At first glance I thought this film may have been made-for-TV after every copy I found online appeared to be taped off of your Uncle’s VCR. Though research tells me this film was a theatrical release and a bonafide box office hit in the summer of ’71. Can you believe there was a time when a movie with no star power about a young man and his rat pals could be a hit? Let me introduce you to Willard.
These days most are probably more familiar (if familiar at all) with the film’s 2003 remake. That version was written and directed by X-Files veteran Glen Morgan and starred odd couple Crispin Glover and R. Lee Ermey. It’s a novelty to see Crispin Glover performing at full crazy in a leading role but now that I’ve seen the original I’d take it over George McFly singing about rats any day of the week.
Based on Stephen Gilbert’s 1969 novel, Ratman’s Notebooks–which will also be the title of my personal autobigraphy–Wllard stars a young Bruce Davison. Davison, who’s best known today for playing the senator that gets blobified in the first X-Men movie, plays Willard, a soft spoken, meek, and overworked young man. Whether he’s being hounded by his unsympathetic boss Mr. Martin (Ernest Borgnine) or his needy mother (Elsa Lanchester aka “The Bride” from Bride of Frankenstein) Willard works to please everyone but himself.
Going through the motions of a humdrum existence, Willard befriends a group of rats living in his backyard. Admiring the rats intelligence and loyalty, Willard in particular bonds with a large white rat he names Socrates and a large black rat, Ben. Willard trains the rats to search for food and obey simple commands, leading Willard to use the rats against his boss in a series of misadventures. These misadventures take some dark turns, leaving Willard in a dark place.
Willard is simple, charming, sweet and yet scary. I think what works is that you care for Willard and his rats so once things take a turn you’re invested in the outcome. The fear kicks in during the final stretch and that leads to anger, to hate, and then to suffering–if Yoda has taught me anything. Performance-wise Bruce Davison is perfect, so much so that it’s a shame he never became a bigger star. Let’s not forget Elsa Lanchester either. I’d never seen her in anything but Bride of Frankenstein but she’s the helpless mother you love to hate.
Willard was followed a year later by a sequel, Ben, most famous for featuring the #1 pop single “Ben” by Michael Jackson. It’s a shame that these films are for the most part forgotten. There’s no reason Willard shouldn’t be a bigger cult classic. Though maybe we shouldn’t give rats anymore attention then they already have. That’s how the rats win.