WILLARD (1971) Blu-ray/DVD Combo
Director: Daniel Mann
Scream Factory/Shout! Factory

A holy grail finally uncovered! Shout! Factory’s “Scream Factory” line has released WILLARD, the 1971 tear-em-up indie horror hit from Bing Crosby Productions (distributed by Cinerama Releasing), based on Stephen Gilbert’s novel, Ratman’s Notebooks, directed by Daniel Mann, scripted by Gilbert A. Ralston, and starring Bruce Davison, Ernest Borgnine, Sondra Locke, Elsa Lanchester, Michael Dante, Jody Gilbert, William Hansen, John Myers, J. Pat O’Malley, and Joan Shawlee. One of the most highly-sought MIA 1970s cult titles among home video enthusiasts, WILLARD finally emerges from legal limbo in a spectacular 4k restoration from Shout!—and it plays just as well today as when it raked in millions during the summer and fall of 1971. In addition to the gorgeous 1080p HD 1.85:1 widescreen Blu transfer here (a standard DVD disc is also included in this combo release), there’s a fun commentary track and featurette interview from star Davison, as well as some other minor extras like TV spots, a trailer, and still gallery.

Twenty-seven-year-old fumbling milquetoast screw-up Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison, SHORT EYES, BRASS TARGET) has absolutely nothing going for him. He lives at home with his nagging, complaining, insulting mother Henrietta (Elsa Lanchester, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, MURDER BY DEATH) in their crumbling, broken-down Victorian mansion. He works—not very well—as a lowly office clerk at a steel works once owned by his deceased father...a successful business from which Willard and his mother were aced out by his father’s abusive, manipulative partner, Al Martin (Ernest Borgnine, ICE STATION ZEBRA, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE). He has no friends. However, his 27th kiddie birthday party—another exercise in humiliation since the only guests are older friends of his mother’s—brings him new purpose. Escaping from the party to the mansion’s overgrown backyard, Willard discovers a friendly rat family, which he feeds. Soon, Willard finds himself caring for and even training the ever-growing rat community, taking gentle white rat Socrates as his spiritual soul mate, while tolerating more brash and needy black rat Ben. When Henrietta unexpectedly dies, Willard discovers to his horror that there is nothing left to him but the heavily mortgaged house, which will soon be sold for back taxes. But perhaps his rat friends will help, as they did previously when Willard surreptitiously took them to Al’s anniversary party, unleashing them on his boss’ guests with horrifically comedic results? Using his trained rats to “break in” to one of Al’s wealthy client’s home to steal needed cash, Willard finally has some welcome breathing room...until All kills a visiting Socrates at the office. Even a budding romance with temp office worker Joan (Sondra Locke, A REFLECTION OF FEAR, SUDDEN IMPACT) ultimately can’t save Willard from spiraling down to his appointed fate.

You simply can’t call yourself a movie child of the early 1970s unless you saw WILLARD at the theaters...preferably on a later drive-in double bill with its sequel, BEN. I saw WILLARD at our local Jerry Lewis Twin when I was six (my older brothers wanted to see it, and they had to take me everywhere, so they lied to our unsuspecting parents that it was “G”-rated). It hit me square on, just like a good, frightening fairy tale should affect a kid (we went around our house for weeks flinging open doors on our unsuspecting parents, screaming, “Tear him up!” before slamming them shut). A big, big hit with the public that summer of ‘71 (where it made the equivalent of over $130 million in today’s dollars), WILLARD spawned a lesser sequel the next year...and then kind of disappeared into the void of infrequent TV showings before legal matters with BCP productions and the defunct Cinerama Releasing effectively 86ed it from view (star Bruce Davison mentions in his commentary track that no one was even sure if a usable print could be sourced for this restoration, sparking initial fears that WILLARD was truly “lost” for good). For a well-known, popular movie that clicked so solidly with a sizeable portion of the movie-going audience, WILLARD’s unavailability was puzzling, to say the least.

Watching WILLARD now as an adult, and watching my own younger kids react to the movie (it sold them just like it did me), it’s easy to see why it worked with audiences, especially younger ones. Part animal horror flick, part adolescent drama, WILLARD comes out as mostly twisted fairy tale, a rather perverse “Lassie Comes Home To Norman Bates” that hits all the right buttons with the young. When poor, schlubby Willard finally finds a friend in, of all things, a rat; what kid or adult didn’t remember that feeling of finding total acceptance from a pet, when adults proved to be contradictory or intimidating, and same-age friends scarce? Of course what’s so funny and sick about WILLARD is that the “child” of this fairy tale is a 27-year-old wimp, and his dog is a disgusting rat. Added to this warped children’s story is a Freudian (or perhaps more accurately, a Greek tragedy) subtext of a sickly, manipulative, emotionally repulsive mother who blames her child for all her woes, and a boss who metaphorically “killed” Willard’s father, took over his business, and now wants to fire Willard to force him to sell his home (so Al can bulldoze it and put up an apartment building). Even the hippies aren’t left out of the scenarist target demo. The Willard character no doubt appealed to counterculture audiences who enjoyed contrary Willard’s outsider, slacker status, and particularly his disgust with the gross older people that populate his narrow world (watch do-nothing Willard visibly blanche at his mother’s and her guests’ angry pleas for him to be more assertive, at his amusingly nauseating birthday party). Mix that all together (along with a fun last act twist where naughty, jealous rat Ben, taught to kill by an increasingly distant, even violent Willard, decides he likes it), and WILLARD becomes a rather surprisingly potent little cookie full of arsenic.

Psychology aside, WILLARD works fine as a queasy horror flick just on a visceral level. The sight of all those real rats (no CGI, of course) is flat-out revolting, heightened by the good Foley work of their cringe-inducing scrabbling and munching (brilliantly effective in the rat assault on Borgnine, where unseen hordes crump crump crump across his mustard yellow Dacron carpeting while his eyes believably bugging out in horror). Screenwriter Gilbert Ralston (KONA COAST, THE HUNTING PARTY) and director Daniel Mann (OUR MAN FLINT, THE REVENGERS) leaven this potentially stomach-turning, overwhelmingly downbeat story with an openly acknowledged, gleeful comedic sensibility that is WILLARD’s best element.

Taking their cue, no doubt, from all those cute, funny Disney “True-Life Adventure” documentaries, the rats in WILLARD squeak and nod their approval at every one of Davison’s utterances, roping in the kid viewers who still think you can talk intelligently to an animal, while cracking up the adults (they even pull a hoary old back-and-forth reverse footage bit for a little rat that seems to be bowing and thanking Willard for not drowning him). WILLARD's humans are just as grotesque as the rats, with director Daniel Mann letting his talented group of character actors go into full-on recoil mode to get laughs (nobody can touch Borgnine, but fleshy, bug-eyed Jody Gilbert gets big yocks whenever she starts blubbering and pawing at Davison). Over his career, Mann’s output would vary widely (from respectable melodrama like I’LL CRY TOMORROW and BUTTERFIELD 8 or comedic spoofs like the excellent OUR MAN FLINT, to dire comedies like WHO’S GOT THE ACTION?, WHO’S BEEN SLEEPING IN MY BED? and MATILDA). However, WILLARD is pitch perfect, with Mann moving nimbly through the fast-paced story, aided by cinematographer Robert B. Hauser’s (THE ODD COUPLE, A MAN CALLED HORSE) delightfully saturated comic book frames, editor Warren Low’s (THE BAD SEED, TRUE GRIT) snappy cutting, and composer Alex North’s (SPARTACUS, AIRPORT) alternatively sensitive and bombastic score.

Mann, known as an actor’s director, doesn’t disappoint with this A-level group of overly talented hams (except for poor Sondra Locke, who has almost nothing to do here). Elsa Lanchester, wondrously repellent as Willard’s peevish, whining mother, doesn’t get a death scene, strangely, but her few brief scenes are enough to make you understand why Willard would rather talk to a rat. Davison, unwittingly starring in his biggest hit too soon in his career, is a bundle of ticks and grimaces and pulled faces that he calls “overacting” in his commentary track, but which seem perfectly aligned with the movie’s psychologically-damaged, isolated, emotionally-retarded central character (in Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last picture, and when “hot property” Davison followed up monster hit WILLARD with three flops in a row, his career as a leading man was effectively over). As for Borgnine...what can one say, other than his turn here is a masterwork of sly manipulation, seething rage, and hilarious grotesqueness. No one could enthuse on the screen like Borgnine, regardless of the context, and here, he’s palpably nauseating in his boorish enthusiasm, whether sticking his hand down Joan Shawlee’s ample cleavage (“I was doin’ the old broad a favor,” he croaks), or coldly, viciously browbeating Willard in front of the other employees, or stuffing his face to overflowing during Lanchester’s funeral, proclaiming with a wild, bug-eyed, open mouth smile, “This is just like a picnic!” It’s a bravura performance, one that should have garnered him a Supporting nod from the Academy Awards that year (he’s a hellava lot more memorable than say, Roy Scheider was, in his FRENCH CONNECTION-nominated turn), and one probably scarier (and certainly funnier) than any of WILLARD’s rats.

WILLARD’s 1080p HD 1.85:1 widescreen 4k Blu transfer is a revelation for fans of the movie. The last time I saw WILLARD was a grainy fullscreen VHS copy back in the 1980s, and even then I remembered how poor it looked in comparisons to my big-screen memories. Shout!’s Blu-ray makes WILLARD look like it was shot yesterday. Sure, one or two shots are a bit grainy (due to the original cinematography), and there are a few instances of screen anomalies, like white scratches and dirt, but for the most part, the image pops like a comic book. Colors are vivid and saturated, fine image detail is minute (count Ben’s hairs!), and blacks inky. No compression issues I could spot. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 split mono track is super clean, with a decent re-recording level. English subtitles are available. Extras include a fun commentary track with star Bruce Davison, moderated well by Nathaniel Thompson. Although the energy wanes about halfway through the track, Davison covers a lot of ground in his own career (he’s dead honest about it), and has some fun anecdotes about his cast members (who knew he was dating Locke?). There’s also an on-camera interview with Davison (11:58), where the same commentary info is distilled. An original trailer, some TV spots, and a still gallery round out this must-buy Blu/DVD combo. (Paul Mavis)