70’s Memories: Willard (1971)

Written by Gilbert Ralston
Based on the Novel by Stephen Gilbert
Directed by Daniel Mann
Starring Bruce Davison, Sondra Locke, Elsa Lanchester, Ernest Borgnine
US Release July 30, 1971
RT 95 min.
Home Video Scream Factory
Classic Horrors rating = 8 (out of 10)

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Note: Willard and its sequel, Ben, were the subjects of the sixth episode of The Classic Horrors Podcast.  Click here to listen.

We learn everything we need to know about Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison) in the opening scenes of the movie Willard.  He forgets papers at work, misses his bus and is smothered at home. His mother’s friends tell him he’s an extrovert, “but it’s all inside,” and verbally harass him about being tougher.  Yeah, he’s a real loser.  However, he’s a sympathetic loser.  Each time the man is knocked down, suspense builds toward the inevitable moment when he will fight back.

In 2017, the method for his revenge may not seem terribly original, but when Willard was first released in 1971, it was quite unsettling.  In the back yard that he is supposed to clean up for his sick mother (Elsa Lanchester), he befriends two rats, Ben and Socrates.  He trains them and their growing number of friends and family until his cellar is virtually teeming with the creatures.  Feeding them, taking them to work, he ultimately has them under his control.

He first uses them for a little harmless fun:  ruining an anniversary party for his truly horrible boss, Al Martin (Ernest Borgnine).  He then uses them as a distraction so he can steal the money he needs to pay back taxes.  And finally, he uses them for murder.  As we all know, though, deeds like this don’t usually go unpunished.  When Willard realizes the errors of his ways, he tries to get out, but his new friends don’t want it to be that easy.

For a mostly straightforward story like this, Willard is surprisingly effective, even by today’s standards.  I’ll admit it’s a little lighthearted at first, but once the last straw is placed on the camel’s back, the movie takes a sinister turn and is scary as heck.  The penultimate scene where Willard confronts Martin in his office is chilling.  Martin opens the door to find Willard standing there with a multitude of rats swarming over and around his feet.

There’s something inherently creepy in a movie about rats.  Just seeing a rat makes me squirm.  And to hear the tiny footsteps of hundreds of them marching along a wooden floor makes me lift my feet onto my chair.  But to have my worst fears about them realized… that they might attack me… well, it’s almost too much to bear.  All that aside, though, the movie contributes its own creepiness with a disciplined use of camera angles, close-ups and nightmare-like lighting.

Director Daniel Mann (Butterfield 8, Our Man Flint) maximizes the thrills with what appears on screen to be a very low budget.  But he proves you don’t need a lot of money to make an effective movie.  The screenplay is by television veteran Gilbert Ralston; you name a 60’s TV series and he likely wrote an episode of it, including Star Trek (“Who Mourns for Adonais?”)  It’s based on the novel, Ratman’s Notebooks, by Stephen Gilbert.  I’d love to read the book sometime.

Besides the chilling scenes are a couple filled with dark humor.  When Willard’s mother dies and her friends bring food to the house, they swarm around the dinner table, eating like a bunch of hungry rats.  Willard stands back and watches.  Never before disgusted with his friends that are literally rats, he looks like he’s going to be physically sick watching these people stuff their faces (while at the same time, by the way, ignoring him.)

It’s also an intentionally humorous moment when a potential romance at the office, played by Sondra Locke, in what was only her third screen role, gives Willard a gift:  a cat.  After dropping her off, she tells him to take care of it.  He replies, “I’ll take care of her all right.”  Don’t worry; this is during the early, innocent part of the movie.  He doesn’t feed it to the rats.  Instead, he asks a man in a phone booth to hold it for a moment, then quickly drives away.

Willard is more dated than some 70s horror movies, and I don’t mean in a scene where a shocked secretary exclaims, “Can you imagine having $8,000 to spend on a vacation.”  (Wait a minute; I’m not sure I can imagine that.  That’s still a lot of money in 2017.)  I’m talking about a scene after Martin’s anniversary party erupts in chaos.  Mocking one of his employees, he says, “You should have seen this ‘hero,’ up on a chair screaming like a fag.”

Near the end of the movie, Willard channels Norman Bates and talks to a framed photo of his mother.  “Martin killed Socrates just like he killed my father.  It doesn’t matter; I make the decisions now.”  So it’s really all about power and control.  Willard doesn’t have it.  Then he thinks he does.  But it isn’t too long before he has to unconvincingly say to his rats, “Each time I come down here there are more of you.  Stop it.  I am the boss here.”  The lesson is brewing…

Willard must have been successful at the box office (and I don’t imagine it had to make much to be profitable), because there was a Willard-less sequel called Ben.  You’re probably more familiar with its theme song by a young artist named Michael Jackson than you are with the movie.  Just think about this the next time you hear the sweet melody:  he’s singing about a rat.

Willard remains important today if for no other reason than because of its cast.  Sondra Locke later became involved with Clint Eastwood.  Elsa Lanchester was the original Bride of Frankenstein.  Ernest Borgnine was an Academy Award winner.  And you’ve seen the great character actor Bruce Davison in any number of the 207 films in which he’s appeared.  But you’ve never seen the skinny, awkward and, yes, mousy, Bruce Davison, until you’ve seen him in Willard.

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