I wondered why it stuck so strongly in my psyche? Willard is a horror movie with comparatively little actual horror, really just two shocking scenes near the end. Only vaguely in the mold of Psycho (1960) and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), it lacks the cinematic flair of the former and the flamboyant eccentricities of the latter. Some horror movie historians cite Willard as the picture that launched the when-animals-attack subgenre (Jaws, Grizzly, etc.), but it doesn't much resemble those that followed it. Even the sequel, Ben, was quite unlike its predecessor.
Despite a 1989 VHS version and DVD releases abroad, Willard was a hard movie to see for many decades. The original distributor, Cinerama Releasing Company (CRC), mostly picked up indie productions and in many cases the rights eventually reverted to their original producers, especially after CRC was dissolved later in the ‘70s. Willard was of all things a Bing Crosby Production, and one can't help but wonder, assuming he saw the finished film, what Der Bingle's reaction was.
Shout! Factory's Blu-ray looks great and is loaded with extra features.
Willard is a mostly faithful adaptation of Stephen Gilbert's 1969 British novel, Ratman's Notebooks, which was structured as a series of journal entries. In the movie, set in the Los Angeles area, 27-year-old Willard (Davison) works for a smelting company founded by his father, possibly murdered by the company's current owner, Al Martin (Ernest Borgnine). Martin takes sadistic pleasure taunting overworked, underpaid Willard and is forever threatening to fire him.
Making matters worse, the Stiles's huge family mansion is mortgaged to the hilt, property taxes are due, and Willard's mother (Elsa Lanchester) is clingy and manipulative, and in poor health besides. A temp worker, Joan (Sondra Locke, almost childlike in her youth), is brought in to help Willard. She's attracted to his sweet, quiet nature, but can do little to help him.
Instead, Willard makes new friends among the rats running loose behind the house in the unkempt backyard. Eventually he moves them into the cellar, feeding and training them, becoming particularly close to a white rat he names Socrates, while a large brown rat, whom Willard calls Ben, increasingly imposes itself into Willard's life.
Willard's director, Daniel Mann, became famous in the 1950s for his film adaptations of Broadway plays (Come Back, Little Sheba, The Teahouse of the August Moon) but his later output was wildly inconsistent, with formula pictures like Our Man Flint and The Revengers, TV assignments, bad stage adaptations like Lost in the Stars, and WTF projects like Matilda interspersed with prestigious award-winners like the TV-movie Playing for Time.
Tying these disparate projects together seems to have been Mann's talent working with actors, though star Davison tells an amusing story about Mann's direction that would seem to contradict this. In any case partly what makes Willard as effective as it is are the performances given by the four leads: Davison, Borgnine, Lanchester, and Locke.
Borgnine is especially good as the Boss from Hell: he torments his staff, fools around with his secretary (Joan Shawlee), threatens and fires workers who refuse to do his bidding. Davison, meanwhile, expresses well something one doesn't see much in movies or TV shows, a sense of being emotionally overwhelmed. He's not mad in the Norman Bates sense, just unable to deal with the one-two oppressiveness of life at work and life at home. With his beloved rats he finds an escape, but then as they multiply they become yet another burden.
The film also captures the ugliness of family associates that outwardly insist they're warm and caring but really are desperate and selfish themselves. In the film actress Jody Gilbert, with her frog-like voice and gargoyle features memorably plays one such character, a family friend who imposes her overwrought "care" on Willard after his mother dies, brazenly letting herself into Willard's home and trying to take over, obviously more out of her own loneliness than concern for Willard. It's a wonderfully tense, realistically awkward and uncomfortable sequence.
Despite its modest budget (probably well under $750,000), Mann's presence along with a few other factors (Borgnine and Lanchester, composer Alex North) put Willard in a slightly more prestigious class than most other early ‘70s horror films, the glut of which was rapidly killing the genre for modest and low-budget productions. It paid off, with Willard earning $14.5 million domestically and probably that amount again abroad, making it a huge hit.
Video & Audio
Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, Willard looks great, very sharp with good color and blacks, with only a reel or two in the final third appearing ever so slightly grainier and less pristine than those which had preceded it. The DTS-HD Master Audio mono is also excellent, and the Blu-ray, region "A" encoded, includes a DVD version as well, Region 1.
Supplements include a new audio commentary with star Bruce Davison. Though not listed on the packaging, there's a very amusing and informative on-camera interview with the actor as well, hitting all the bases for those wishing to pass on the commentary track, or perhaps viewers will enjoy it so much that they'll want to delve further. Also there are TV and radio spots, a trailer, and a still gallery.
A strangely beguiling little movie, Willard is short on horror and photographed little better than a TV-movie, yet it also sucks the viewer in and stays with you long after it's over. Highly Recommended.