Written by: Gilbert Ralston (screenplay), Stephen Gilbert (novel)
Directed by: Daniel Mann
Starring: Bruce Davison, Elsa Lanchester, and Ernest Borgnine
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
This is Willard and his friend Ben. Ben will do anything for Willard.
Willard is the sort of film that feels like it should barely exist, let alone become a minor hit. Not only did this bizarre little production involving killer rats somehow attract the likes of Elsa Lanchester and Ernest Borgnine, but it also went on to gross nearly $15 million at the box office (a figure that would translate to around $90 million after adjusting for inflation). It was sort of a big deal: before Jaws and Carrie made huge hits out of killer animals and vengeful outcasts, there was Willard, this scrappy effort from Bing Crosby Productions (!) that would spawn a sequel and go onto become a video store staple before all but disappearing for the past twenty years. Even the 2003 remake couldnít coax a DVD release for a pair of films that had become cult favorites at that point, and theyíve become home video holy grails ever since.
What a bizarre experience itís been to be without a couple of films whose clamshell cases were once prominently on display and, as it turns out, taken for granted. Willardís disappearance is almost as inexplicable as its initial popularity, though itís now moot thanks to Scream Factory. In one of the cult labelís greatest coups yet, itís finally delivered Willard to DVD and Blu-ray in one fell swoop, a release that will bring memories flooding back for at least one generation.
Theyíll be pleased to discover that Willard mostly holds up, at least for this writer. While itís a bit more deliberately paced than my memory (and the premise) would have me believe, itís nonetheless quite a curiosity thatís striking in its utter shiftiness. At many points, it feels like a 70s sitcom gone awry, especially given the tacky office dťcor surrounding perpetual sad sack Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison), a meek employee at a steel mill that he should have inherited if not for the conniving boss (Borgnine, whose casting feels like cheeky inversion of Marty) that stole it following his fatherís death. As consolation, Willard is now overworked and overlooked by everyone, save for a doting mother (Lanchester) that continues to treat him as if he were a child instead of a grown-ass man. After growing increasingly frustrated with his lot in lifeówhich comes to include the company of a pretty assistant (Sondra Locke)óhe comes to befriend a nest of rats that has taken residence just outside the family home. Before long, heís moved them into the cellar, where he practically raises them before turning them into instruments of revenge.
But if youíre having visions of Bruce Davison going HAM on unsuspecting tormenters with a bunch of rats, you might want to temper those expectations. In truth, Willard doesnít even turn the rats loose on any targets until about midway through, and even then itís more of a prank than outright vengeance. Upon being slighted by his boss for the umpteenth time, Willard decides to crash his anniversary party by unleashing his new friends. Itís more of a goof than outright malice, and Willard doesnít resort to homicide-via-rat until the very end, when the film takes a decidedly vicious turn. Only at this point does Willard become the sort of film you might expect it to be, and even then itís quite restrained, at least in terms of graphic violence.
Up until thenófor the first 75 minutes or soóthe film toes the line between sitcom and melodrama. At any given moment, it feels like it could go either way: whenever Lanchesterís deliriously campy matriarch is on-screen, viewers are seemingly transported into another film altogether. Watching these scenes in a vacuum makes it easy to imagine Willard as a straight-up psycho-biddy riff (when, in fact, it eventually just faintly echoes Psycho once Willardís mommy issues reach a boiling point). This stands in stark contrast to many of the office scenes, which feel only a few steps removed from a workplace comedy, complete with an incongruously bouncy score. Watch as Willard butts heads with his cartoonishly evil boss and awkwardly make small talk with his new assistant. Watch as the latter evolves into a weird courtship that finds Willard concealing his rat companions from his new girlfriend. Watch as she gifts himógulpóa cat, much to his horror, of course. Chuckle as he dumps the poor creature off with a bewildered man in a phone booth. Thatís our Willard!
I realize it sounds like Willard must be a hot, tonal mess, but Daniel Mann deftly allows all of this to pile up and collide around its protagonist without any overt cheekiness. This is an offbeat film to be sure, yet itís couched in Davisonís genuinely affecting turn as the title character. On its face, a weirdo loner whose only companions are rats sounds like the stuff of obvious schlock, and you donít even have to imagine a film that follows those impulses thanks to the remake. The original, however, is nicely low-key, as Willardís seemingly harmless introversion escalates into a hauntingly sad condition. Far from a triumphant revenge flick, Willard is a weirdly melancholy peek into the life of a total, misunderstood loner. Some momentsósuch as the wry smile that forms on Willardís face when he hatches his plan to ruin the anniversary partyóhint at the possibility of triumph, but theyíre ultimately fleeting.
In fact, an inevitable doom forms around Willard and the bizarre bond he forms with his rats, particularly Ben and Socrates, the two ďleadersĒ of the pack. Obviously, itís a strange, unsustainable relationship, but Iíll be damned if you donít root like hell for it, which is a testament to Davisonís charmingly boyish performance. His Willard is pitiful and childlike more than anything, especially during his most harrowing moments. For proof, look no further than the scene where Borgnine ruthlessly hunts down Ben and Socrates in an office closet. By simply cutting between Borgnineís savage jabs at the creatures and Davisonís anguished reactions, Mann creates an incredible amount of tension, drawing the audience to the incontrovertible conclusion that, yes, theyíre invested in the lives of goddamn rats. In fact, when one of their number is ruthlessly slaughtered, it registers as the most emotionally affecting moment of the movie. Actual humans die in Willard (though not a great number of them), but none of them are as consequential as the rats.
Coaxing the audience to buy into that is the lynchpin to Willard, a film that also asks them to go along with even more eccentricities before itís done. Chief among them is the functional nature of Willardís relationship with the rats: for much of the film, it seemingly operates under the assumption that itís a delusion of a damaged psyche. Surely Willard isnít actually communicating with these ratsóor maybe he is? The film reserves a whopper of an answer for that question towards the end, when itís made abundantly clear that the world of Willard unfolds somewhere in the realm of magical realism. Just when it seems it canít grow more bizarre, the film comes fully unhinged in its final few minutes, cementing its place as one of the weirdest, pseudo-mainstream offerings from the era.
Many films would follow in its footsteps to find huge, blockbuster success, effectively sanding off the weirdness in the processóthus ensuring that thereís really nothing quite like Willard and its even more bizarre follow-up, Ben. Perhaps itís appropriate that both have been missing in action for all these years, as these were destined to become cult objects. Time has certainly treated them as such, but Scream Factory has done its best to rescue Willard from the pits of obscurity. In addition to providing a restored, glorious high-def presentation, their release boasts a 12-minute interview with a very enthusiastic Davison, who provides production anecdotes and a quick explanation for the filmís absence during the past decade or so. It turns out no serviceable elements have been available during that time despite the starís own efforts, as he attempted to mount a release to coincide with the remake.
Certainly, this is a case of ďbetter late than never,Ē and itís also a reminder that a filmís fate is sometimes left to such mundane chance. Not rights issues, not music clearance issuesójust dumb luck involving the preservation of its elements. Itís amazing that most of these obscurities are ever restored to any glory, and we should cherish every one of themóbut especially the ones involving Bruce Davison commanding an army of vicious rats.
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