Willard (1971)

*. Willard is a movie that I suspect most people (among those who care about such things) will have heard of but not seen. This is mainly because it has never (as of this writing) been released on DVD. It is, however, easy enough to find online
*. Its relative obscurity may also be because it’s not very good. If you’re expecting fireworks you’ll probably give up after a while, as it’s a slow build and nothing really happens, horror-wise, until the final ten minutes.
*. It’s often referred to as an early example of the “revolt of nature” genre, though that’s a label that I find misleading. Yes, the birds in The Birds are in revolt. Same with the various swamp critters who take over in Frogs. But the rats here don’t really suggest “nature” to me. And what with Willard’s telepathic link to Ben what I think we’re getting is more a sort of Jekyll-Hyde story, with the repressed and dutiful young man wreaking a terrible vengeance by way of a furry alter ego. A distaff version had already appeared as Cat People, and it’s the same story Romero would revisit in Monkey Shines.
*. The real evil in these films is not something in nature but is instead a human evil, an evil within. Ben and his extended family are just tools, acting out Willard’s psychopathic urges.
*. As I’ve said, I don’t think it’s a very good movie. It has, however, grown a cult following, in large part for being  weird. Willard isn’t just a misfit, but a true eccentric. How could he not be with Elsa Lanchester as his mom, and the two of them living together in that decaying palace?
*. Roger Ebert thought the box office success was based on the number of people who wanted to see Ernest Borgnine eaten by rats. If so, they must have left disappointed. And is Borgnine (playing Martin, Willard’s boss) really that bad a guy? Willard deserves to be fired. He’s totally useless at his job and probably should have been canned years ago. Willard blames Martin for making him hate himself, but I’d wager his mother had more to do with that. And when Martin kills the rat Socrates in the store room, do we think he’s a heavy, or just taking charge and doing what has to be done?
*. No, the weirdo here is Willard, the mama’s boy who is “basically an extrovert, except it’s all inside.” I mentioned Cat People earlier, and Simone Simon’s likeness to a cat has often been referred to as part of the uncanny quality of that movie. Can we say that Bruce Davison, long-haired and chinless, has a bit of the rat about him? And if our animal familiars in some way represent those abnormal elements of our own personalities, what does that say about Willard? That he’s a sneaky little bastard?
*. Perhaps people paid to see Borgnine being eaten, but by the end I think we’re looking forward to Willard getting his. Which he does in what I think is the only truly unnerving scene in the film, just for the sound effects of the rats nibbling away at his corpse. A pity it comes so late. Up till then, the rats really aren’t that scary. Borgnine has to work hard to sell their attack on him, and finally just has to jump out the window to save himself further embarrassment.
*. I wonder how much of this film’s continuing cachet is in fact the result of its being largely unseen. For those who have made the effort, I think it must be a let down. The only thing to commend it is the interesting cast, with everybody playing some kind of a caricature. Even the doe-eyed Sondra Locke is hardly more than a plot device. Still, I’m relieved she got out of the house alive. I think Willard genuinely did want to get rid of Ben and live with her. But she would only have been his new mother.

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