Willard (Bruce Davison) and Socrates.
Once one has made it past the toddler years, one begins to notice the world outside of the house in a number of ways, one of which is noticing what the parents are watching on TV. During my earliest pre-Connecticut years I was fascinated by the TV and all of the interesting shows it brought into the living room but what I was most enthralled by were the era's ads for upcoming movie releases. It was the early 1970's and I remember seeing tons of commercials for assorted sci-fi and horror movies that I was too young to be allowed to see, but those brief come-ons stuck in my head until I was able to see the movies in question years later. Thanks to the Bay Area's CREATURE FEATURES movie showcase, hosted by the legendary Bob Wilkins, I was a "horror kid" from Day 1 and my hunger for new, non-black-and-white scary flicks was strong, so I paid close attention to what was coming down the pipeline and of all the horror offerings from those formative years, I most remember the ads for 1971's WILLARD. They didn't really reveal the particulars of the story but it made perfectly clear that the protagonist was a guy whose pet rats did his bidding, apparently with horrifyingly lethal results.
One of the TV spots for WILLARD's original theatrical release.
Kids love stories about people and their loyal pets, so how could I not be drawn to a tale about a twitchy weirdo who used his animal friends to murder people by eating them alive? Needless to say, I appealed to my parents to take me to see WILLARD but their response was a resounding — and in retrospect understandable — "no," so it wouldn't be until perhaps four years later that I saw the film when it aired on THE CBS LATE MOVIE. At age nine, I totally ate it up and went on to enjoy it several times before leaving for college, after which it became a fond memory from childhood. Over the years, WILLARD achieved something of a cult rep among those of my generation, often looked back upon as a "starter" horror film that offered stronger meat than what we kids were used to from local TV horror movie showcases, but how much if that fondness was clouded by nostalgia and not actual remembrance of the film's details? While watching the film again for the first time in perhaps 35 years, I was confronted with a few hard truths about the film when not seen through the filter of faulty reminiscence.
While its marketing campaign and legend have painted it as "the rat movie," WILLARD is less of a straight-up horror movie and more of a sad character study of the twenty-something titular character (Bruce Davison), a put-upon friendless loser whose stifling world consists solely of his dead-end clerical job and caring for his ailing, overbearing mother (Elsa Lanchester). His job is at a company founded by his father but that was taken over by uber-bastard Martin (Ernest Borgnine), whose awfulness as a human being may have led to Willard's father's untimely demise. Martin despises the meek Willard and takes every opportunity to demean and humiliate him while also plotting to buy Willard's house out from under the young man and his mother so he can demolish it and turn a massive profit. Meanwhile, on the home front, Willard's mother nags him and treats him like a child while being his sole non-work interaction. (He's also surrounded by his mother's gaggle of annoying oldster friend, a group he cannot stand.) But Willard's world is brightened when he befriends the rats that run rampant in the backyard. He feeds them, gives them shelter and a breeding ground in the basement, and endeavors to teach them simple words and commands. He even adopts an adorable and smart white rat that he names Socrates, and the pair become inseparable. Over the months, Willard strongly bonds with the rats, including a rebellious black one that he dubs Ben, and a mild romance blossoms with a temp worker (Sondra Locke) but when his mother dies, leaving him with $1500 of inheritance and the house that he did not know was mortgaged to the point where it must be sold to pay back taxes, Willard's world is once more shrouded in woe. And when his boss kills Socrates (whom Willard has been smuggling in to the office for company) and follows that act by firing Willard, the young misfit snaps. Arriving at Martin's office after regular business hours, an empowered Willard does a full-tilt "worm turns" speech before sicking dozens of rats on Martin, memorably ordering them to "Tear 'im up." With Martin horribly killed, Willard's new self-confidence spurs him to up the romantic ante and get a new job, but his plans are immediately halted when Ben, who has been abandoned at the scene of Martin's murder along with the rest of the rat army, returns with vengeance in mind...
Ben returns with a mind full of hate.
This time around, I saw WILLARD for what it actually is, a drama about one milquetoast's misery that's brightened by an unlikely friendship, and the rat stuff is actually pretty much only incidental to the proceedings. It's well-acted and one cannot help but root for Willard to get out from under the obstacles that mar his existence, but if one arrives at the picture with a yen to be scared, WILLARD proves to be rather a damp squib. It possesses only one real scene of horror — Willard's worm turn and subsequent murder of martin — and it's certainly a memorable one, but the overall movie is really a straight drama with only the most minor of horror elements. In fact, the rat angle could even be dropped and the film would still work as a mundane drama.
Martin (Ernest Borginine), about to take a header through his office window while being gnawed alive by dozens of rats.
Though the much-ballyhooed rat murder sequence is indeed a classic, the movie really could have done with a lot more in that department. Sure, the rat material plays into many viewers' fear and loathing of the creatures but the movie screws itself by allowing us to get to know Willard and his rats and find their relationship charming and heartwarming. Yes, being chewed up alive by hundreds of sharp, tiny teeth would be one of the worst deaths imaginable, but it's not as effective as it could have been when perpetrated by rodents that we've seen being fed and cared for and happily playing with their human master as he showers them with all the surplus of love that had been laying fallow in his lonely heart.
The bottom line here is that WILLARD is a solid little film whose shock reputation has been greatly inflated thanks to nostalgia. It's engrossing but there are few scares to be had from it and, despite the "tear 'im up" moment, there's no gore whatsoever. Watch it for the sake of completism and bear in mind that its immediate sequel, BEN (1972), has none of its charm or interest. The only thing of real note about it is its Oscar-nominated #1 hit theme song sung by Michael Jackson (when he was still a negro), a touching tune that amounts to a love song to a homicidal specimen of vermin.
My autographed photo of Bruce Davison as Willard.
Poster from the original theatrical release.