Willard (1971)

willard poster 1971 movie
6.5 Overall Score
Story: 6/10
Acting: 8/10
Visuals: 7/10

Decent cast, interesting premise

Pacing problems, not very horrific

Movie Info

Movie Name: Willard

Studio: Bing Crosby Productions

Genre(s): Horror

Release Date(s):  February 26, 1971 (Premiere)/July 30, 1971 (US)

MPAA Rating: PG

willard socrates bruce davison

Just the sweet story of a boy and his killer rats

Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison) is a lonely young man.  He works a dead-end job at the factory that his father once co-owned for the man (Ernest Borgnine) who crushed his father by taking the company.  His mother Henrietta (Elsa Lanchester) coddles him and keeps him close.  When Willard finds rats have invaded the garden, his first instinct to kill them turns to befriending them…and Willard’s circle of friends seem to grow and grow.  Now, Willard is in danger of losing his house and his job and even his budding relationship with Joan (Sondra Locke) might not be enough to sway him from the horror he is about to face.

Directed by Daniel Mann, Willard is an animal-attacks horror movie.  The film is based on the novella Ratman’s Notebook by Stephen Gilbert which was first published in 1968.  It received average to negative reviews upon its release but gained a fanbase over the years.

willard ernest borgnine rats

You’re really fired now, Willard…

I actually don’t remember Willard being on TV much but I do remember Ben being on frequently late at night.  That made seeing Willard a treat if it was on because it was “the original”.  While I do like aspects of Willard, the movie is a bit ho-hum in narrative and direction.

The movie is considered PG so that limits the gore and danger in it.  Willard also is a problematic lead.  While you do feel sorry for him most of the time, he is also frustrating and callous himself.  His mother is smothering, but he is cold to her on occasion and cruel to her friends when they don’t deserve it (but also refusing to stand-up to them when they do deserve it).  He also befriends the rats of the story but then rejects them and kills them once they have done what he wants…by the end, he kind of gets what he deserves and has lost the good will that he built early in the film.

Bruce Davison is a decent Willard in that he can play sympathetic and timid but also is rather terrifying when he is ordering his rats to attack, bite, and tear (in almost another version of Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates from Psycho).  Ernest Borgnine is a good skuzzy boss who isn’t afraid to cheat on his wife in front of his employees and also likes humiliating them to make him feel better…but there are a few moments where he even seems doubtful about his behavior.  Sondra Locke is rather underused as Willard’s potential girlfriend and I do like Bride of Frankenstein Elsa Lanchester as Willard’s annoying clingy mother.

willard rat ben

Don’t f*%# with Ben and his friends

The movie doesn’t rely very heavily on special effects.  It does have a lot of rats for some of the scenes and there is some rather clever “training” of rats that does make some of Willard’s actions somewhat feasible looking.  As mentioned, the movie is PG and it has the potential to be gorier…but it is early PG so it is probably not PG by today’s standards.

Willard is a kind of fun movie despite its flaws.  It has pacing problems, and it isn’t as horrific as it could be.  I like what it is trying to do, but I think the execution is a bit off.  A second attempt at Willard was released in 2003 with Crispin Glover (Davison played his father) and this movie was much more high-tech but still failed to really work…leading me to believe it probably just isn’t a very good story overall.  The film was followed by a direct sequel Ben in 1972.

Related Links:

Ben (1972)

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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