December 31, 2007

Not on DVD: WILLARD (1971)

(US, 1971)

Recommending seventies horror films to a modern audience isn't easy, even harder when it's one of hundreds of films not on DVD. I’m fond of this one because I saw it on TV when I first started watching horror movies, but I’d still only recommend it here if I think it can still interest or entertain.

Ironically, half of the films available in horror sections in stores, I wouldn’t recommend to my worst enemy (if I had one). The selection on sale aren’t the best horrors ever made, they simply want you to buy them.

Willard was an early ‘animal attack’ movie, which used to be a very small genre before Jaws swam along shortly after. Beforehand, I can only think of Eye of the Cat, Frogs, Black Zoo, Moby Dick, and Naked Jungle off the top of my head. But rats on the attack are a little more plausible and certainly more horrifying than trying to make pussycats look like killers.

Willard doesn’t have a cast of teenagers - there are old people, some very old, lots of them. The action isn’t non-stop, but slowly and carefully staged, gradually unfolding. Similarly, the violence doesn’t hit you in the face, it serves the story - and doesn’t involve much blood at all. But, you don’t need blood to make a horror film work, just fill a cellar with hundreds of rats…

Based on Stephen Gilbert’s novel, Ratman’s Notebooks, this used to be a well-known horror tale. Young Willard has dreary life full of problems. His ailing mother is practically bed-ridden, he has no friends because he works so hard, he hates his boss and the feeling is mutual… His life is getting worse and worse until a young pretty temp starts working at the office, and he makes a new friend in his back garden – a large brown rat. Feeding and training the rat, who he names Socrates, he discovers that he can effectively communicate with it and it’s growing number of friends.

If you like films in pigeon-holes, you could call this a rat-attack movie, but it’s secondary to it’s value as a psychological thriller. The pressures mount on Willard till he cracks, notably from bullying by his boss. But instead of going spree-killing with automatic weapons, he uses the rats to cause trouble, steal, and then attack… all without having to appear in person, almost a perfect crime. The book went one step further than the film by having Willard disguise himself as a giant rat for his night attacks. A headline in the film alludes to this subplot from the novel.

Bruce Davison’s performance is the reason for seeing this now. Davison (who more recently starred in X-Men and X2) is excellent as the nervous mother's boy, resembling a lost teenager rather than a 27 year-old. Usually when actors talk to themselves onscreen it’s because it’s the only way we can hear their thoughts, but Davison realistically portrays someone stomping round a big empty house, ranting to themself.

His mother is played by Elsa Lanchester, then still famous as a ‘horror star’ for having been the monster’s mate in Bride of Frankenstein back in 1935. Ernest Borgnine, halfway between The Wild Bunch and The Poseidon Adventure, believably plays the scheming bully who is Willard’s boss. Sondra Locke is suitably innocent as the temp, but she was soon to make more of an impression in many of Clint Eastwood early movies.

On a sour note, the musical score by Alex North (Spartacus), schizophrenically veers between menacing and cute. As Willard trains the rats, the music sounds more like a Disney real-life adventure. An almost romantic theme over the opening shots of the steel mill (where Willard works in the office), I thought I was watching an advert for the US steel industry.

There’s no real sudden shocks, but even knowing that rats don’t normally attack people and are shy and highly intelligent, seeing lots and lots of rats make me feel very uneasy. There’s no trick photography, just a lot of rats. But they are well-trained, Moe and Nora Di Sesso are credited as the trainers. They also worked on the sequel and trained the dogs in The Hills Have Eyes (1977)! The Humane Association were also on hand to monitor the faked rat cruelty (but where were they on Food of the Gods?), which is just as distressing to watch as the suffering of the human cast.

But why else would this film disappear so efficiently for so long, not even getting a DVD release when the remake arrived. All you can get now a dark, crushed transfer on VHS if you’re lucky.

Willard successfully lead to a sequel the following year, Ben (which I’ll watch again soon). Recently there was the remake with Crispin Glover which is worth a look, but not nearly as memorable. CGI rats…

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  1. Will the movie Willard (1971) ever go to DVD? It's ashame that it has not already.

  2. I am a german fan of Willard.
    Tell me somebody, why I cannot
    get this movie as DVD.

  3. Th reason the film is not on DVD, I heard, is that the original rights holder felt slighted by the original theatrical release and has vowed to never permit this to be released on DVD.

    Could be true, but I hope not.

    I love Stephen Gilbert's original novel.

  4. I'm thankful it made it to VHS!

    Yet another movie that you can only catch on TV.

  5. Finally on blu-ray!