• Willard

    Released by: Shout! Factory
    Released on: May 16th, 2017.
    Director: Daniel Mann
    Cast: Bruce Davison, Ernest Borgnine, Sondra Locke, Elsa Lanchester
    Year: 1971
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    The Movie:

    Based on the novel The Ratman’s Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert, this 1971 Bing Crosby Production, directed by Daniel Mann was remade in 2003 by Glen Morgan with Crispin Glover in the titular lead role. While that remake was one of the rare genuinely good ones, it’s the original that cult and horror film fans have been clamoring for all these years. It took a while, but Shout! Factory has finally stepped up to the plate.

    As you’d guess, the movie tells the story of a young man named Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison). He lives in a massive old home with his ailing mother, Henrietta (Elsa Lanchester), often aided by their friend Charlotte (Jody Gilbert). Willard’s father passed away some time ago and although his business partner, Al Martin (Earnest Borgnine), promised to employ the boy at the company, Martin doesn’t treat Willard very well. It’s clear that he’s rather get rid of him all together.

    When Henrietta asks Willard to deal with some chores around the house, he becomes unusually attached to two rats – a white rat he names Socrates and a larger, brown rat he dubs Ben. Given that Willard doesn’t really have any friends, he bonds with the rats quickly, going so far as to feed them and trying to teach them to communicate with him. When Henrietta passes away and Willard finds himself in some tricky financial situations, he and pretty co-worker Joan (Sondra Locke) grow closer while Martin tries to take advantage of the young man and buy up the family home for a song in hopes of bulldozing it and putting up apartments. Willard, however, will eventually reach his breaking point – and when he does, Socrates and especially Ben will play their own strange roles in all of this… “TEAR HIM UP!”

    While it’s hard not to watch this and compare Willard Stiles to Norman Bates, the film does enough to stand out on its own so as not to feel like a Psycho clone. The movie builds at a deliberate pace, spending its first half as more of a weird character drama than a horror picture, but it never drags or feels sluggish thanks to a slew of really solid performances. Once the film hits the half way mark, however, Willard definitely carves out its spot in horror filmdom, successfully ramping up tension and taking the audience into some decidedly dark territory. It’s never particularly gory (it carries one of those cool early seventies GP ratings cards) but just the sheer abundance of rats – real rats, not computer generated rats or guinea pigs covered in shoe polish – gives the thing a rather unseemly vibe that goes a long way towards making it work as well as it does.

    The other big draw here is the cast. Borgnine does some quality scenery chewing in this one, playing his character as lecherous, misogynistic and opportunistic – not to mention just plain cruel. He sits at a desk with a plaque on it that reads ‘Do unto others before they do unto you’ and that sums up Martin’s mentality pretty nicely. When Willard catches him fooling around with his middle aged secretary in an office closet he tells Willard ‘I was doing the old bag a favor.’ He’s a sleazeball – and Borgnine is a blast to watch here. Elsa Lanchester, immortalized after playing The Bride Of Frankenstein, is a bit underused but also quite good as the fairly neurotic mother, dominating her son at times and likely at least partially responsible for his more introverted tendencies and social awkwardness. Beautiful Sondra Locke (probably best known for appearing in a string of Clint Eastwood movies – Sudden Impact, Bronco Billy, Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can, The Gauntlet, The Outlaw Josey Wales – the two were romantically involved for quite some time) is just as sweet as punch here in a very early role. Her character is the only one in the film who seems to genuinely like Willard for who he is. Imagine his surprise then when, at the peak of his rat obsession, she buys him a cat for the house so he doesn’t have to live alone. Locke isn’t given as much to do as some of the other lead players but she’s good here.

    The real star of the show, however, is Bruce Davison. As Willard he’s perfect – a little twitchy, kind of off kilter – nice enough, but somehow just a tad creepy even when he isn’t trying to be. The way that he winds up interacting with the rats, trying to teach them to listen to him by using food as a rewards, it’s odd. And it should be odd. Davison really makes this work, he genuinely seems to create a bond with the animals making the film’s final moments all the more unnerving.


    Willard makes its home video debut on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.85.1 widescreen in a transfer taken from a new 4k scan of the original negative. Those who have been making due with grey market DVD-Rs and bootlegs of the film for the last twenty years (Willard never received a DVD release) can confidently toss those discs into the trash – this transfer is excellent. Colors really pop here but never look oversaturated. Some of the garish hues of the seventies fashions really stand out though. Black levels are nice and deep but don’t bury or crush fine detail. In fact, the film’s darker scenes, like those that take place outside at night or in Willard’s basement, look great. The image is free of any obvious compression artifacts, edge enhancement or noise reduction. Detail is generally very strong throughout and grain appears naturally, as it should. The image is also very clean, showing nothing more than the occasional small white speck in terms of print damage. Really, Shout! Factory has done a great job with the transfer here. Willard looks great on Blu-ray.

    The English language DTS-HD Mono track, which comes with optional English subtitles, sounds just fine. There’s solid depth to the track for an older single channel mix while the dialogue stays clean, clear and easy to follow. The score has nice range to it and the squeaking of the rats in the film at times appropriately piercing. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion to note and the levels are properly balanced throughout.

    Extras start off with an audio commentary with lead actor Bruce Davison that is pretty interesting. He talks about landing the role, working with Borgnine as well as Lanchster and Locke, and of course, his rodent co-stars and how they were handled on set and taught to ‘act’ in some of the movie’s more memorable scenes. The track is well paced and engaging as Davison has a really sharp memory and is keen on sharing stories from the set.

    Davison also pops up in a twelve minute featurette entitled I Used To Have Myself But I Like Myself Now. It’s an amusing piece that sees the actor, a straight shooter, talk about landing the part when the rat that played Ben licked his ear! He then goes on to talk about Daniel Mann’s directing style, working alongside Earnest Borgnine and then becoming good friends with him and a fair bit more before discussing the pros and cons of hitting yourself with a toilet seat. It covers a bit of the same ground as the commentary but it’s a pretty enjoyable piece.

    Outside of that, look for a large still gallery, ninety seconds of radio spots, a minute of TV spots, the film’s original theatrical trailer, menus and chapter selection. As this is a combo pack release, a DVD version of the movie with identical extras is also included inside the Blu-ray keepcase.

    The Final Word:

    It took a long time for Willard to get a decent home video release, but the wait is over and the film’s cult audience should be quite pleased with Shout! Factory’s efforts here. Sure, some of their releases have had more extras but the commentary and interview with Davison are pretty great and the presentation here is top notch. As to the movie itself? Willard holds up really well, a strange, quirky picture featuring some excellent performances and a genuinely eerie concept.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!