leading man.

-Andrew Kotwicki