Willard (1971)

Well, it took almost 40 years. But I got to see Willard again in its original form. Shout factory and Scream have released the film in a special package which includes a DVD and Blu Ray and it has a second audio track with actor Bruce Davison. So that it is actually is a very special of presentation of the film. The only previous video releases that have been available were a VHS edition that ais long, long been out of print. There was as well  a laser disc version that was all pan and scan and it is also been out of print for a long time. It has never been released on DVD before and the only dvd versions were copies of the VHS presentation. You could watch the movie on YouTube but it would be a second or third generation copy from the VHS and that’s hardly worth the effort. It’s not exactly clear why the film has been in limbo for the past 35 years,  but it was definitely worth waiting for, the film is as good as I remembered and there are some things about it that are actually much better than my memory on allowed me to recall.

Those of you who are unfamiliar, this is the story of a boy and his rat. Bruce Davison plays the young Willard Stiles, a put upon accountant in a firm that his father created. After his father’s death  death, the company was taken over by his business partner an unfriendly guy named Martin played by Academy Award winning actor Ernest Borgnine. Willard has a lot in common with Norman Bates. He’s relatively quiet, very smart, and socially awkward. He desperately needs a girlfriend. He also has substantial mother issues like Mr. Bates. In this case though,Willard’s mother is actually alive at the start of the story. She is played by veteran actress Elsa Lanchester, who most of you would be familiar with as the bride of Frankenstein. This was one of her last film roles. Willard has no friends of his own, he basically gets by with the friends of his mother. They are overbearing, elderly and full of advice that he doesn’t want. They all think that, he needs to be more in. assertive. Basically, their birthday wish for him is that he be less of a wimp. Davidson is a thin, pale man with doe eyes. In that regard is is different than Norman Bates, who was dark and had those deep set, dark circled eyes. Each of them of course have difficulty with their mothers, and in relating to the opposite sex. Willard is much less dysfunctional than Norman was. he ia a  withdrawn 27 year old man, and he spends a substantial amount of time in the garden. It is there that he begins to interact with some rats that are overtaking the ancient house that he had his mother occupy. Somehow, he manages to begin training, the rats, so that they can recognize his commands.

All of this of course requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief., but in a film like this, it works pretty effectively. There are some cute montage type sequences where the rats perform some tricks. They begin to move at his command. Since I haven’t seen the movie for probably 30 years or more. I was surprised about how much of it I remembered. The main story is definitely something that was easy for me to recall. There was only one sequence that I had forgotten but once it started playing out. I had a much more vivid memory of it. This ends up being a revenge story. Willard views Martin as an oppressor who is responsible for his father’s death. A man who stole the company that he rightfully should own. A man who put so much pressure on his family that his mother dies in an unhappy state, leaving a guileless  Willard alone. Of course, he is not quite alone. He has his 2 best friends. Socrates is a white rat that Willard is especially fond of. Socrates is allowed to have special privileges in the house. Ben is a much smarter rat than any of the others.  He constantly finds his way into the house even after Willard has made attempts to keep him out. Willard however cannot stay mad at Ben and he includes him in most of his escapades along with Socrates.

In a sequence that is for the most part, an innocuous revenge moment, something that might qualify as an innocent prank, Willard packs up several of his rats and releases them at his bosses Anniversary Party, a party that he himself was not invited to. Of course there is a major disruption. The rats climb up on to the tables and start eating the food. and the guests all panic, adults squealing like children and climbing onto chairs. Willard’s boss has a plan to take over the house that Willard and his mother occupied. After the death of his mother, Willard discovers that there is a mortgage and back taxes on the property. Martin plans on buying the house from Willard when he can no longer afford to keep the house and then plowing it down and building a large apartment building. It is a beautiful old house but it is also rundown. It looks like it would be difficult for Willard to be able to bring it up to standard. When he receives a notice from the tax assessor that the house is going to be sold for back taxes, he desperately turns to some of his mother’s old friends. People that he is alienated. He seeks financial assistance from them. They scarf and once again give him the advice that he doesn’t want, he should sell the house. That would play into Martins plans and Willard has no intention of doing that. Instead, in desperation, Willard hatched a plan to use the rats to perform a robbery at the house where he knows a substantial sum of cash is being kept. That was the sequence that I hadn’t remembered. Watching the rats gnaw through the bedroom door, where sleeping couple is resting was actually a very creepy moment.

Willard finally gets bold enough to ask the young woman who is been hired as a temp, to join him. for dinner. She played by a young Sandra Locke. She starred in several Clint Eastwood films and was his partner for a decade. She was also an Academy Award nominee the year before this film came out. She has the same large innocent eye and sweet face that Bruce Davison has. Both of them look young and innocent but we know that Willard is a bit disturbed. Behind his facade are some deep seeded anger. The film was shot in Los Angeles in the 1970s. The house that they used for Willard’s home is an actual home that is still there The interiors were not shot on a set but it was the actual interior of the house. The only set built to be part of the house was the basement section. The office that Willard and his partner work at was definitely from the 70s.. There is wood paneling, gold carpet and industrial style furniture and file cabinets. The set design in the film is extravagant. When they are in Willard’s home. One nice touche is a large grand father clock in the entryway that Willard maintains as best he can and it becomes an object that is envied by Martin.

The film is sold as a Horror Story, but for 3/4 of the run of the film it is a sweet drama.about a sad man who is lonely and begins to reach out. to some rats and to an equally quiet girl. However, as the plot develops, Willard becomes more and more desperate. There are in fact, many horror elements in the climax. The film is more creepy than frightening. Although if the thought of rats does disturb you than the film might very well be as frightening as it is promoted to be. The movie is packed with a lot of well known character actors from the 1970s. Including J Pat O’Malley, the aforementioned  Elsa Lanchester. A number of peripheral actors you might even recognize. If you pay attention to the details. The performance of Bruce Davison himself is what that sells this movie. Davidson has continued to have a successful career as a character actor. In fact, he is an Academy Award nominee himself. 4 or 5 years ago. I saw him as one of 16 character actors in a documentary titled. “That guy in that thing”.  Several recognizable faces talk about their experiences as character actors in the Hollywood of the last 30 years. Davidson has work steadily. He even has had 2 or 3 TV series. where he was the star or a featured player. But he never reached the height of stardom that might have been expected of a young actor of his type. Probably because he spent the next 10 years of his career typecast as a weirdo. I saw this film when I was 13 years old of course, it was perfect for a young man of that age. That probably accounts for why I remembered it so well. I believe I also read the source book titled “The Ratman’s notebook, but that part I can’t really remember. I’ve waited a long time to revisit this film. And well modern audiences may find it to be a little slow. I like the way the character develops. I like the performances, and in the end, I kinda like the rats.

2 thoughts on “Willard (1971)

  1. Oh, boy, do I remember this one. Watched this first-run in a theater while still in high school. It is everything you say it is, Richard. Fine appreciation.

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