Daniel Mann, 1971
Starring: Bruce Davison, Elsa Lanchester, Ernest Borgnine, Sondra Locke
I’m a little sad to admit that I really don’t like Willard. I want to, but I just don’t. For starters, this is not a horror film. Based on Stephen Gilbert’s novel Ratman’s Notebooks, this is a bloodless psychological thriller about an abused, downtrodden and emotionally stunted young man who finally cracks under years of pressure. I really hate movies that revolve around a main character who is constantly humiliated and unable to rise above the catastrophe that is their day-to-day life. That is the central plot to Willard. He is nagged by his mother, her friends, his boss, and is never able to stand up for himself. He is also unable to get his own revenge and has the rats, primarily led by Ben (a big black rat who is in charge of the operation) do it for him. The worst part is that Willard comes to regret the revenge and tries to kill all the rats. Fortunately Ben has other plans.
My primary criticism is that Willard is an unlikeable, spineless coward and his inability to control his own fate prevented this from being either the horror film or revenge movie I so hoped it would be. Yes, at the start of the film Willard is somewhat likable and sympathetic. His boss has stolen his father’s company out from under him, his mother is sick and nagging and dies not too long into the film and the bank is going to sell his house. But then he makes his first real friend, the adorable rat Socrates, and a new girl at work seems to reciprocate his interest. He uses the rats to disrupt his boss’s dinner party. It seems like things are going to turn around. But then he fails to defend Socrates and stands limply by while his boss kills the poor rat with a stick. What a bitch. After that, Ben is forced to take over, but I was so disgusted with Willard at that point, that I could no longer enjoy the film.
Willard was weirdly successful in the box office and it became sort of a minor hit. Even I can admit there are some good things about it, namely the people involved with the film. Bruce Davison does a great riff on Norman Bates and Elsa Lanchester (in one of her final performances) and Ernest Borgnine are great as supporting characters you love to hate. Director Daniel Man (Teahouse of the August Moon, Butterfield 8, Our Man Flint, and many more) does a decent job slowly building tension throughout the film. And - the real kicker - this was produced by Bing Crosby.
I’m betting younger horror fans will prefer the 2003 Crispin Glover remake of the film, but anyone who loves movies about animal trainers driven to violence should see the original Willard at least once. Idiotically, it is still unavailable on DVD, but it’s floating around Youtube. Keep in mind that there is no sex, no blood, little violence and the lowest body count of probably any animals attack film. You have been warned.
Because one movie about a downtrodden young man making some rat friends wasn’t enough, there’s a sequel.
Phil Karlson, 1972
Starring: Lee Montgomery, Joseph Campanella, Arthur O’Connell
Though Ben, named after the ass-kicking rat from the first film, is more of a typical animals attack movie, it is sadly still not the film I hoped Willard would be. Danny, a boy with a heart condition and no friends, meets Ben and his army of rat companions. They develop a heartwarming relationship and Ben protects Danny, who in turn keeps the location of the rats a secret from the police force, who are hunting them down because the rats go on occasional massacres.
Ben benefits from being much sillier than Willard and having a more likable main character. The young, innocent Danny (Lee Montgomery, also in Burnt Offerings) really loves Ben, almost in a sort of Benjy, Lassie or Flipper style relationship, which culminates in Ben’s escape from the flame thrower induced rat massacre at the end of the film and his emotional return to Danny. You know what else there is? A lot of singing. Danny writes a song for Ben, predictably called “Ben,” which is covered by a young Michael Jackson for the film’s closing credits (and later covered by Crispin Glover for the Willard remake). Danny also puts on a puppet show and plays the harmonica for his furry friend. They can inexplicably communicate, though this isn’t much of a stretch from the first film. And as annoying as all the musical accompaniment is, damn that rat is cute.
I can’t pretend that Ben is a good film, but it’s more light-hearted and ridiculous than Willard. Directed by Phil Karlson, responsible for a number of other sentimental films like G.I. Honeymoon (1945), Lorna Doone (1951) and Walking Tall (1973), Ben is a serviceable sequel, though doesn’t feel like a continuation of Willard whatsoever, other than Ben’s character. Watch it if you’re in the mood for some family friendly ‘70s cheese involving a horde of adorable rats.