Willard directed by Daniel Mann
Here in NYC, the subway workers of the MTA who labor in the tunnels have a nickname for the rats that they frequently encounter: “track bunnies.” It’s a cute name that masks the fact that for most New Yorkers, the Rattus rattus is an animal that they feel should ONLY be seen down in the subway tracks, from the safe perspective of the subway platform. The sight of one of those grisly rodents anywhere else is guaranteed to engender disgust and an atavistic terror. And perhaps it was with this very knowledge that the producers of the 1971 film Willard felt confident that they would have a surefire hit on their hands, as did indeed prove the case. Based on the 1968 novel The Ratman’s Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert, Willard was released some three years later, in June ’71. I am old enough to remember how popular the film was way back when, but between this and that, was only able to catch up with it this past week … 47 years later. To my great surprise, Willard turns out to be not nearly as grisly an experience as I had been led to believe, but still, one guaranteed to entertain; not nearly as frightening as another rat attack film that I recently watched, 1983’s Of Unknown Origin, but still fun.
In the film, the viewer meets Willard Stiles — an awkward social misfit who lives with his mother in an enormous old mansion in what seems to be Beverly Hills, and played by Bruce Davison — on the occasion of his 27th birthday. His mother, Henrietta (the former Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester, here in the midst of winding down her legendary career), has thrown a party for him, peopled by all her aged cronies; Willard, it seems, has no friends of his own. But that soon changes, when he notices some rats in the mansion’s overgrown backyard. He ultimately trains them and brings them into the house, where they breed and multiply at a startling rate, until the entire cellar is crawling with the little beasties.
Meanwhile, we get to see WIllard’s work life, and it is a fairly miserable one, at that. Willard works in the iron foundry that his deceased father had started years ago, but which is now run by the man who stole that business, Martin (played by the great Ernest Borgnine in a performance that should have been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award). Martin browbeats and torments Willard relentlessly, to Willard’s increasing frustration. The viewer is tipped to Martin’s miserable personality immediately by the sign that he proudly displays on his desk: “Do Unto Others Before They Do Unto You,” his seeming credo in life. We also get to see Willard’s clumsy interactions with the new, pretty temp in the office, Joan (played by Sondra Locke, here in her third film). Ultimately, though, after the death of his mother and after learning that Martin has designs on purchasing and tearing down his beloved home, Willard cracks, and decides to use his obedient rat army to take vengeance on Martin once and for all…
Willard, to my surprise, maintains a comparatively light, almost humorous tone for its first 2/3, during which we see Willard use his pets to cause pandemonium at Martin’s outdoor anniversary party, how he gets rid of a pet cat that Joan sweetly gives him, and how he uses his rats to steal needed money from a wealthy client. Matters turn decidedly more grim, however, in that final third, when Socrates — the white-furred rat who is one of Willard’s favorites — is killed by Martin in the office, precipitating Willard’s retaliation. The viewer waits patiently for Martin’s comeuppance, and when it finally does come, it’s pretty much a doozy. But the film withholds its grisliest section till the very end, when Willard and Ben, the black-furred rat who had been another especial favorite, turn on each other back at the mansion.
Remarkably, the film manages the almost impossible feat of making rats — possibly one of the most detested of all creatures — appear cute … at least in the film’s first hour. Notice that I am not saying “adorable,” but only cute. (Several friends of mine have told me over the years what wonderful pets these critters can make, and I have only nodded my head and said, “Yeah, sure,” in response.) Kudos should go out to rat wrangler and trainer Moe Di Sesso, who trained both Socrates and Ben for their work in this film. Director Daniel Mann, who had previously helmed such classic pictures as The Rose Tattoo, I’ll Cry Tomorrow and BUtterfield 8, here directs his first horror film in a fairly pedestrian manner, but yet manages to inject suspense into those final scenes. In the lead, Davison gives a fine performance as the increasingly unhinged Willard, but for this viewer, it is Ernest Borgnine who steals the film, with his seemingly effortless portrayal of the coarse and slimy Martin. What a terrific actor he could be; no wonder he was in such demand at this stage of his lengthy career! (And indeed, Willard was just one of six films that Borgnine appeared in that year, including Bunny O’Hare and Hannie Caulder.)
Remarkably, Willard proved so popular that a sequel, Ben, was released in 1972, and yes, I do hope to finally catch up with that one one day soon…