You have to give Shout Factory credit for at least trying to connect “Willard” to “Ben” for audiences. In the original 1971 movie, Willard Stiles is dysfunctional man whose rat of choice is white and named Socrates. For some reason he harbors an adversarial relationship with Ben, first scolding him like an embarrassed parent and then lashing out at him violently time and time again. Ben is always a mysterious element in the tale of Willard Stiles, an animal that has a lot more to him than simply being a rodent. He’s sometimes a sentient and very clever animal that feeds Willard’s own sense of need for family. “Willard” is kind of a demented thriller that’s always been considered a horror classic. And though it’s not scary at all, it does bear elements of horror with an EC Comic bent in rare moments.
Willard is a man from a very dysfunctional home life whose overbearing mother keeps him confined to an old mansion, and he has to live among people that live off of him and his mom. After being ordered to kill the rats lurking around the property, Willard becomes fascinated with their habits and the way they plan, and soon takes them in as pets. The rats then become something of a vile extension of Willard’s anger and hatred for his nemeses, taking part on his plan of revenge against his slimy boss Mr. Martin. Willard is a very interesting horror character as Bruce Davison channels Anthony Perkins as this mal adjusted man child who never quite understood society. He trades one dysfunction for another which begins to take a toll on his sanity.
Davison depicts a very sympathetic and poorly formed man who never quite understood how to approach normal relationships, and once he begins latching on to the rats, he becomes a much more menacing character that’s debatably being controlled by the legion of rats. The most fascinating moments are when he socializes with his favorite rat Socrates, and the apparent leader of the rats Ben, both of whom compete for his attention. There is a lot of interesting plot points that turn “Willard” even more rotten including a scene where Willard accidentally feeds a pet cat given to him by office co-worker Joan to his rats. There’s also the grotesque moment where after her death, Willard’s alleged friends feast on food during her wake like rats.
“Willard” is not at all a scary horror film, but it does garner a mood in the vein of an EC Comics segment, right down to Willard’s ultimate revenge on his slimy boss. I didn’t love it, but it’s worth a viewing for movie buffs that enjoy tales about revenge and maladjusted, twisted characters. And if anything it’s worth watching for the riveting turns by Bruce Davison and Ernest Borgnine.
The Scream Factory release of Willard comes with a DVD Copy of the film. There’s an audio commentary with actor Bruce Davison, as well as “I Used To Hate Myself But I Like Myself Now,” a twelve minute interview with “Willard” star and prominent character actor Bruce Davison who discusses how he got the part, working with his co-stars, and what he learned about life from Ernest Borgnine. Finally there is the theatrical trailer, a TV spot, a still gallery and radio spots. Be wary, as the radio spots are loud.