Willard (1971)

This is the One Movie You Should Not See Alone.

Theatrical poster for 1971's Willard

Poor put-upon Willard is being constantly dumped on by his overbearing mother, his demanding boss, and a society that simply doesn’t understand him. He wants nothing more that companionship, and instead of adopting a dog, he adopts a rat. Well, multiple rats, really. Before you know it, his handful turn into hundreds, and he’s got an entire army to command. He uses them to get vengeance against those who have wronged him with a single order: “Tear him up!”

Part quirky character piece and part horror film, WILLARD is an odd little outing, but that oddity is what makes it so charming. It is occasionally slow-moving, but it is played intelligently and concentrates more on characterization and story than it does on gore. It won’t appeal to all audiences, but the patient viewer with a taste for off-kilter flourishes will certainly find something to enjoy.

There are a lot of rats in Willard’s rodent army, but out of all of them, only two really stand out: A stark white one that Willard names Socrates, and a big black one that he calls Ben. Socrates, so named because Willard believes he possesses heightened intelligence, is obviously Willard’s favorite. Ben, though, appears to be the leader of this rat battalion, and weasels his way into Willard’s routine as well. They sleep in his room, he teaches them tricks, and he even brings them to work some days, stashing them in a storage room where nobody else ventures.

Willard and Socrates from 1971's Willard

As for Willard’s relationship with the rats, I think it is safe to say that Socrates was his only real friend amongst them. The others he seemed to view first as a means of entertainment and then as tools for revenge. His relationship with Ben was sketchy at best. Ben desired Willard’s attention and wanted to be in the inner-circle with Socrates, possibly out of jealousy. He was King Rat, after all. Why should his brainy sidekick receive access that he himself was denied? Ben was not very good at following Willard’s orders—leaders lead for a reason—and that is why Willard never placed him in the same class as he did Socrates. Yes, Socrates offered Willard companionship, but he also offered him subjugation. Willard had never been in control of anything in his entire life, and his command of the rats made him feel as if he was not the insignificant creature that the rest of the world insisted he was.

One can’t watch a film such as WILLARD without catching allusions to the old story of the Pied Piper, and why shouldn’t that be so? If comic books are, as has been endlessly speculated, the equivalent of modern mythology, then horror movies are today’s fairy tales. The moral of that original story is to not go back on your word, and the moral of WILLARD is related, if not quite the same: you need to treat people with respect, because a person can only turn the other cheek so many times. Because of Western audience’s need to see villains get their comeuppance (though I view Willard as more of an antihero than a clear cut villain), there is a secondary moral that comes along with it, one that speaks of the dangers of revenge.

WILLARD was based on the 1969 novel Ratman’s Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert, which follows the same basic storyline, though the main character, who is never named, narrates the tale through journal entries. Although Willard is never once shown journaling in this film, the sequel BEN does makes mention of police finding his journals. The script was adapted by television writer Gilbert Ralston, and the film was directed by Daniel Mann. Mann had previously directed OUR MAN FLINT (1966), and would return to working with violent animals in the boxing kangaroo comedy MATILDA from 1978. It was produced by Bing Crosby Productions, which seems like an unlikely parent for such a project.

Willard and friends from 1971's Willard
Bruce Davison portrayed Willard, only the fourth credit in an expansive filmography that ranges from playing Dean Torrence in the Jan & Dean biopic DEAD MAN’S CURVE (1978); taking over for John Lithgow’s character in the HARRY AND THE HENDERSON television series (1991-1993); Senator Kelly in the first two X-MEN movies (2000, 2003); and appearances on TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, AMAZING STORIES, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, and even SEINFELD.

Willard’s mother Henrietta was played by the BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN herself, Elsa Lanchester. She had a few other genre films on her résumé, including Robert Siodmak’s SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945) and TERROR IN THE WAX MUSEUM (1973), but was just as at home in more family-friendly fare such as MARY POPPINS (1964). She had previously shared screentime with cats (THAT DARN CAT, 1965) and raccoons (RASCAL, 1969), so rats were the logical next step.

Willard’s possible-love interest and only real human friend, Joan, was played by Sondra Locke, who has relatively few credits to her name with just about 30 appearances on television and movies. Interestingly, though, in 1986 she directed and starred in a movie called RATBOY, a drama about a human-rat hybrid which sounds right up my alley. She had a fourteen-year romantic relationship with Clint Eastwood, which apparently turned quite ugly, complete with abortions, infidelity and allegations of fraud and conspiracy. She recounted the drama in her 1997 memoir The Good, the Bad, and the Very Ugly: A Hollywood Journey. She married her longtime friend Gordon Anderson in 1967—well before her involvement with Eastwood—and they remain married to this day. The marriage is one of kinship and was initially founded on maintaining an image. It was apparently never consummated, and their marriage occurred only after Anderson came out to her as homosexual.

And finally, Willard’s boss Mr. Martin was played by Ernest Borgnine, who had been appearing onscreen since 1951, playing the heavy in countless Westerns and crime films, to say nothing of his impressive run as the lead on McHALE’S NAVY (1962-1966). His other genre credits include THE DEVIL’S RAIN (1975), the post-apocalyptic RAVAGERS (1979), and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981).

Angry Ben as seen in 1971's Willard

The hundreds of rats used in the film were supplied by long-time animal trainer Moe Di Sesso, who also put in work on THE RAVEN (1963), THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977), DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL (1978), and ANNIE (1982)—if you were impressed with Sandy the dog’s acting chops, you’ve got Di Sesso to thank for that. Aside from being “Hollywood’s oldest active animal trainer”, he was also the proprietor of Moe’s Trading Post, an old school tourist trap located on his ranch estate near Santa Clarita, California, featuring handmade Native American-style trinkets for sale and more impressive pieces on display. Occasionally Di Sesso would rent his property to outsiders to film on, such as music videos for Kid Rock’s “Cowboy” and Ludacris’s “Act A Fool”, both of which offer glimpses of Moe’s Trading Post and the man himself. Moe Di Sesso passed away on July 2, 2007, leaving behind a family who continues his work.

When BEN premiered the following year, there were not a lot of returning faces. Gilbert Ralston did supply the sequel’s script, but director Mann opted instead to reteam with Borgnine for the Western THE REVENGERS. Of all the primary characters in WILLARD, I would have liked to see Joan’s story continue, but it wasn’t meant to be. When everyone around her started dropping like flies, she probably booked it to the next town. I can’t say that I blame her. This would be enough to bring about a case of late-onset musophobia in just about anyone.


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