Considering how much I love the 2003 remake of Willard, it is surprising that it took me this long to get to the original film. Especially considering the fact that the cast includes Bruce Davison in the lead role, and support from Ernest Borgnine, Sondra Locke, and Elsa Lanchester.
Davison plays Willard Stiles, a young man who isn't being treated very well by those around him. His frail mother (Lanchester) makes a lot of demands on his time, his boss (Borgnine) seems to revel in the fact that he can keep him overworked in the company that used to belong to his deceased father, and his family home is in need of some repair, which would be easier to deal with if he had any decent amount of money for it. When asked by his mother to deal with a rodent problem, Willard instead starts training them, and he's soon in charge of a multitude of rats.
Director Daniel Mann may not have a lot of other horror movies in his filmography, although it's an eclectic selection, but he's certainly given fans a bit of a minor classic with this one. Based on a novel by Stephen Gilbert, this is equal parts character study and creature feature, with both serving each other well. Mann, working from a script by Gilbert A. Ralston, builds things up perfectly, using three acts to show, in turn, the mistreatment of Willard, his befriending and training of the rats, and his eventual use of them to help make his life better. The first half of the movie may be much lighter in tone than the second half, and horror fans may find themselves growing impatient for signs of actual horror, but it brilliantly sketches out the history and nature of the central character, making it all the more satisfying when we get to see him fighting back.
Davison is absolutely brilliant in what could well be his finest role. Considering his huge body of film work, it's easy to forget just how great he can be in films more deserving of his talent (I am thinking more of films like this one and Short Eyes than, say, Titanic II). Borgnine is an entertainingly loathsome baddie, which viewers will already know from some of his other performances, and he has some slimy acolytes in the shape of Michael Dante and Joan Shawlee. Lanchester does well in her small role, as frail and whiney as she has to be, Jody Gilbert is someone who tries to help Willard, but only to really also help herself, and Locke brightens up the screen as arguably the only person who sees how badly Willard is being mistreated and taken advantage of by those around him.
What could have easily just been a tale of a boy getting rats to attack his enemies is instead turned into something incredibly bittersweet and, yes, surprisingly moving. It may focus on the rats, and the damage and death they can cause, but it's equally about the need for companionship, the emotional support that can be gained just from knowing friends have your back, and how difficult it can be to move forward with your own life again once you have developed such a strong connection with others.
There's a double-pack available here.
Americans can get the one movie here.