Nether Regions 10.12.10: Willard (1971)
Posted by Chad Webb on 10.12.2010
With the month of October moving along, it’s time for some rare horror titles. The next two weeks will be filled with rats…and Ernest Borgnine. Enjoy!
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Starring: Bruce Davison, Ernest Borgnine, and Sondra Locke Directed By: Daniel Mann Written By: Gilbert Ralston (based on his novel) Running Time: 95 minutes Release Date: June 18, 1971 Missing Since: 1989 Existing Formats:VHS Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Pretty Darn Rare
In 2003, the under appreciated Crispin Glover starred in Willard, a story about a young man who befriends a bunch of rats and learns to control them. It wasn't perfect, but certainly creepy and delightfully cheesy with a prominent visual flair. I even bought it when it was released on DVD. I didn't realize until afterwards, when I started perusing reviews, that it was a remake. For some reason, knowledge of the original is becoming scarcer. There is no talk of a DVD release, not even the slightest rumor. The fans do exist and they have requested a release for years now. The theory is that rights issues are the factor. This is a Bing Crosby production after all.
Willard visits Mr. Martin with some of his friends
Until someone decides to fix the situation, the world will have to track down copies on VHS, which are expensive, or DVD bootlegs, which are less so if you can find them. Both films are essentially the same with one major difference between them. The remake aims to accentuate the set design and costumes around Glover's showy performance. It is meant to be exaggerated. The 1971 original opts for a more organic approach. Camera trickery and special effects are kept to a minimum. This is re-affirmed by the casting of Bruce Davison. Compared to the oily-haired Crispin Glover who lurks around in dark clothing, Davison's Willard is a clean-cut, relatively normal guy. He is indeed a social outcast, but has blonde hair and an ordinary boring job.
He also lives with his mother Henrietta (Elsa Lanchester in one her last roles) in their old and worn out home. She is a cranky woman that is always scolding Willard for not fixing things around the house or failing to stand-up to his boss Mr. Martin for a raise. Willard's father once owned the company, but when he passed away, Al Martin took the reigns instead of Willard, who was too young. Now that he is of age to help the company, Mr. Martin treats Willard harshly, giving him low wages for long hard hours. One day, his mother badgers him to rid the house of rats, and soon enough he spots one. While he is initially afraid, he quickly rises above that fear and starts feeding it. He discovers that the more he feeds the rat, the more he can teach it. As times goes by, more rats emerge for an easy meal. With dozens of his new pals at his disposal, Willard starts using them as tools for his revenge, and it rapidly spirals out of control.
Willard was only the fourth role for Bruce Davison, and everyone expected him to take on larger parts due to the massive success of the film, but that didn't really happen. He would go on to be severely underused or simply accepted insignificant jobs while regularly returning to the stage. Davison's Ivy League looks make his actions as Willard about as uneasy as watching the rats themselves. Willard comes off about as grumpy as his mother at times, constantly snapping at people, with the inability to convey confidence and steadfastness to anyone that deserves it. Davison's Willard is subtly disturbing. His relationship with the rats is strangely cozy and snug for him, but his obsession with pleasing larger quantities and constantly having his two favorites (Socrates and Ben) around makes our skin crawl. For instance, a more intriguing audience reaction is likely to result from Willard speaking to a rat in bed than it is when he lets them loose on a party.
Willard is a personality with a great deal of pent up frustration and resentment. It is not a surprise that he is fond of managing and instructing the rats since he is commonly being dictated to himself. Throw in those mommy issues and he would be best buddies with Norman Bates would, or the two of them would kill each other in a matter of minutes. He has trouble expressing his feelings and being honest, even with those who like him. Take Sondra Locke's Joan for example. She obviously wants to get to know him better, but he shows little interest, and usually makes excuses so he can return to his rats. When the moment of truth finally arrives and he is unloading on Mr. Martin, it is too late because he has relied on his rats to do the dirty work to the point of being overrun and overwhelmed. The scene where the innocent white rat Socrates is cornered is rather bizarre as Davison's face contorts, recoils, and squints as if he feels the same pain.
Ernest Borgnine, never short of offers, was fresh off The Wild Bunch with The Poseidon Adventure right around the corner. His gap-toothed grin and domineering presence make him logical as a villain, and he appears to be channeling some of General Worden from The Dirty Dozen into Mr. Martin, but the latter is a buffoon. Martin seems to want Willard Stiles and his family out of his hair, but he concentrates on them as if they are gnats rather than threats of any kind. He's incredibly narcissistic and assumes his position at the head of a standard company as if he is the king of the world. Observing his wild gyrations in the darkness of his office when the rats attack him is nothing short of hilarious. Mr. Martin is one of those genuinely vicious pricks, even going as far as trying to turn Willard's quasi-girlfriend Joan against him in the privacy of his own office. When he asks for the door to be closed, trouble is a brewin'.
Ben is up to no good.
Over the years, both versions of Willard have been criticized as not being scary enough, and writers have added that since they are members of the horror genre, that is a requirement. Personally, I am not afraid of rats. I definitely wouldn't be playing with them or teaching them tricks, but I know plenty of people that are scared of rats. Nevertheless, the presence of so many is a bit unsettling, similar to Kingdom of the Spiders or Arachnophobia. Some horror films don't need to cause the viewer to tremble with fright necessarily, but make them uncomfortable. Maybe you will look at rats differently after seeing this, or perhaps you'll glance around your house a few times to make sure you're rat-free. Or maybe, just maybe, none of those apply and you just enjoy Willard for its dated campy traits.
Daniel Mann was the director for Willard, and aside from the ridiculous swarm invasion on Borgnine, his shots of the rats going to town on doors, or scurrying through a cocktail party were capably handled for the period. The remake used CGI to capture the enormous number of rodents, and that's fine, but the real article is welcomed as well. Both films updated their rats to fit the period. He captures some eerie close-ups of Ben with a very evil stare at Willard. I'm not sure how I can tell Ben was unleashing an evil stare, but hey, I'm a critic and I can confirm these things. Robert B. Hauser's cinematography is fairly straightforward. My copy of the film was poor in terms of its video transfer, but the lighting was mostly adept. Occasionally the little black pets were running in the dark, making it harder to catch a startling glimpse of them traveling in unison, but it was sufficient.
Willard's affinity for rats does not start as a fixation, but almost as an act of defiance towards his mother, who had asked him to clean them out. It could also have been partly a hobby, or a way to pass the time. Eventually it snowballs into an infatuation, where Willard discovers he can express emotions through rats that he never could muster himself. Willard is just as alarming and unpleasant as the squeaky rats, and it is his behavior that I am drawn to in this tale. That and Ben, the Rambo of rats. Speaking of the rat leader, next week I will dive into the sequel, aptly titled Ben. Willard is an entertaining flick, not totally flawless of course, but fun, unnerving, and easily digestible fare.
-I'm losing my faith in Glee this season. The first two episodes cater to the mainstream with pop songs, then when they have a good crop of songs in the third episode, it's in a depressing and bizarre story about religion. Combine that with nonsensical character changes and this season needs an immediate boost in the right direction.
-Lately I've been focusing more on watching films from own collection that I haven't seen rather than continually speeding through Netflix or renting more from my local library. This gave me the opportunity to view a couple Woody Allen titles, Bananas and Sleeper. Bananas was excellent, while Sleeper got a bit tedious and talky.
-I was able to accidentally stumble across a convenience store with one little row of 20 oz. Vault bottles recently, proving that the last bunches of it are making their way out of stores. This is a sad day, especially now that the generic Mello Yello has replaced it.