Perhaps it's because I've never lived in a major city or traditional apartment complex, but I've never actually encountered a rat unless you count the occasional friend that kept one as a pet. Sure, I've seen them scurry around in the subway tracks from time to time, but I've never had to call an exterminator or anything; my experiences with the things have been so limited that one night, when I happened to look through a window and see one making his way across the floor of a closed shop, I stood there practically in awe. I'm sure those shop employees came in the next morning and found some things chewed up and perhaps a little smelly "present" on the floor, but I didn't see him do much damage - I just watched him run around for a bit, looking for food. It was like I was at a zoo exhibit watching a monkey or something; I found it fascinating. My first rat!
But since I've never had to deal with this rodent problem in real life, I find it interesting that I tend to really enjoy the killer rat movies I've seen. Not that personal experience needs to inform your ability to enjoy a horror film (I've also never been stabbed by my crazy Druid brother, yet I still love Halloween), but the majority of ratsploitation entries tend to keep things relatively grounded - the rats stay normal size, the body counts are not high, etc. In other words, they seem to be playing up the real world fear people will have of the things, as opposed to making traditional monster movies, so it stands to reason that they'd work better on people who have actually come home to find chewed up newspapers and cereal boxes, and need to look twice before sitting on the toilet. Indeed, it's the ones that get into more ridiculous territory that I tend to dislike (Stephen King's Graveyard Shift and the rat segment in Nightmares come to mind), so I'm curious: if I ever DID have a rat problem in my residence, would I no longer find as much appeal with the grounded ones, and find more appreciation for the sillier ones that I know I'd never have to worry about in reality?
The sub-genre's solid batting average is probably at least partly due to the fact that there really aren't a lot of them. I'd say there are probably only about twenty or so in total, and that's counting things like Nightmares (anthology films with one rat segment) and the likes of Food of the Gods, where rats are just one of many threats (ditto for Graveyard Shift, since the main threat was more of a bat kind of thing). Films like Willard and its sequel Ben, which focus specifically on rats (and normal-sized ones at that) are even rarer, but again these seem to be the better ones, so perhaps it's a good thing that they never went the way of the masked slasher or found footage ghost movies and made audiences sick of them by bombarding them with one every other month. Willard also succeeds by pretty much being the first one to exclusively feature rats (if you know of an earlier one, feel free to comment - just try not to sound like a dick about it), allowing for the sheer novelty to make up for some TV movie flair and occasionally lethargic pace. It also had a jump on the likes of Carrie and other "misfit discovers a gift and uses it against their tormentors" type plots that would pepper the next two decades of horror, but that's another topic.
Until this week I had never seen the original film, but I can't feel too guilty about it - until Scream Factory put out their disc it was nearly impossible to find. My main surprise was how similar the beats were to the 2003 remake by Glen Morgan and James Wong (which I HAD seen before), as the same team went on do to Black Christmas and retained very little of the original film's narrative, so I always assumed they did the same thing here. But no, both films concern the title character (Bruce Davison in the original, Crispin Glover in the remake) and how miserable he is, with an overbearing mother, a boss who treats him like shit, and a noted lack of friends. One day his mother tasks him with killing some rats that have gathered in their giant home, but instead of following orders he befriends the things, primarily Socrates (a white one) and Ben, a slightly larger one who seems to be the leader of the pack. Eventually the evil boss (Ernest Borgnine/R. Lee Ermey) kills Socrates and Willard gets revenge, but then guilt sets in and sets the stage for a showdown between him and Ben. But thankfully, while you might know where the story is going, Morgan and Wong applied their sensibilities to the script (allowing for key changes, including a different ending) and gave the film a more Burtonesque gothic/comic flavor as opposed to the original, which is blandly lit and rarely played for irony or laughter of any sort.
But whereas Glover's version of Willard is the kind of guy you'd never want to approach in the first place, Davison's version is more sympathetic (or just pathetic), making his arc sadder. In a scene that didn't make the remake, Willard's mom throws him a birthday party and invites all of her own (also old) friends because he doesn't have any of his own, and your heart just breaks for the poor bastard. Also, casting Ernest Borgnine as a raging asshole is more inspired than casting Ermey, who made pretty much his entire career playing such roles. Borgnine, on the other hand, won an Oscar for portraying a guy not too unlike Willard (i.e. a shy guy with a domineering mother), so there's some genuine fun to be had seeing him tear that kind of "Marty" character apart. Though it has an unintended side effect for people like me who are seeing the movie for the first time - perhaps in 1971 it was easy enough, but it's impossible to not love Ernest Borgnine when you see him show up in something, even if he's playing a character you're supposed to hate. As for Davison, HE has gone on to play any number of antagonists and hardasses (X-Men, The Crucible, etc.), so it's fun to see him as a spineless loser for a change, and genuinely touching when he strikes up the friendship with Socrates (whereas Glover's version just makes it come off as creepy).
The sequel Ben doubles down on both the "rats can be friends!" idea as well as the monster movie stuff. This time Ben befriends a lonely kid who suffers from a heart condition and thus can't go out and have fun like normal kids, making a pet rat an ideal companion (don't need to run it around the block!). Unlike Willard, Danny isn't a loser (or a weirdo like the remake), he's just a sick and sad kid, making him even more sympathetic, and it's interesting to see Ben in the "only friend" role filled by Socrates in the earlier film - their final scene together is legitimately touching, even though Ben is an asshole rat that has caused the death of several people. But it's not just a coming of age/buddy movie - the giant ant film Them! seems to be a direct inspiration, as the rats make their way out of Willard's basement and terrorize the city, culminating in a showdown in the same LA tunnels that appeared in Them!'s climax (it also has '50s monster movie mainstay Kenneth Tobey as one of the guys trying to figure out how to stop the rats before any more people are killed/places are wrecked). Except for the producers, no one from Willard came back for the sequel (which more or less picks up right where the first left off), so it's no surprise that it's a lot different in both tone and structure, but it's a worthy sequel all the same. Michael Jackson's title song is well known, of course, but it's also got a number of decent death scenes (I don't have to remind anyone that this was pre-CGI and thus all the rats were real, right?) and a surprising scope to it - I was not expecting the same big showdown that I've seen in other monster movies (Alligator also went to the LA tunnels for part of its finale). There's a great scene where the rats invade a cheese shop (heh) and make their way into the gym that shares a wall with it, causing chaos as all the old bathers and water aerobics students scream/run/faint at a bunch of little rats while some meathead gym guy makes things worse by trying to clear them out - the original Willard had nothing that extraneous, but also nothing that overly elaborate either.
As mentioned, the 2003 Willard remake retained the plot of the original, but stylistically it was very different, and paid homage to Ben in a very memorable way. Whereas the cat survives in the original (when Willard just gets rid of it), the poor thing dies almost instantly in the remake, as it is placed in the house - already overrun with rats - and instantly runs for its life to no avail, all set to the soothing sounds of "Ben", which is actually only the second best homage in the movie (the first being that Willard's father, already dead when the story begins, bears a striking resemblance to Bruce Davison). While I never champion pet-killing in a movie, the soundtrack selection lends it a certain gonzo charm, and it was a deviation from the original's sequence of events, which trumps the "awww, poor kitty" feelings. Plus it's a legitimately great stalk and kill sequence rivaling the best ones in any given slasher, as the rats use their numbers to their advantage while the cat uses its ability to climb/jump to higher areas (and, if you know the original, you might expect the cat to survive, lending the scene more suspense). There are a couple of other wrinkles (and again, a different ending, though it's more of an epilogue that the original lacked), but this is the bit where the movie really earned its stripes, and it's a shame that the film tanked (Glen Morgan is 2 for 2 in my book, and it's a shame they might be the only two he ever makes).
But again, big hits mean big ripoffs, so Willard's failure meant we weren't inundated with dozens of other killer rat movies over the years. In fact there haven't been too many even in the DTV/Syfy Original Movie type channels (one of the few exceptions: Rat Scratch Fever, an amazingly titled B-movie from 2011 where giant rats come from space to wreak havoc in Los Angeles). The '80s were actually the heyday for this sub-genre, kicking off with 1982's Deadly Eyes, probably best known as "the one where they put rat costumes on dachshunds" (or, in my house, "the one that killed a baby in the first five minutes and bummed me out for the rest"). The next year gave us the greatest of the lot, George Cosmatos' Of Unknown Origin, which I've written about before and don't need to reiterate how great it is and why everyone who could have seen it in theaters but didn't is a terrible person (I was only 3, so that's my excuse). Then in 1984 Bruno Mattei joined the party with Rats: Nights of Terror, which wasn't as gory as one might expect Mattei to deliver, and opted for a bit of a Night of the Living Dead scenario (with the rats replacing the zombies, of course). It had its share of silliness, of course, but again the rats were more or less normal sized (they used guinea pigs, in fact), retaining the more fantastical elements for its post-apocalyptic setting. And a whopping thirteen years after the original, Gnaw: Food of the Gods Part 2 was bestowed upon us, this time sticking just to rats (well, there's also a giant child) and offering one of the highest body counts in the sub-genre, as the things lay siege to a college gymnasium and wipe out at least a dozen people (with the cops also managing to kill a bunch of folks trying to shoot the rats). If Mattei had made THAT movie it might be worthy of its own article.
There are a few others, including several that came along in 2002/2003, some of which likely existed just to beat the high profile Willard remake to the punch. One is Rats aka Killer Rats, which was set in an institution and featured Ron Perlman. The FX were woeful even by DTV standards, but it's otherwise a pretty fun B-movie and the setting was inspired - so many of these things are just set in people's homes, so it's always nice to see a break. But again, it's not like you can throw a rock and hit one of these movies; even when I was doing Horror Movie A Day I didn't stumble on the likes of Rodentz (aka Altered Species) or the simply titled The Rats, though as that one was directed by John Lafia (Child's Play 2 and Man's Best Friend, i.e. a guy who knows what he's doing when it comes to killers who aren't man-sized) I think I'll track it down. It's far more common to see them used in a key sequence (like the Abominable Dr. Phibes) or for simple cheap scares than as the primary antagonists, but that doesn't surprise me. I doubt it's easy to find a full cast and crew that want to be around them all day, and no one wants to go the CGI route and get shown up by a pair of films from the 1970s that did just fine without it. I'm glad they're both finally available for fellow rat-movie fans to see instead of just hear about (or track down bootlegs), and hopefully it will inspire folks to check out the underappreciated remake as well.