“I was good to you, Ben!” Well, that’s true, Willard, up to a point. Daniel Mann’s Willard (1971) makes a few good and satirical points, one being don’t bite the hand that feeds you, especially as that “hand” might bite you right back. Willard kicked off the 70’s Critters Done Wrong By (trademark pending) subgenre, leading to such memorable fodder as Frogs (1972), Food of the Gods (1976), and Day of the Animals (1977). However, Willard stands out from the (rat) pack by keeping it thrills low key and scurrying on the ground.
Produced by Bing Crosby Productions (yes, that Bing) and distributed by Cinerama Releasing Corporation (they also put out The Beast Must Die and Seizure), Willard received good notices, and more importantly to the genre, pulled in over $14 million US when it was released in June of ’71. Propelled by top notch performances, Willard delivers the vermin to your doorstep. Watch your feet.
Our film opens on a warehouse. The work day is done, and we see Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison – X-Men) heading to catch his bus. A car pulls in front of him driven by Al Martin (Ernest Borgnine – every film between 1951 and 2012), his boss and owner of said company, which was started by Willard’s deceased father. Martin hands papers that Willard forgot at the office, and due to the exchange, Willard misses his bus. As he arrives at his run down mansion (they once were wealthy, you see), he is greeted by his mother and her friends, who are throwing him a surprise birthday party. Sad and dejected (no other 27 year olds to play with), Willard heads out back by the cement pond and feeds a rat birthday cake.
The next morning, there’s another rat, this time with babies. Willard starts to communicate with the rats by imitating their sounds, and before you know it, he’s training and teaching them tricks (for the circus, perhaps?). Meanwhile, mother (Elsa Lanchester – The Bride of Frankenstein herself) keeps getting sicker and more demanding of Willard, so much so that he dreads being either at home or work. Salvation at the office, however, comes in the guise of Joan (Sondra Locke – The Outlaw Josey Wales), hired by Martin to help Willard catch up on his work. Of course, Willard becomes smitten with Joan, but without the necessary social skills to gain her favour, he continues to train the Stiles Happy Time Rat Brigade. This becomes easy to do, as Willard personally befriends a natural leader, an albino rat that he dubs Socrates.
All is well in the world until a young verminous upstart, that Willard names Ben, vies for Socrates’ status. A true rat race, indeed. Before you can say Mickey Mouse, Willard is using his army to deliver vengeance against those who have wronged him, including the people foreclosing on his house, and especially Martin, the man ultimately responsible for everything horrible in Willard’s life. Will his plan succeed? Can Willard find true happiness with Joan? Will Ben and the gang get tired of being used like low level employees?
One of Willard’s greatest assets is its lighthearted approach to the material. The subject matter certainly doesn’t bear this out, but sometimes genre fare can use an anachronistic tone to stand out from the crowd. For instance, the music by Alex North (Cleopatra, Spartacus), sweeping and lively, even jaunty, seems at odds with the events on display – and yet it works, by disguising the film as a Disney-esque “lonely boy and his blank” lark. Except, instead of life lessons taught by an adorable lion or Golden Retriever, the alleged protagonists are a mischief of rats (an appropriate term if there ever was one). Willard, tired of being used for his boss’ gain, in turn uses Ben and his “co-workers” for comeuppance against Martin. A sly dig at office politics, Willard proves that relations between employer and employee are tough above and below the floorboards.
The screenplay by Gilbert Ralston, a TV writer (Gentle Ben, Ben Casey – Gentle Ben Casey?), and based on the novel Ratman’s Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert, is rather episodic in nature until Ben starts making his presence known, and then becomes a tightly wound tale as the stakes are raised. The only two characters completely fleshed out are Willard and Martin, which is fine, as the lean 95 minute running time plays well with a two character showcase. Director Daniel Mann, while certainly not a stylist, is exceptional with actors, leading cast in previous films to several nominations, including an Oscar win for Liz Taylor for Butterfield 8 (1960). Here is no exception, as Elsa Lanchester and Sondra Locke register well even with such underwritten roles.
But as I said, it’s a two man show. Borgnine invests Martin with oily arrogance, exuding a con man’s condescension with a smile. It’s a great performance in a career chock full of Borgnine beauties, from Marty (1955) to RED (2010). Davison’s All American Ken Doll looks were actually a deterrent at the start of his career, making it hard for people to see below the surface. As he aged, the public focused less on his appearance and more on the amazing actor underneath. His youth works to his advantage here – at first we feel unthreatened by Willard, and in fact take great pity on him, as he tries to make a go at life with the cards stacking up higher against him. But look closer, and see the anguish play out in Davison’s eyes, his face, his stature, as his dreams crumble like so much drywall in a dilapidated home. It’s a great portrayal of a desperate loner, cornered and (trying to) claw his way up the ladder of success.
Willard spawned a whole subgenre that thrived in the 70’s, but while giant chickens, killer bears, and gargantuan ants flooded the drive-ins, we should never forget this simple tale of friendship and betrayal, between a man and his rat, that started it all. How popular was Willard? 1972 brought a sequel, Ben, with a title song of yearning performed by a teenaged Michael Jackson. Now there’s someone who could have used a friend.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE HITCHER