Willard: 1971 killer rat horror classic is now on Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Scream Factory
The arrival of Willard, Daniel Mann’s 1971 adaptation of Stephen Gilbert’s novel “Ratman’s Notebooks,” on Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Scream Factory is cause for celebration as the film has never been legitimately available in either format before. Same goes for the weird sequel Ben, but we’ll discuss that undervalued follow-up in detail later. Today, readers, we’ve congregated on the rat’s nest known as the internet to discuss Willard. It’s all about Willard.
The film stars Bruce Davison (the lead in the seemingly-forgotten TV series version of Harry and the Hendersons) as young, meek and chronically-depressed twenty-something mama’s boy Willard Stiles. Willard lives with his equally-depressed and controlling — but not unkind — mother (played with maximum horror-hag debasement by The Bride of Frankenstein‘s Elsa Lanchester) in a massive colonial home that’s slowly going to pot. Willard’s father died shortly after the malevolent Al Martin (the great Ernest Borgnine) in essence “stole” his company and now poor Willard is forced to work as clerk for the tyrant, an ironic twist the despicable and sadistic Martin gets off on, never missing a beat to harass, insult and berate the fragile youth.
Surrounded by his mother’s elderly friends and sycophants, who crassly ride the boy and lecture him about straightening up and planning his future, Willard retreats to his weed-choked garden and stagnant pool where he befriends the mangy rats that stalk the yard looking for food. After sampling some of Willard’s birthday cake, the biggest rat — who Willard names Ben — becomes the young man’s “friend,” as does another sweet, white rodent, christened Socrates. Soon, the hordes of rats start to multiply and Willard discovers he has an uncanny ability to communicate with them and control them. When Willard’s mother passes away, Willard allows his new friends to live in the house, where they take over the cellar and breed like, well, rats. With financial and professional pressures mounting, Willard’s breaking point fast approaches and soon it’s time for the young man to send his filthy minions out as his angels of vengeance. Of course, none of this ends well. But as this is a noted horror classic, you already knew that, didn’t you?
Watching Willard today, the strongest takeaway is just how weird the movie is. The mostly mature cast (save for Davison and a young, beautiful Sondra Locke) overacts with operatic grandeur, shouting and bugging their eyes and flailing around, chewing scenery like bubblegum. Chief among these hams is Borgnine whose Mr. Martin is truly one of the screen’s most loathsome creations. A boss from Hell, who abuses his illusion of power, chases tail (and later, tail chases him!) and who is driven by arrogance and greed. It’s one of the veteran character actor’s greatest performances and he’s matched by Davison who, according to the commentary track and stand-alone interview with the actor included on this release, got the role simply because he wasn’t freaked out by rats and the rodent thespian playing Ben seemingly liked him. Davison is fantastic and does indeed share great chemistry with his scurrying co-stars. So believable is Willard’s affectionate relationship with the creatures that, at least not until the beasts become malevolent in the final reel of the picture, they are never repulsive or offensive, even when piled on top of each other and popping out babies everywhere. Well, I shouldn’t say that. If rats and rodents are a trigger for you, then I advise you to steer well clear of Willard. Because they are indeed wall-to-wall.
Glen Morgan’s amusing 2003 remake of the film was a more overt horror movie, a brooding, heavily-art directed Gothic blackly comic shocker that owed a bit to the vision of Tim Burton. But Mann’s original is one of those great ’70s genre movies that is a good movie FIRST and whose horror creeps slowly and organically out of the narrative and character arcs. It’s got a gentle perversity to it, a feeling of unhealthiness that seeps out of its every pore, but it’s definitely focused more on the mental state of its lead character and takes its time essaying the fine details of the world he lives in and the people whose influence have contributed to his mounting anxiety. It’s a smart, often-moving drama that nicely dissolves into a blood-spattered skin-crawler and it looks positively stunning on Blu-ray, with sharp details and day-glow colors (dig Borgnine’s pants!) that pop.
Critics were kinda mean to Willard when it came out, but as we all now know, critical influence on the success of horror movies is minimal and Willard ended up being a huge hit. Enter the immediate sequel, Ben… which we will discuss tomorrow. Here. Same rat time, same rat channel. Tear ’em up!