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Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

[Musophobia] Willard (1971)

Willard - Theatrical Poster
Theatrical Poster
Poor put-upon Willard. He wants nothing more than to find a friend in this unfair life, but he just keeps getting dumped on. His boss is too demanding, his invalid mother is overbearing, and the rest of the world just doesn't get him. He's so lonely that it's understandable he would seek companionship wherever he could find it. Most people would buy a dog, but Willard? He adopts a rat.

Well, multiple rats, really. They start off as a handful that he finds in the unkempt backyard, but they multiply quicker than Disney Dalmatians. Before you know it, there are hundreds of them rifling about in the yard, in the cellar, and even in Willard's bedroom. Out of all these squeaky bastards, only two of them really stand out. A stark white one amongst all the grey furs that Willard names Socrates, and a big black one that he calls Ben.

Socrates, so named because Willard believes he possesses heightened intelligence, is obviously Willard's favorite. Ben, though, appears to be the leader of this rat army, and weasels his way into Willard's routine as well. They sleep in his room, he teaches them tricks, and he even brings them to work some days, stashing them in a storage room where only he goes. Until the day that someone else does go in, that is, and sees them scampering about. This discovery leads to the bludgeoning death of Socrates at the hands of Willard's boss Mr. Martin, a rodent tragedy the likes of which have never been seen on the big screen. Willard keeps mum throughout, though, as the rats are supposed to be his little secret. Afterwards, he is visibly distraught, mourning the loss of the best friend he ever had.

Things continue to pile up on Willard, as his mother dies shortly afterwards. He wasn't even there to say
Willard - Willard & Socrates
Willard & Socrates
goodbye, as he was off running errands for Mr. Martin and couldn't be reached. Already dangerously alone in this world, her death leaves him with virtually nobody, and if he previously had a screw loose, he is now about to come completely unhinged.

There are, perhaps, a lot of people who have done Willard wrong over the years, but none so frequently or with such relish as Mr. Martin. Even before the movie begins, he has somehow wrestled control of the company away from Willard's family—a company that Willard's deceased father started. It seems implied to me that his taking over the company lead, directly or otherwise, to the death of Willard's father, the frailty of his mother, and her demanding ways. This, coupled with the deaths of his friend and his mother, and the fact that Martin fires Willard in a scheme to force him to sell the house so that Martin can construct apartments on the lot, makes him the ideal target for Willard's revenge. Martin may take the brunt of the attack, but really, this is Willard's strike against humanity in general.

Willard and his rats arrive at the office late at night, where Martin is working alone. There is the expected shouting match and blame game before the scene that we have all been waiting for. Willard utters the simple command of "Tear him up!", and just like that, what had up until now been merely a quirky character drama suddenly shifts into a horror film.

The rats swarm on Martin and begin to gnaw his flesh until, in a panic, he crashes through a window and falls to his death on the street below. The horror of what he's done must have hit Willard like a ton of bricks, because immediately afterwards, he tells Ben goodbye and gives his army the kiss-off. As soon as he returns home, he gathers up whatever rodents remain into cages and unceremoniously drowns them.

Willard - Menacing Ben
Menacing Ben
This does not sit well with Ben, who pops up as Willard entertains Joan, the pretty young assistant from his office and the closest thing that he has to a real friend, at his home. Rats may look ugly pretty easily, but I have to imagine it is slightly more difficult to make one appear menacing. That effect is certainly achieved here, though, as Ben looks like a rodent Hellbent on revenge. After ushering his colleague from the house, Willard and Ben face off, leading to Willard's ultimate demise at the hands (paws?) of the army that he once commanded. The sound of hundreds of tiny, chattering teeth ripping through human flesh is not one that you will likely soon forget. And that is where the movie ends, but not the story, as the sequel BEN will pick things up the following year.

As for Willard and his relationship with the rats, I think it is safe to say that Socrates was his only real friend amongst them. The others he seemed to view first as a means of entertainment and then as tools for revenge. Had Socrates not been killed, he never would have drowned some of the rats and cast out the others, simply because that's not how you treat your friend's family. With Socrates gone, though, and the others having outlived their usefulness, Willard was no longer bound by obligation to care for them. He ordered them to leave, and those who stayed behind were gathered up and executed for their loyalty.

His relationship with Ben was sketchy at best. Ben desired Willard's attention and wanted to be in the inner-circle with Socrates, possibly out of jealousy. He was King Rat, after all. Why should his brainy sidekick receive access that he himself was denied? Ben was not very good at following Willard's orders either, because leaders lead for a reason, and that is why Willard never placed him in the same class as he did Socrates. Socrates offered Willard companionship, but he also offered subjugation. Willard had never been in control of anything in his entire life, and his command of the rats made him feel as if he were not the insignificant creature that the rest of the world insisted he was.

So if Ben was able to resist this mysterious command over the rodent population that Willard had, and furthermore override that command in his lesser minions, why did he put up with Willard's nonsense for so long? I can only assume that it was a means of survival. Willard fed them, gave them shelter, and hid them from the rest of the world. After the death of Socrates (which Ben blamed Willard for), Ben is likely ready to cut ties with Willard once and for all, but he sticks around long enough to get revenge on the murderous Martin. Even if the rats were not dismissed by Willard immediately after Martin's death, I believe that Ben would still have lead them away. It was only because Willard then turned on them, drowning them in their cages, that Ben lead the attack against him. Willard's death was something that he brought on himself, the result of believing that he was the undisputed king of a kingdom that had, up until now, been only humoring him.

One can't watch a film such as WILLARD without catching allusions to the old story of the Pied Piper, and why shouldn't that be so? If comic books are, as has been speculated endlessly, the equivalent of modern mythology, then horror movies are today's fairy tales. The moral of that original story is to not go back on your word, and the moral of WILLARD is related, but not quite the same—you need to treat people with respect, because a person can only turn the other cheek so many times. Because of Western audience's need to see villains get their comeuppance (though I view Willard as more of an antihero than a clear cut villain), there is a secondary moral that comes along with Willard's death, one that speaks of the dangers of revenge. Such an endeavor rarely ends well in cinema, and Willard, in essence devoured by his own hatred, is no exception.

WILLARD is occasionally slow-moving, but it is played intelligently and concentrates more on characterization and story than it does on gore. Willard grows from a sad recluse to a more confident man by the film's end. Had he found a less-lethal way to go about this evolution, we would not have to worry about his future as the closing credits begin to roll, but as he sought vengeance as a means for personal growth, he no longer has a future at all.

WILLARD was based on the 1969 novel Ratman's Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert, which follows the same
Willard - Ratman's Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert
Ratman's Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert
basic storyline, though the main character, who is never named, narrates the tale through journal entries. Although Willard is never once shown journaling in this film, the sequel does makes mention of police finding his journals. The script was adapted by Gilbert Ralston, a television writer who is sometimes confused with author Stephen Gilbert because of their names and the fact that they were both born in the same year. Director Daniel Mann had previously directed OUR MAN FLINT (1966), and would return to working with violent animals in the boxing kangaroo comedy MATILDA from 1978.

Bruce Davison portrayed Willard, only the fourth credit in an expansive filmography that ranges from playing Dean Torrence in the Jan & Dean biopic DEAD MAN'S CURVE (1978); taking over for John Lithgow's character in the HARRY AND THE HENDERSON television series (1991-1993); Senator Kelly in the first two X-MEN movies (2000, 2003); and appearances on TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, AMAZING STORIES, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, and even SEINFELD.

Willard’s mother Henrietta was played by the Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester. She had a few other genre films on her résumé, including Robert Siodmak's SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945) and TERROR IN THE WAX MUSEUM (1973), but was just as at home in more family-friendly fare such as MARY POPPINS (1964). She had previously shared screentime with cats (THAT DARN CAT, 1965) and raccoons (RASCAL, 1969), so rats were the logical next step.

Willard's possible-love interest and only real human friend, Joan, was played by Sondra Locke, who has relatively few credits to her name with just about 30 appearances on television and movies. Interestingly, though, in 1986 she directed and starred in a movie called RAT-BOY, a drama about a human-rat hybrid which sounds right up my alley.

Willard - Newspaper Ad
From The Village Voice, 07.01.71
And finally, Willard's boss Mr. Martin was played by Ernest Borgnine, who had been appearing onscreen since 1951, playing the heavy in countless Westerns and crime films, to say nothing of his impressive run as the lead on McHALE'S NAVY (1962-1966). His other genre credits include THE DEVIL'S RAIN (1975), the post-apocalyptic RAVAGERS (1979), and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981).

When BEN premiered the following year, there were not a lot of returning faces. Gilbert Ralston did supply the sequel's script, but director Mann opted instead to reteam with Borgnine for the Western THE REVENGERS. Of all the primary characters in WILLARD, only Joan had survived, and although I would have liked to see her story continue, it wasn't meant to be. When everyone around her started dropping like flies, she probably booked it to the next town. I can't say that I blame her. This would be enough to bring about a case of late-onset musophobia in just about anyone.

--J/Metro

2 comments:

  1. Ben posting some great stuff here, keep up the great work... I have been stupid busy and have not made the right amount of comments... happy holidays and more.

    Jeremy

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    Replies
    1. Jeremy!

      Thanks for stopping by. Glad you're enjoying the blog, and that SOMEBODY is actually reading. :-) Always appreciate your comments, my friend.

      --J/Metro

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