Willard (1971)

For some reason I can’t possibly fathom, people hate rats. I mean, sure, they spread the Black Plague through Europe casing a famine that wiped out thirty millions people over the course of several centuries, but come on! Were those peasants really all that important to history? I ask you…Never had a problem with rats myself. Not as long as they’re relatively clean. (Those big brown ones that crawl around in industrial waste can just stay the hell away from me, thank you very much.) Thankfully, rats in today’s movie are some of the cleanest vermin I’ve ever seen.

Willard centers around a boy named (did you guess?) Willard (Bruce “Senator Kelly” Davison in his second feature role). Willard is, in technical, psychological terminology, about ready to fucking snap. Willard’s Evil Boss, Mr. Martin (Ernest Borgnine) stole the shipping company Willard works for from Willard’s father…somehow. Consequently, he hates the Willard with a passion. Also, Willard’s mother (Elsa Lanchester) is a dotting leech who (gladly) dies before the halfway mark.

Friendless and hopeless, a loser to the nth degree, Willard does the only thing he can and makes friends with the rats in his backyard.  Gradually (but not too gradually, thanks to the miracle of jump-cuts), the rats become his friends, pets, and students. With some dubious training methods, he even manages to school the rats in basic word recognition. Maybe. Since Willard is the only human who “understands” his ratty friends it’s hard to tell whether the rats actually learn anything.

Regardless, after his mother dies, Willard lets the rats crash in his basement, soon learning that rats are worse than rabbits when it comes to multiplicity (one wonders what a rat’s creation myth would be like). It’s okay though, since only Willard’s star pupils, Socrates and Ben, are allowed upstairs.

Meanwhile, Mr. Evil – er, Martin is plotting to cheat Willard out of his house. Why? So he can bulldoze the place and build an apartment building. Why would the head of a shipping company want to do such an Evil thing? Color me shrugging. Martin exists for the same reason all those jerks who constantly piss-off Bruce Banner exist: to run afoul of the growing rat plague in Willard’s basement.

When an unfeeling Mr. Martin kills Socrates at work, Willard finally does what we’ve known he’d do since the credits and unleashes his evil army of the night. Mr. Martin is the first, and only, victim of Willard’s Vermin Brigade. Afterward, sickened by his own actions (surprisingly human of him, that) Willard tries to kill his rodents pals and fails. Predictable results follow. The end.

Predictable is a word that fits Willard like a condom. Hell, the back of the video box gives away more plot than you should know going in. The only real surprise to be had is the amount of time it takes before we  B-movie aficionados get the pay-off we’re waiting for. If you rent Willard expecting a movie about a boy and his Unholy Army, well, too bad. Willard is no Rat Catcher. A better name for this movie would be A Boy and His Rats since. Sorry Charlie, but Willard is not a splatter movie. It was based on a novel, after all.

That novel (by screenwriter Gilbert Ralston) shows itself gratuitously. First we have Willard, the POV character, and the only character allowed to develop beyond the range of a test-tube culture. Other important characters like Mr. Evil and Willard’s love interest Joan (Sondra Locke) are nothing more than placeholders. The novel was probably written in the first person. If anyone has a copy of Ratman’s Notebooks growing dust bunnies on their shelves, tell me if I’m right.

Regardless, either Ralston or director Daniel Mann dropped the ball with the supporting characters. Thankfully, the movie is saved somewhat, thanks to Davison’s performance. Much like Vice-President-elect Dick Cheney, Davison plays “just-about-to-fucking-snap” well. Even better, he plays it believably. I cheered when Willard kicked his mother’s nosy, mulling, neurotic friends out of his house. I rooted for him when he (clumsily) tried to woo Joan (piece of cardboard though she may be) and I raised an eyebrow when I saw him sleeping with his white rat, Socrates.

Yes, Socrates is white and Ben is black. Guess which one is the evil one.

Davison’s acting aside, the movie is pretty inept. Props to the script. And slow, too. Props to the director. It takes 90 minutes to get to an on-screen death, and even that’s hidden in darkness, the better to hide the fact that some stage hand is pelting Ernest Borgnine with rats. The kind of rats that make you grab them and press them to your clothing as you flail around in simulated pain.

Still, seeing Willard in his business suit  standing ankle deep in a swarm of rodents is a discomforting image. A brown mass of flesh scurrying across a room will make some people I know mess their pants. There is a creepiness to this story, finally brought to life in the last 20 minutes of screen time. Too bad the money shots are hidden. After all that build up, a really ugly death (a real obvious comeuppance) would pack some extra emotional punch.

As it is, Willard falls somewhere between the standard 50s monster flicks and the  slash-and-kill, take-off-your-clothes-and-die films that would come to the fore in the late 70s and finally explode in the 80s.  Willard is much more a character study than an out and proud horror film. The problem is, none of the characters are strong enough to support that. However, some good acting on Davison’s part and a hell of a lot of trained rodents, make the experience worth something.


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