A Man and his Rats

Willard (2003) is an even darker look into a troubled mind. The original was technically a horror movie, but it didn’t feel like one until the final act. The remake is so gothic throughout, you’d swear it was directed by Tim Burton. Burton had nothing to do with it, but his future collaborator Crispin Glover was practically born to play Willard. He’s already a rat-like weirdo just like original actor Bruce Davison. Davison has a portrait cameo as Willard’s late father.

Willard’s house is creepier and Jackie Burroughs is more decrepit as his bedridden mother. R. Lee Ermey is the perfect master of insults to continually belittle Willard. Which is why Laura Harring feels nicer as the only woman who shows him kindness. Willard’s friendship with the rats happens upfront when he chooses not to kill them. His love for Socrates is made as explicitly clear as his growing destain for Ben. Ben is one giant rat, but it’s hard to recreate the sinister look that the original had.

Willard has so many rats that CGI was a necessary evil. The story is almost exactly the same, but the sequel Ben couldn’t be ignored. Though it was bizarre to use the beautiful Michael Jackson song when Ben and his rats are hunting a cat. Can’t say I was crazy about Glover’s cover of the song. Willard’s revenge is bloodier, but the movie remains PG-13. Ben’s revenge is bigger, but the conventional Hollywood ending felt wrong. Willard (2003) makes up for it with a truly unhinged obsession with rats.

Willard 2003

Willard and his rats

Remake of: Willard (1971)

The Two of Us Need Look No More

Ben continues the story of Willard from the perspective of his rat. Ben was undoubtedly the smartest member of Willard’s rat colony. It’s because of him, the rats were able to turn on their master. Ben picks up immediately after Willard’s death. Almost all of the focus is on Ben leading his rat army to find food, survive in the sewer, and attack anyone who threatens them. The body count is bigger, but Ben is not your typical horror sequel.

It’s actually the source of the Academy Award nominated chart topping Michael Jackson song “Ben.” I know what you’re thinking, “How does a movie about killer rats produce such a beautiful song?” You could always sense that Ben was jealous of Willard’s favoritism towards Socrates. Well now Ben has a friend to call his own. Danny is a sick boy who finds comfort in Ben. Lee Montgomery is a precious child actor who sells the unlikely friendship. Rosemary Murphy and Meredith Baxter play Danny’s mother and sister who try to protect him.

Joseph Campanella and Arthur O’Connell play an officer and reporter who try to wipe out the infestation. Though the original novel was titled Ratman’s Notebooks, they don’t become relevant until the police need information on the trained rats. You don’t know who to root for when swarms of rats are exterminated with flamethrowers. I didn’t think it was possible, but I actually cried for a rat when an injured Ben returns to Danny and the Michael Jackson song starts to play. Ben is so unorthodox, it works.


Ben in the sewer

Preceded by: Willard


Willard made animal attack movies popular again. Leading to several copy cats. I never would’ve known about Willard if not for my mom’s recommendation. Based on the Stephen Gilbert novel Ratman’s Notebooks, Willard is about a social outcast who is constantly pushed around by the people in his life. Willard’s only friends are the rats that he trains into his own personal army. I don’t have a fear of rats, but hundreds of rats crawling around would freak me out.

I assumed Willard would be entirely about rat attacks, but that isn’t the case at all. Willard is more of a character study with slow building horror. A young Bruce Davison is pathetic, but not entirely hopeless. The Bride of Frankenstein herself Elsa Lanchester plays Willard’s overbearing sick mother that he lives with. Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine is Willard’s manipulative boss who took over his father’s company and Oscar nominee Sondra Locke is the only woman who shows him kindness.

Willard faces possible foreclosure on his house and other problems that the rats can solve. His most beloved companion is white rat Socrates, but his most loyal friend is Ben. Ben is a black rat who genuinely looks sinister thanks to several well-trained rats in the movie. So many people deserve Willard’s wrath, but only his boss gets swarmed by rats. When Willard turns on the rats, he feels their wrath as well. Willard is slower than I expected, but the rats are worth the build up.


Willard talks to Socrates and Ben

Followed by: Ben

The Fat of the Land

Of Mice and Men (1992) is another perfect adaptation of an already perfect John Steinbeck novel. To be fair, it is difficult to mess up such a simple story, but it helps to have great performances. My mom actually met Gary Sinise and John Malkovich during her college days at Steppenwolf Theater. Sinise was a fan of the play since high school. His passion for Of Mice and Men led to him both directing and acting in his first lead role as George. Sinise’s George has a more tough love friendship with Lennie.

Malkovich isn’t the first person I’d think of to play the large and unintelligent Lennie, but he does well with a more mentally disabled take on the character. Ironically, this won’t be the last time Sinise has to deal with a slow-witted companion. George & Lennie’s dream to own their own land and rabbits remains the same. The difference is all the profanity and occasional use of the “N” word that made the book so controversial. When they get to the ranch, George & Lennie are greeted by Ray Walston as Candy.

Candy’s dog is put down like the 1939 original, but he’s the only one made aware of their land owning plan. Joe Morton has Crooks crooked back, but he’s only around to question Lennie. John Terry is a likeable Slim and Casey Siemaszko is an unlikeable Curley. Curley’s wife remains unnamed like the book, but Sherilyn Fenn is always around to cause trouble. Lennie doing bad things is more realistic and just as disturbing by showing more. His ultimate fate is sudden and more heartbreaking on George’s part. Of Mice and Men (1992) is a dream come true.

Of Mice and Men 1992

George and Lennie get work

Tell Me About the Rabbits

Of Mice and Men is a classic on the page, stage, and screen. The original novel by John Steinbeck is one of the greatest books ever written. It was required reading for my brother and I. The 1937 book was quickly followed by a play and a Lewis Milestone directed film 2 years later. 1939 was a great year for movies, and Of Mice and Men was no expectation with an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. The same year Steinbeck wrote the equally captivating Grapes of Wrath. Both stories are about the American dream during the Great Depression. George and Lennie are an unlikely pair of traveling migrant workers who dream of one day owning their own land.

George has all the ideas that Lennie holds onto as his mentally disabled companion. This was the first major role for newcomer Burgess Meredith. Soon to be monster icon Lon Chaney Jr. acted many times before, but this was his first major role too. Chaney is a perfect physically imposing Lennie with the brain of a child and a lack of control over his actions. All he wants are rabbits to tend to on their farm. Together, George and Lennie find work on a ranch. Bob Steele’s Curly feels threatened by Lennie’s size, but Charles Bickford’s Slim makes him feel welcome with his very own puppy to pet.

George’s dream grows until it includes misfits like Roman Bohnen as the kind elderly Candy and Leigh Whipper as the honest African American Crooks. Betty Field had her breakout role as Curly’s sassy repressed wife Mae. The title refers to a poem that reads, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Lennie does something bad that ends their dream in a famous ending that was cleverly foreshadowed earlier when a dog is put down. Of Mice and Men is a story you’ll wanna hear again and again.

Of Mice and Men 1939

George and Lennie hideout

2,000 Feet Up

Fall is not for anyone with a fear of heights. Like 47 Meters Down if the danger was reversed. Fall is an incredibly tense fight for survival on a 2,000 foot tall TV tower. The trailer hooked me the moment I saw it on the big screen with Where the Crawdads Sing. Ironically, I went to see both movies by myself. I had to face my own fear of driving to an unfamiliar theater since Fall was too independent for my usual theater. Fall is about facing fears, but the story doesn’t support the suspense.

DC alumni Grace Caroline Currey plays Becky and Marvel alumni Virginia Gardner plays her more adventurous best friend Hunter. They’re a pair of adrenaline seeking climbers who deal with the death of Becky’s husband Dan briefly played by Mason Gooding. Jeffrey Dean Morgan briefly plays Becky’s concerned father, but all of it is secondary to the climb. Like The Shallows, the girls offer plenty of intentional eye candy. My heart was racing the moment Becky and Hunter foolishly scale the fourth highest structure in the world. Then my heart stopped when their ladder breaks, leaving them stuck at the very top.

As a survival movie, Fall has the usual threats like dehydration, being in the middle of nowhere, no phone reception, injuries, and even hungry animals. It’s just different when they can’t go anywhere without falling. The bloodier their situation got, the more I questioned the PG-13 rating. Turns out Fall was rated R, but they actually used deepfake to dub all the F bombs. Becky and Hunter’s problems are predictable, but I definitely didn’t predict the disturbing twist. Fall is end of summer entertainment that should be seen on the biggest screen.


Becky almost falls

Fear Runs Deep

47 Meters Down: Uncaged is the same danger, but an entirely different cast. This time it’s a group of four teenage girls who go diving in Mexico and get attacked by sharks. The only similarity is having sisters as the primary survivors. Sophie Nélisse is the bullied Mia and Corinne Foxx is the more popular Sasha. Nia Long and John Corbett play their parents in a blended family that’s slightly more interesting for me.

Before Stargirl, Brec Bassinger played a mean girl who bullies Mia. Brianne Tju is their diving experienced friend Alexa and Sistine Stallone is their overeggar friend Nicole. This was actually the first film for Jamie Foxx and Sylvester Stallone’s daughters. Mia, Sasha, Alexa, and Nicole go diving to find an ancient Mayan city. It’s a lot easier to lose track of the girls since there are four characters to keep track of. Although more characters just means more shark food.

Sharks pop out of complete darkness and they have to deal with the usual problems like oxygen loss. Along with new problems like strong currents and being lost. Though Uncaged lacks the bite to end with a twist like the first movie. Instead Mia and Sasha actually fight off sharks with bloody injuries. 47 Meters Down: Uncaged has enough blood in the water to attract fans of the original movie.

47 Meters Down Uncaged

A shark comes towards Mia and Sasha

Preceded by: 47 Meters Down

In the Deep

47 Meters Down is literally the deepest shark attack movie I’ve seen. It follows two sisters vacationing in Mexico who find themselves caught in a life or death struggle with sharks. Admittedly, the premise is very similar to The Shallows released just one year before. Killer shark movies are surprisingly common, but it’s the survival aspect that’s similar. Claire Holt is the more adventurous Kate and Mandy Moore is the more cautious Lisa.

A couple of locals convince them to see sharks in a diving cage. Something I would never do, since everything goes wrong when the cable breaks and their cage plunges 47 meters down. It’s a terrifying situation full of dangers like oxygen loss, potential hallucinations, being unable to swim without decompression, and having several hungry sharks swimming around. The only person who can help them is the comforting voice of Matthew Modine.

The sisters don’t have the most interesting problems, but I was still wondering how they’d get out of the situation alive. They’re almost rescued once when the spare cable breaks and they plunge back down. The ending turns Lisa into the brave one who saves her sister and fights off sharks with flares, but there are several clues that lead to a shocking twist. 47 Meters Down is a quick undemanding 85 minute fight for survival.

47 Meters Down

Kate and Lisa in a cage with a shark

Followed by: 47 Meters Down: Uncaged

I Am Your Daughter

The Others is another kind of haunted house film. Psychological horror became very popular with movies like The Sixth Sense. The Others is also known for a twist that I unsuccessfully tried to avoid. Despite an English speaking cast that includes Nicole Kidman, The Others is technically a Spanish film. It was directed by Alejandro Amenábar and won Best Film at the Spanish Academy Awards. The Others takes place in a large old fashioned house during 1945 and centers on a small isolated family.

Kidman is fully committed to playing the paranoid fiercely religious mother Grace Stewart. The rebellious Anne and timid Nicholas are her children with a life or death sensitivity to light. The constant candlelit dark rooms make for a very creepy atmosphere. And that’s before any hint of ghosts. The only other occupants are Fionnula Flanagan as the housekeeper, Eric Sykes as the gardner, and Elaine Cassidy as the mute servant that Grace recently hires. They behave very strangely, but not as strange as Christopher Eccleston as Grace’s veteran husband who mysteriously returns from the war.

The titular others rarely make their presence known. Doors are unlocked, curtains are taken down, and mysterious voices are heard. The most iconic scene features Grace encountering her daughter under a veil who looks like an older woman. The twist is a deeply disturbing double whammy that reveals who the ghosts truly are. The Others will leave you guessing until the very end.

The Others

“I am your daughter”

Championship Vinyl

High Fidelity is a top 5 hit from the early 2000’s. Record stores were still around at the time, but the original Nick Hornby novel was written in 1995. The only difference was setting the movie in Chicago instead of London. Apparently the music scene is just as good in both locations. Although I can relate to the new setting as a native Chicagoan, High Fidelity wasn’t on my radar until my drum playing half brother recommended it. It does fit the Gen X mentality that he’s a part of. Rob is a slacker who works at his record store Championship Vinyl.

Since John Cusack often plays romanticly troubled loners, he was perfect for the part. Of course his sister Joan Cusack had to be around yelling at him. Rob breaks the fourth wall, creates random “Top 5” lists, and works through a relatable personal crisis. Over the course of the movie, Rob tries to figure out what went wrong with every romantic relationship in his life. From Catherine Zeta-Jones as the alternative Charlie to Lisa Bonet as cool local singer Marie. Only to realize his own attitude towards relationships might be the problem. Any of Rob’s women could be the one, but Rob focuses all of his attention on long-term ex-girlfriend Laura.

The Danish Iben Hjejle is an interesting casting choice since she’s a foreign actress playing a very American character. Though odd, Hjejle makes the part count. Before they eventually get back together, Rob spends most of his time being jealous of her ponytail boyfriend Ray played by Tim Robbins. Much like Empire Records, High Fidelity has an awesome soundtrack. The difference is I’ve actually heard most of these songs. My personal favorite being “Walking on Sunshine.” Todd Louiso plays Rob’s meek coworker Dick, but it’s Jack Black who had his biggest breakout role as the obnoxious Barry. His Tenacious D cred gave him all the music knowledge he needed. High Fidelity is a romantic comedy that rocks.

High Fidelity

Rob and Barry at Championship Vinyl