Willard (1971)

This is Willard and his friend Ben. Ben Will do anything for Willard.

Year of Release: 1971
Genre: Horror
Rated: PG
Running Time: 95 minutes (1:35)
Director: Daniel Mann


Bruce Davison ... Willard Stiles
Sondra Locke ... Joan Simms
Elsa Lanchester ... Henrietta Stiles
Ernest Borgnine ... Martin
Michael Dante ... Brandt
Jody Gilbert ... Charlotte Stassen


Willard Stiles is a young man with big problems. He lives alone in a crumbling house with his ailing, widowed mother.

His boss, Al Martin, is a vulgar, cruel man who stole his business from Willard's father and is now working Willard to death at his factory job.

Lonely, depressed, and isolated, Willard is on the verge of a breakdown when he makes a new friend - Ben, one of the many rats who inhabit his dilapidated home. Not only can Willard communicate with the small rodent, but he can actually command him to do his bidding!

Using the rats as his instrument of retaliation, Willard commands his pets to carry out assaults ranging from the destructive to the murderous. The disturbing young man savors his bloody vengeance - not realizing that he has sown the seeds of his own appalling end!


Willard, remindin' us that white privilege seems pretty sweet until Ernest Borgnine comes at ya with a curtain rod.

Speakin' of sucker-punches, though, I'm gonna do my best to hold it together, but I just ain't been myself since I got the call from Duke Tankersley yesterday tellin' me he was gone. A lotta people out there -- cynical people -- well, they'd tell ya it wasn't any big loss; that he was a loudmouth chunkhead with the personal hygiene of a truckstop bathroom, but the truth is, he was the best of us.

Gank was 108 in dog years, but he'd hardly lost a step and I spoze we all just kinda thought he'd bury the lot of us. It took me 45 minutes to drive out to Bearcrack Mountain and another 30 to get Duke to tell me what'd happened, but I finally got 'im to calm down long enough to quit rippin' this year's crop of Christmas trees outta the ground and bustin' 'em over his knee like Bo Jackson after a questionable strikeout call.

The guy just kept screamin', "it shoulda been me!" and launchin' both halves of his victims into orbit till I spotted Gank on the far side of what musta been the second biggest bear carcass I'd ever seen (I think Searano de Beargerac was probably bigger even sans fur). Gank was already startin' to cool by the time I ran over and put my hand on 'im, and that's when Duke stopped clearcuttin' the place with his fists and started explainin', such as he could.

"Bear was killin' a lotta deer... too many. Went and got a Nuisance Permit to take care of it... they letcha use dogs if it's a problem... dangerous for people, ya know?" Duke muttered as much to understand where things went wrong as to provide me a recap.

"This wasn't his first rodeo, Duke. He knows to keep a reasonable distance. Cripes, man, he's as smart as you or me, what the hell happened here?" I rambled, rejecting reality and continuing to refer to Gank in the present tense.

"Mean son of a bitch... swiped at Gank a few times... caught his ear the last swing... nothin' serious, ya know, but Gank got 'round his backside and nipped his ass end... treed 'im... there..." he explained, kneelin' down beside us and pointed absently to a Lodgepole that looked like it'd been molested by Freddy Krueger.

"But it's dead! You purt'near blew its head off from the looks of things! What--" I trailed off, examinin' the bear's remains.

"Had it in my sights... nothin' to it... 50 yards, tops. Musta pulled itself up the tree another length as I shot... hit it in the back... pissed it off somethin' fierce. Ya goofy BASTARD! Why'd ya do it?!" he snarled, crushin' a pine cone under his fist and rubbin' Gank's torn ear.

I could see it all then; the entry point of the second shot, the place Gank and the bear each lay. Dog was a goddamned hero.

"When the shot hit low it spun around on the tree and pushed off, right at me," he continued, beginning to recover his composure.

"Hell of a shot. Not much reaction time, though," I said, no longer in the mood for conversation.

"Yep. Got it under the chin. Bullet went out the toppa its skull. Dead before it hit the grou--" he started sayin' before realizin' the figure of speech was painfully inaccurate under the circumstances.

"Like you said - only time enough to shoot or get outta the way, not both. I coulda handled it! You didn't hafta..." his voice caught as he squeezed Gank's shoulder.

"He got between you," I elaborated, leanin' back against an old stump.

"Real Rin Tin Tin shit. Ole guy pitched into me before I knew he was even comin', probably wouldna tipped me over 'cept for that rock there tripped me up," he pointed towards the offending chunk of limestone.

"He knew what he was doin', man. That thing must weigh 500lbs - no way you coulda stopped it," I insisted.

"It's 600 if it's an ounce. I got the carcass off 'im quick as I could... didn't make no difference. Ole boy never felt a thing," he replied, seemingly indifferent about having hefted half a ton of dead weight off his dog like it was nothin'.

"C'mon. Let's get 'im home," I said, lettin' loose of Gank's prone paw.

"In a minute. Gotta take care of somethin' first," he spat, grabbin' his skinnin' knife and lookin' around for a tree with a sturdy branch.

Needless to say, Duke gutted, skinned, and hung the bear with less care and a lot more prejudice than usual. I'd say he ruined quite a bit of the meat, but if you've ever eaten bear before you know that's like sayin' he totaled a Ford Pinto.

Once Duke was ready we loaded Gank into the Sno Chaser and I gathered everybody together for a private service behind the concession stand at the Grime Time where we all said our goodbyes to a very good boy. Gank and Apollo used to run around back there for hours tryna catch squirrels and-- well, actually, Gank was kinda the brains of the operation and he mostly tracked 'em to a hole and let Apollo dig until he hit pay dirt or ran the little booger out the other end of the tunnel. Anyway, I think he'd be happy knowin' he's still where the action is.

Mrs. Sadie and Roxanne Bigelow bawled their eyes out like a coupla would-be dowagers who just learned they'd been cut outta their husband's wills.

Cleave Furguson offered a 50% discount on taxidermy services before bein' hurled end over end into Lake Skunky.

Billy Hilliard whipped up a temporary headstone outta wood and burned Gank's birth/death dates into it along with a pretty solid rendering of his profile.

Sadie Bonebreak laid the knotted tug sock they used to play with beside the marker.

When it was time, Silas and Randine Tankersley lowered Gank into the ground beside the grave of Gnarl, but neither said much.

Even Skunky was moved to haul his butt up on toppa the concession stand and dedicate the Gank Memorial Merry-Go-Round that he'd conned offa some scrap dealer in Mulepiddle County before we ran the double feature.

Duke tacked Gank's bandana to the marker and stood vigil alongside Apollo and Mindy, each refusing to leave the side of their departed friend until well past closin'.

Apollo'd known Gank his whole life and took it pretty hard. I'm not sure how much he understands, but I'd assume enough since that bandana never left Gank's hide unless it was gettin' its bi-annual trip through the washin' machine.

I guess we've all just gotta keep on goin', but it's tough when ya lose a member of your inner circle like this, and I just keep thinkin' how it's not gonna be the same bailin' Apollo outta the pound without his accomplice's 17" tongue slatherin' three quarts of drool all over the Topaz' rear window. You were a good friend, Gank, and I'll never forget ya.

Apollo didn't come home until about 3:30 in the AM and I tried consolin' 'im with a coupla Hot Pockets but he just wasn't in the mood for gettin' his tongue burnt off by molten cheese, so the two of us just piled onto the hide-a-bed and watched creature features till he nodded off and started blowin' little snore-powered snot bubbles outta his nose. Shankles musta sensed somethin' was off too 'cause he curled up beside 'im without even tryna bite that little flap of skin that runs between his shoulder and armpit like usual.

I dunno how well this review's gonna turn out, 'cause with Apollo sprawled out on my lap I couldn't get up to retrieve my notepad and so I'm havin' to go by memory even though I've only seen the flick six or seven times. Anyhow, one of the first things I thought about when I heard about Gank was that bastard Ernest Borgnine smooshin' poor Socrates to death with a blunt object, and I guess when you're already depressed it makes sense to watch a movie like Willard 'cuz your mood's already shot to hell. I dunno about you but I kinda feel like Willard's lost its edge over the last 50 years, particularly followin' the revelation that even the nastiest of critters're generally better company than most human beins, but it was still pretty popular back in the day, and since it's gettin' to be that time of the year where I try to dissect movies that're a little more accessible to the general public, it seemed like a good time to roll it.

Kind of an important flick given its box office success and the Eco-Horror renaissance that followed, and for that reason I'm gonna overlook its PG status and treat you to a few of the more fascinatin' tidbits you mighta missed when it came out back in '71 on account of all the girls in the audience shriekin' like banshees anytime they brushed their foot up against an overturned popcorn tub on the floor.

First, every down-on-their-luck New Yorker can improve their station in life with a package of Kraft singles and a little hustle. Second, sometimes the rats are the only thing keepin' an otherwise sinking ship afloat. And third, the words "don't do it" may be even less effective on rats than on horny teenagers.

The movie begins with a socially-stunted wimp (Willard) missin' his bus after his boss (Ernest Bognine) stops 'im in the street and chews his ass like a Cuban cigar in the jaws of a Texas oil tycoon, only when he gets home he starts to miss Ernie's molars after walkin' into a surprise birthday party attended by his chronically melancholic mother and her social circle of geriatric contempt dispensers. Before he can even brace himself all the lipstick lizards coat his face with sediment layers of Polydent and nicotine while their husbands tell 'im how much happier a birthday it'd be if he wasn't the flaccid penis in the orgy of life for refusin' to take Ernie by the horns and stage a hostile takeover of the company, until he gets fed up and goes outside to munch his cake with a buncha rodents 'cause he respects the way they only eat their young out of necessity. The next day Willard again misses the bus tryna mow the lawn before work and so Ernie hasta take 'im aside and explain that the company's chain of command is only as strong as its weakest link and that if he doesn't get his act together Ernie's gonna hafta break out the bolt cutters. Meanwhile, mama keeps naggin' Willard about the lack of This Old Housery goin' on around the ole homestead, but when he heads down to the pond to drown the rats livin' there he can't bring 'imself to do it and decides to open up a Ratz-Carlton in the basement so he can teach his two most promising students (Socrates and Ben) to understand English and show 'em how to go viral on TikTok with a discarded slice of New York style pizza.

While this's goin' on mama's upstairs in 'er bed slowly dyin' of Stage 4 Disappointment and that gives Willard the free time he needs to get cozy with the new office temp (Joan) and send The Rats of Nom to crash Ernie's anniversary party until all the trophy wives panic and get their corrective undergarments outta sorts while Ernie plays whack-a-mole with a folding chair like a pro wrestler in a blindfold match. Then mama sloughs off the mortal coil to nag God about the state of Heaven and without her tryna tell 'im how to hold his pecker every time he hasta piss Willard takes some initiative and buys a car, ejects the pork golem appointed to iron his underwear in mother's absence, and starts bringin' Ben and Socrates to work with 'im to improve the conversation at the water cooler. Everything's aces until the property taxes come due and it starts lookin' like Willard's about to be placed on a strict diet of ratatouille for the rest of recorded time, only then one of Ernie's shoulder clappy, volume-oblivious clients stops by the office and mentions he's got eight g's strapped to 'im in preparation for his latest effort to diminish Europe's opinion of Americans. That kinda cheese could go a long way for Willard and the 800 members of his immediate family livin' in the basement, so he sneaks over to the guy's house in the middle of the night and instructs his bubonic brood to gnaw through the guy's bedroom door until the dude and his wife see what's goin' on and show the bed more action than it's seen since they saw Hideout in the Sun at the drive-in in 1960 as they beat cheeks outta there.

'Course now the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Mo' Money Mo' Problems" dictum comes into play as Ben starts feelin' like he's earned a few fringe benefits within the rodent hierarchy, only when he lobbies for a place in the bedroom with Willard and Socrates he finds 'imself gettin' kicked outta bed faster'n a gassy hooker with a cracker fetish. Ben is P.O.'d, so the next day when Willard lets him and Socrates loose in the office storage room he makes a big ole rodent ruckus until Ernie finds Socrates and gores 'im to death with a curtain rod while Willard stands in the doorway lookin' like he just came home and caught his mama ridin' the washin' machine agitator. Ernie, meanwhile, has been plottin' to snatch up Willard's house once the bank forecloses so he can build a hotel and extract the maximum rent outta any hapless thimbles and Scottie dogs that happen to land there, so he cans Williard and Joan to make sure the two of 'em can't pool their resources and attempt to fight progress. Unfortunately, Ernie shifts from Lawful Evil to Chaotic Evil without stoppin' to consider that a man with nothin' left to lose is a man who might show up in his office after hours with a carload of displaced dependents and next thing you know Ernie's besieged by a rat pack that can't be bought off with booze. I don't wanna give away the ending so I'm gonna stop here, but if you thought Ben was hacked off when Willard refused to share quarters with 'im you can imagine how he takes it when Willard turns tail and leaves his malodorous mercenaries to fend for themselves.

And with that, Willard lives long enough to see himself become the villain. I'm not talkin' about that whole turnin' Ernest Borgnine into rat pellets thing either, 'cause he has that comin' more often than not. I'm talkin' about the scene where Ernest is tryna mash Socrates to death with a curtain rod while Willard just stands there lookin' like he needs a Pepto smoothie instead of doin' something to help. It's not quite as bad a gutpunch as it is in the book (Ratman's Notebooks) but it's pretty brutal watchin' the poor little guy get gored to death while the man he's entrusted to care for him stands there with his thumb in his ass. That said, the screenplay is remarkably faithful to the novel upon which it's based and trims only the bits and details that would come across as redundant when translated to the medium of film, and while the book is better than the film adaptation (as is usually the case), it's about as close to an author's original vision as you'll ever see short of maybe The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.

The movie also deserves credit for kicking off the Eco Horror boom of the 1970s that featured flicks dominated by creatures of usual size (instead of the atomic giants of the '50s), because even though The Birds and The Deadly Bees beat it to the punch, Willard's killer rats were the critters that popularized the trend and inspired a decade of exceptional (and often superior) bandwagon hoppers. Of course, it's accurate to say that Jaws had the bigger impact, having brought in enough money to cover the legal fees of beleaguered ex-presidents and attracting the attention of the heads of medium-sized studios that might previously have been on the fence about the subgenre, but Willard got the ball rolling and paved the way for many superb popcorn films like Frogs, Night of the Lepus, Phase IV, Stanley, and Bug. For my money, it's a little too slick and classy for its own good, but that distinction earned it significant word-of-mouth appeal that translated into a strong box office performance and an unusual level of appreciation from movie-goers who might very well walk out on a similarly themed flick like Squirm. Willard also led to a sequel the following year, Ben - the theme song to which made a superstar out of some no-talent hack by the name of Michael Jackson. I don't wanna be hyperbolic or anything - but the guy pretty much owed his career to Stephen Gilbert and his story about highly intelligent killer rats who eat Ernest Borgnine, so yeah, you're welcome, Mike.

Put the torches away, it was only a joke. Besides, we got more important business to attend to - namely, tryin' to reconcile a tightly constructed, finely tuned film against its lack of disgustin', exploitation imagery, so let's drop this sucker into the maze and see if it finds its way.

The plot is a little tough to take, but I think the screenwriter manages merely to bend our suspension of disbelief without breaking it outright. Furthermore, it must be said that when it came time for the book to be adapted to film, the most absurd aspect of the novel was wisely left out - namely, that the rat, Ben, throughout the course of the book, learns to read and kinda loses his shit on Willard after skimming the lead articles of several morning newspapers and the titular Ratman's Notebooks. The story is interesting in that its initially sympathetic protagonist gradually allows his problems and antagonist to get the better of him until he becomes an even greater monster following his unwillingness to break with social norms and protect his rat friend from his boss's attempt to exterminate it. I suspect that there's a significant divergence between the way audiences in 1971 and audiences in 2023 view this moment in the film in the sense that movie-goers probably continued to sympathize (or even increased their level of sympathy) with Willard following Socrates' demise, whereas a modern audience is more likely to be appalled by his refusal to intervene and save his friend. Regardless, once he abandons Ben following the attack on Borgnine even his most stalwart defenders've had it with his ingratitude, and we, as an audience, want to see Willard get his comeuppance just as much as we had previously with Borgnine. Not exactly a cheerful film, but its structure is unusual and leaves the audience placated, if not especially happy.

The acting is solid and features an excellent performance from Bruce Davison as he slowly shifts gears from endearing to loathsome and makes it steadily easier to root for the rats even after they've consumed the film's primary antagonist. Additionally, the supporting cast is loaded with superior character actors including the Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester, as Willard's excruciating nag hag of a mother; Jody Gilbert as the parasitic lipstick lizard assigned to keep Willard in a permanent state of arrested adolescence following his mother's death; and Sondra Locke as the kindly office temp who serves as the only likable character in the movie. Of course, the flick might well have crashed and burned following opening weekend were it not for the scheming, lecherous, sleazeball shyster portrayed by the late, great Ernest Borgnine, for it is he and his merciless abuse that makes Willard the miserable, sympathetic wretch that he is. Without him, the flick just doesn't work, and because most of us have had a boss like him at one time or another, we're able to relate to Willard and share in his grief, anger, and feelings of inadequacy until the time finally comes for the boss to find out that we all taste the same to a rat regardless of social status. In short - a well-acted film anchored by Borgnine as the jerk who can't possibly die fast enough, but who lives long enough to make it particularly satisfying.

Here's who matters and why (besides screen legend Ernest Borgnine): Bruce Davison (Suitable Flesh, From the Shadows, Evil at the Door, The Manor, Await the Dawn, Along Came the Devil 1 & 2, Itsy Bitsy, Displacement, The Curse of Sleeping Beauty, Return of the Killer Shrews, The Lords of Salem, Bigfoot 2012, Coffin, Munger Road, Camp Hell, Kingdom Hospital, X-Men 1 & 2, Dahmer, Steel and Lace, V), Sondra Locke (The Shadow of Chikara, Death Game, A Reflection of Fear), Elsa Lanchester (Terror in the Wax Museum, The Ghost Goes West, The Bride of Frankenstein), Michael Dante (Beyond Evil), William Hansen (The Terminal Man, Homebodies), J. Pat O'Malley (The Cabinet of Dr. Califari 1962), Joan Shawlee (Conquest of Space, Prehistoric Women, House of Horrors), Almira Sessions (Rosemary's Baby), Pauline Drake (The Frozen Ghost, The Ape), Helen Spring (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein), Alan Baxter (Escape from the Planet of the Apes), Shirley Blackwell (Batman Returns, Star Trek VI), Paul Bradley (Pandemonium, What's the Matter with Helen?, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Tales of Terror, The Night the World Exploded, She Devil, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, Creature with the Atom Brain, House of Frankenstein), Minta Durfee (What's the Matter with Helen?, Hollywood Horror House), Bobby Gilbert (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes), Raven Grey Eagle (Captain America II, Exorcist II, Battle for the Planet of the Apes), Ed Haskett (Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes), Bern Hoffman (Ben, Soylent Green), Tony Regan (Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Seconds), Arthur Tovey (Back to the Future, To the Ends of Time, Capricorn One, Young Frankenstein, The Mummy, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Batman: The Movie 1966, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, Phantom of the Rue Morgue, The War of the Worlds 1953).

And the mainstream credits: Bruce Davison (George Henderson on Harry and the Hendersons), Sondra Locke (Laura Lee in The Outlaw Josie Wales), Elsa Lanchester (Miss Plimsall in Witness for the Prosecution, Katie Nanna in Mary Poppins, Jessica Marles in Murder by Death), William Hansen (Caesar Rodney in 1776), J. Pat O'Malley (Mr. Bundy on Wendy and Me, Perkins on Spin and Marty), Joan Shawlee (Sweet Sue in Some Like it Hot, Sylvia in The Apartment), Alan Baxter (Freeman in Saboteur).

The special effects are minimal - limited to a few flying rubber rats during attack sequences and brief flashes of fire engine red blood. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise after the first hour or so makes clear that the flick is, at its core, a character study that only veers into horror territory in its final act. The true spectacle of Willard is the effectiveness with which the animal trainer is able to get his critters to perform their assigned tasks and keep the movie from becoming ridiculous - although the editor deserves some credit in that regard as well. Truthfully, the rats are only menacing if you're afraid of them to begin with, and even then a lot of the fear they might otherwise inspire is lost following the early sequences in which they contentedly bond with Willard. The flick was also released prior to the MPAA's establishment of the PG-13 rating and made it into theaters with a PG, but with the exception of the last 10 minutes it probably doesn't even warrant that, so don't expect much in the way of gore.

The shooting locations are excellent, if under-utilized, with the run-down mansion effectively mirroring the social status of its inhabitants as each slowly disintegrates following the death of Willard's father and Borgnine's takeover of the family business. The Higgins-Verbeck-Hirsch mansion, as it's known, still stands in Los Angeles today and was subsequently featured in both Witchboard and Elvira: Mistress of the Dark before being retired as a filming location following its restoration and designation as a Historic-Cultural Monument. The factory and office spaces are a nice slice of late '60s/early '70s Americana with their lax safety protocols and antiquated work spaces complete with all the state-of-the-art equipment Woolworth's had to offer, but really it's the mansion and its ability to project a kind of self-awareness that suggests even it knows that the best years are behind for both it and its occupants. Good finds by the location scouts.

The soundtrack is a bit cheesy and sitcom-esque and consists primarily of string/woodwind compositions that transition from cheerful and outright sappy to mildly tense as Willard's emotions swing from cautious optimism to despair and rage following the death of Socrates. The tonal consistency between the film and music is spot-on, but 50+ years after its release, comes across as not only incredibly dated, but dated even by the standards of 1971. That said, it's important to remember that the film's designation as a horror film is a little precarious when rating the quality of the music, because the fact that the score doesn't conform to your expectations doesn't necessarily make it inappropriate or ineffective. A darker, more melodic score, while more enjoyable, simply wouldn't fit here, and although Alex North did compose the soundtracks for films like The Bad Seed (1956) and Shanks, he's better known for his less horrific offerings (Good Morning Vietnam, Prizzi's Honor, Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, Spartacus), and is perhaps better suited to those genres. Either way, I find it a little cartoony and weak-kneed, but never inconsistent with the movie it accompanies.

Overall, Willard is a little shaky as a horror flick and carries with it a quality that makes it accessible to a broader audience, but which also kinda quashes its exploitation potential. On a technical level it's sound by every measurable metric, but feels as though it's being held back by something and never quite establishes itself as a genuine fright film, in my opinion. I'm not tryin' to engage in "no true Scotsman" fallacy or anything, but for me, Willard compares strongly to movies like The Fog and The Amityville Horror with its goal of scarin' the pants off ordinary movie-goers, and while it's very successful in that regard, it just rings a little hollow. Still worth a watch for its significance in the lead-up to the Eco-Horror boom, though, as well as a good jumping-off point for people introducing their kids to the genre.

Rating: 64%