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Schlock & Awe: WILLARD is Still Real Creepy

Schlock & Awe: WILLARD is Still Real Creepy

It takes a lot to truly scare me when it comes to horror movies. Sure, once in awhile there’s a film like Audition or The Babadook that will thoroughly freak me the hell out, but not many give me the legitimate skeeves. That is…unless it’s a movie about any sort of critter. If I’m totally honest, tiny little animals are the thing that I just can’t with.

A horror movie about tiny beasts would be my utter nightmare, and while 1971’s Willard is definitely high on creepiness (especially since it exclusively used real animals), it’s also just, uhh…real weird.

Some years ago, I watched and reviewed the ’80s Canadian horror film about genetically altered rats that eat unsuspecting people, including Scatman Crothers and a baby (really happened, I swear), Deadly Eyes.  The horror of seeing a pack of giant rats eating human faces is lessened, however, once you learn that, aside from using puppets for closeups, the filmmakers put rat costumes on Dachshunds for the wide shots. Everything from then on is just…kind of cute?

Not so with Willard, for while the little mouse Socrates — and even the evil fat Ben — are pretty cute, seeing real rats attack Ernest Borgnine does nothing but instill willies and yucks.

Willard, directed by Daniel Mann, tells the story of a young schlub named Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison), who lives in a huge, decrepit house with his elderly mother, while working a job he hates at a factory that used to belong to his late father. His life straight-up sucks, because his boss (Borgnine) is cruel to him and his mother is cranky and domineering. On his 27th birthday, he comes home to find his mother had thrown a party for him, inviting all of her ancient and nosy friends and nobody else. Leaving in a huff, Willard retreats to his house’s massive garden and sees a rat, to which he tosses some birthday cake. The next day, he sees more rats and begins mimicking their squeaks.

His mother wants him to kill the rats, but Willard refuses (though doesn’t tell her so). He attempts to fix their slowly decaying house himself, but following a particularly bad day at work, he does decide he will kill the rats, though he can’t actually bring himself to do it. Things just keep getting worse; Willard’s boss denies him a raise and pressures him to sell him the house; Willard’s mother dies and he learns that his house is heavily mortgaged and the bank pressures him to give it up. Faced with constant shittiness, Willard uses his trained rats — led by Socrates and the hulking Ben — to break into his boss’ office to steal money.

Willard starts to get very brazen, bringing Socrates and Ben to work with him every day, and this confidence translates into a friendship with the cute new woman in the office named Joan (Sondra Locke). She buys him a cat to keep him company, but that’s probably not the best thing for a would-be Rat King, so he gives the cat away almost immediately.

One day at work, a co-worker spots the rats and Willard’s boss kills Socrates with a shoe. Willard is similarly crushed, and then infuriated, especially when the boss says he knows Willard stole the money and demands to buy the house for a ridiculously low price. Willard, without Socrates’ “voice of reason,” releases Ben and his horde of rats. His boss meets his end.

But Willard soon sees the insanity of his ways and plans to drown all the rats. But Ben doesn’t want to be drowned (duh), and during a dinner with Joan, Willard spies an angry Ben. He sends Joan away and tries to — I’m serious — reason with Ben, but to no avail. The movie ends with Willard getting eaten by his rats.

This movie is incredibly strange, and our main character ends up not being particularly sympathetic. Ben, weirdly, is both the monster and the last “man” standing. There’s no reason this movie should have been popular with anyone, and yet it very much was. Willard preceded the string of animals-attack movies of the ’70s that gave us weird ones like Sssssss and eventually Jaws. But it’s just not the type of movie you’d think would have been a massive hit. And it was well received by critics, too. That is bananas.

It was so popular in fact, a sequel was made for the very next year, called Ben, in which Ben and his army of rats moves to a new town (following the printing of several pages of Willard’s diary in the newspaper). They befriend a little boy, but of course proceed to destroy and murder everything and everybody. This movie had an Oscar-nominated ballad called “Ben’s Song” sung by Michael Jackson. I just… I don’t know what in the world was going on in the early ’70s.

Willard is insane, and that’s partially why I find it so creepy. It’s not just that there are dozens of rats on screen swarming people, it’s that they were in a movie that has a weirdly triumphant orchestral score, several scenes of comedy that seem like they belong in a heartwarming coming of age story, the disgusting and repugnant lead villain played by Ernest Borgnine, an unhinged but decidedly likable lead in Bruce Davison, and some set pieces that are impressive in the way they get trained rats to do things. Who was this movie for? Lots of people, turns out.

For more Schlock & Awe, check out my reviews of Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, James Gunn’s excellent Slither, and the nutso Japanese action horror movie, Wolf Guy.

Images: Cinerama Releasing

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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