‘Willard’ (1971): Part animal horror flick, part adolescent drama – mostly twisted fairy tale

A few years ago, Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory line released on Blu-ray one of the most highly-sought MIA 70s cult titles among home video enthusiasts: Willard, the 1971 tear-em-up indie horror hit from Bing Crosby Productions (distributed by Cinerama Releasing), based on Stephen Gilbert’s novel, Ratman’s Notebooks, directed by Daniel Mann, scripted by Gilbert A. Ralston, and starring Bruce Davison, Ernest Borgnine, Sondra Locke, Elsa Lanchester, Michael Dante, Jody Gilbert, William Hansen, John Myers, J. Pat O’Malley, and Joan Shawlee. Locked away in legal limbo and thought “lost” (at least a usable print), Shout! somehow managed a spectacular 4k restoration, with a crystal-clear Willard playing just as well today as when it raked in millions during the summer and fall of 1971.

By Paul Mavis

Fumbling milquetoast screw-up Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison) has absolutely nothing going for him. He lives at home with his nagging, complaining, insulting mother Henrietta (Elsa Lanchester) in their crumbling, broken-down Victorian mansion. He works—not very well—as a lowly office clerk at a steel works, once owned by his deceased father…a successful business from which Willard and his mother were aced out by his father’s abusive, manipulative partner, Al Martin (Ernest Borgnine). He has no friends.

However, his 27th kiddie birthday party—another exercise in humiliation since the only guests are older friends of his mother’s—brings him new purpose. Escaping from the party to the mansion’s overgrown backyard, Willard discovers a friendly rat family, which he feeds. Soon,Willard is caring for and even training the ever-growing rat community, taking gentle white rat Socrates as his spiritual soul mate, while tolerating more brash, needy black rat Ben. When Henrietta unexpectedly dies, Willard discovers to his horror that there is nothing left to him but the heavily mortgaged house, which will soon be sold for back taxes.

But perhaps his rat friends will help, as they did previously when Willard surreptitiously took them to Al’s anniversary party, unleashing them on his boss’ guests with horrifically comedic results? Using his trained rats to “break in” to one of Al’s wealthy client’s home to steal needed cash, Willard finally has some welcome breathing room…until Al kills a visiting Socrates at the office. Even a budding romance with office temp Joan (Sondra Locke) ultimately can’t save Willard from spiraling down to his appointed fate.

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You simply can’t call yourself a movie child of the early 1970s unless you saw Willard at the theaters…preferably on a later drive-in double bill with its sequel, Ben (“Teamed up…to Tear ’em up! Double Featured for the Curious and the Courageous”). I saw Willard at our local Jerry Lewis Twin when I was six (my older brothers, forced to take me everywhere, lied to our unsuspecting parents that it was “G”-rated). It hit me square on, just like a good, frightening fairy tale should affect a kid. We went around our house for weeks flinging open doors on our unsuspecting parents, screaming, “Tear him up!” before slamming them shut.

A big, big hit with the public that summer of ‘71, where it made the equivalent of over $150 million in today’s dollars, Willard spawned a lesser sequel the next year…and then kind of disappeared into the void of infrequent TV showings before legal matters with BCP productions and the defunct Cinerama Releasing effectively 86ed Willard from view. For a well-known, popular movie that clicked so solidly with a sizeable portion of the movie-going audience, Willard’s unavailability (particularly on home video) was frustrating, to say the least (on a commentary track included on Shout!’s Blu-ray, star Bruce Davison mentions that no one was even sure if a usable print could be sourced for this restoration).

Watching Willard now as an adult, and watching my own younger kids react to the movie (they immediately took to it), it’s easy to see why it worked with audiences, especially younger ones. Part animal horror flick, part adolescent drama, Willard comes out as mostly twisted fairy tale, a rather perverse Lassie Comes Home to Norman Bates that hits all the right buttons with the young. When poor, nebbishy Willard finally finds a friend in, of all things, a rat, what kid or adult didn’t remember that feeling of finding total acceptance from a pet, when adults proved to be contradictory or intimidating, and same-age friends scarce?

Of course what’s so funny and sick about Willard is that the “boy” of this fairy tale is a 27-year-old wimp, and his “dog” is a disgusting rat. Added to this warped children’s story is a Freudian (or perhaps more accurately, a Greek tragedy) subtext of a sickly, manipulative, emotionally repulsive mother who blames her child for all her woes, and a boss who metaphorically “killed” Willard’s father, took over his business, and now wants to fire Willard to force him to sell his home (so Al can bulldoze it and put up an apartment building). Even the hippies aren’t left out of the scenarist’s target demo. The Willard character no doubt appealed to counterculture audiences who enjoyed contrary Willard’s outsider, slacker status, and particularly his disgust with the gross older people that populate his narrow world (watch do-nothing Willard visibly blanche at his mother’s and her guests’ angry pleas for him to be more assertive, at his amusingly sickening birthday party). Mix that all together (along with a fun last act twist where naughty, jealous rat Ben, ignored by an increasingly distant, even violent Willard, decides he likes to kill), and Willard becomes a rather surprisingly potent little cookie full of arsenic.

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Psychology aside, Willard, just on a visceral level, works fine as a queasy B-horror flick. The sight of all those real rats (no CGI, of course) is flat-out revolting, heightened by the good Foley work of their cringe-inducing scrabbling and munching (brilliantly effective in the rat assault on Borgnine, where unseen hordes crump crump crump across his mustard yellow Dacron carpeting while his eyes believably bug out in horror). Screenwriter Gilbert Ralston and director Daniel Mann leaven this potentially stomach-turning, overwhelmingly downbeat story with an openly acknowledged, gleeful comedic sensibility that is Willard’s best element.

Taking their cue, no doubt, from all those cute, funny, anthropomorphic Disney True-Life Adventures documentaries, the rats in Willard squeak and nod their approval at every one of Davison’s utterances, roping in the kid viewers who still think you can talk intelligently to an animal, while cracking up the adults (they even pull a hoary old back-and-forth reverse footage bit for a little rat that seems to be bowing and thanking Willard for not drowning him). Willard‘s humans are just as repugnant as the rats, with director Daniel Mann letting his talented group of character actors go into full-on recoil mode to get laughs (nobody can touch Borgnine, but fleshy, bug-eyed Jody Gilbert gets big yocks whenever she starts blubbering and pawing at Davison).

Over his career, Mann’s output would vary widely, from respectable melodrama like I’ll Cry Tomorrow and BUtterfield 8 and comedic spoofs like the excellent Our Man Flint, to iffy comedies like Who’s Got the Action?, Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?, and Matilda. However, Willard is pitch perfect, with Mann moving nimbly through the fast-paced story, aided by cinematographer Robert B. Hauser’s delightfully color-saturated comic book frames (shown to spectacular new effect in Shout!’s dazzling restoration), editor Warren Low’s snappy cutting, and composer Alex North’s alternatively sensitive and bombastic score.

Mann, known as an actor’s director, doesn’t disappoint with this A-level group of overly-talented hams (never a pejorative in my book). Elsa Lanchester, wondrously repellent as Willard’s peevish, whinging mother, strangely doesn’t get a big death scene, but her few brief appearances are enough to make you understand why Willard would rather talk to a rat. Davison, unwittingly starring in his biggest hit too soon in his career, is a bundle of ticks and grimaces and pulled faces that he calls “overacting” in his commentary track, but which seem perfectly aligned with the movie’s psychologically-damaged, isolated, emotionally-retarded central character (in Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last picture, and when “hot property” Davison followed up monster hit Willard with two flops in a row—The Jerusalem File and Ulzana’s Raid—his career as a leading man was effectively over).

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As for Borgnine…what can one say, other than his turn here is a masterwork of sly manipulation, seething rage, and hilarious grotesqueness. No one could enthuse on the screen like Borgnine, regardless of the context, and here, he’s palpably nauseating in his boorish enthusiasm, whether sticking his hand down Joan Shawlee’s ample cleavage (“I was doin’ the old bag a favor,” he croaks), or coldly, viciously browbeating Willard in front of the other employees, or stuffing his face to overflowing during Lanchester’s funeral, proclaiming with a wild, bug-eyed, open mouth smile, “This is just like a picnic!” It’s a bravura performance, one that should have garnered him a Supporting Actor nod from the Academy Awards that year, and one probably scarier—and certainly funnier—than any of Willard’s rats (he’s a hellava lot more memorable than say…Roy Scheider was, in his strictly sidekick The French Connection-nominated turn that year).

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PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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