Blu-ray Review: Willard (1971)

Based on Stephen Gilbert’s novel Ratman’s Notebooks, and directed by Daniel Mann, Willard could be easily dismissed as a horror movie about a creepy guy who loves rats. While that’s true, to leave it there is simplistic. Willard (Bruce Davison) is a rather complex character study. The title character is a sympathetic one; who’s feelings of alienation may be familiar to some viewers.

Twenty-seven-year-old Willard Styles is meek, shy, and has nothing going for him. Socially inept, he avoids talking to people, and can’t look them in the eye. He lives at home with his mostly bedridden mother Henrietta (Elsa Lancaster), in and old Victorian mansion that crumbling around them. However, even as the house is falling into ruin, the taxes are too much, and the only money they have is Willard’s small salary, mother and son agree the house shouldn’t be sold. Using a bell, Henrietta summons her son several times a day to berate him, and give him orders. Willard manages to hold a job as a lowly clerk at a company once owned by his deceased father, but he’s unable to stand up to bully of a boss, Al Martin (Ernest Borgnine).

It’s while trying to escape the humiliation of his kiddie birthday party—a party attended by his mother’s elderly friends—that Willard has a friendly encounter with one of the rats who seem to have taken over the garden. The next day, a few more have shown up. He starts feeding them regularly, and assigning them names. His favorites are a clever white rat named Socrates, and a big, aggressive, Norway rat, Ben. Ignoring his mother’s order to kill them, Willard begins to train the rats to do things on his command.

In many ways, Willard isn’t too unlike another famous name from the history of horror, Norman Bates. They both live in large, crumbling homes, and with their fathers having left the family years before, have developed unhealthy attachments to domineering mothers. It’s not surprising that when the mother dies, they find themselves compensating for the loss in some odd ways. While a majority of us could never justify their actions, given what we know about how they were treated, we understand what drove their behavior.

Emboldened by his ability to command the rats, and the possibility of romantic interest from office temp Joan (Sondra Locke), Willard begins to lash out at those that have wronged him, using his tiny but determined army of rodents to gain the respect he’s always craved. Unfortunately, Ben takes things a little bit too far…

It’s Bruce Davison’s performance that makes Willard such a compelling, and believable character. At home or work, Willard is uncomfortable in his own skin, and finally finds a sense of belonging with the rats, who like him, are shunned, and despised by most of society.  Willard can talk to the rats, look them in the eye, even order them around, things he can’t fathom doing   with people.

Ernest Borgnine’s performance is another worth pointing out. Not really an evil guy, Al Martin is just a real jerk of a boss. Granted, you can understand some of his frustration, given that Willard’s a major screw-up. However, he gets sleazy after Willard’s mother dies, plotting to fire Willard, and buy up the property his crumbling home sits on for cheap. Watching all of this, it’s hard not to hate Mr. Martin after he kills Socrates. The older man is only acting as events required, but since we’re watching this through Willard’s eyes, it seems terribly cruel. Somehow, even as Willard slips deeper into isolation, and madness, it’s difficult not to root for him. Frankly, that’s a little bit scary!

Given a 4k restoration, and presented in the 1.85 aspect ratio, Scream Factory has brought an excellent level of clarity to this 1080p transfer. While a couple of shots look a bit grainy, Willard looks like it could have been filmed last week. Colors are vivid, and saturated throughout, while blacks are inky. Fine image detail is minute (count Socrates’ individual hairs!) and faces look lifelike. There are no compression issues. While I notice a couple of small scratches, and some very brief instances of dirt on the image, none of it affected the viewing experience.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 split mono track is very clean throughout, and has been re-recorded well. While mono tracks never measure up to what today’s moviegoers are used to, this one does a solid job of replicating the theatrical experience as intended.

English subtitles are included.

The following extras are available:

  • Audio Commentary with Actor Bruce Davison: Moderated by Nathaniel Thompson, Davison covers a lot of information, opening up about various aspects of his career, and sharing that he was dating Sandra Locke! He’s got quite a few interesting anecdotes.
  • Interview with Bruce Davison (HD, 12:27) The actor discusses his casting (he had to take a “chemistry” test” with a live rat inside a California garage), his co-stars, director Daniel Mann, and more.
  • Still Gallery: A collection of 68 promotional and publicity scans, along with newspapers ads, and poster art.
  • Radio Spots (1:26)
  • TV Spot (SD, 1:02)
  • DVD of the film.

Movie title: Willard (1971)

Director(s): Daniel Mann

Actor(s): Bruce Davison , Sondra Locke , Elsa Lanchester , Michael Dante Ernest Borgnine , Jody Gilbert

Genre: Horror

  • Movie
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
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