Movie Review: “Willard” – An Infestation of Nightmares

Written by Angela June 27, 2014

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Rats. Whether you’re enamoured with their tiny fuzzy-wuzzy ears or repulsed by their worm-like tails and cannibalistic tendencies, odds are you have something to say about the most egregious creatures to ever roam the sewers. In the original 1971 version of “Willard”, directed by Daniel Mann, rats are cast front and centre of the screen as both protagonists and villains alongside the eponymous main character, with whom they share a common double nature. This means that even if you go into this film feeling fairly at peace with the rat and human species, you’ll probably have a less trusting viewpoint of both these cunning, sharp-toothed creatures by the time the credits are rolling.

Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison) is living the life every 20-something dreads. Residing with his overbearing mother in his crumbling childhood home, Willard works tirelessly at his family’s former company for a vindictive boss who was once his late father’s employee. Heavily burdened with the debts and mistakes of a generation before him, Willard’s own hopes and dreams have been set aside for the imposed responsibility of cleaning up other people’s messes. Lonely and embittered, he turns to the seemingly innocent hobby of training his garden’s rats. As pitiful and meek as the situation may be, things take a dark turn when Willard decides to recruit his new found friends into helping him take control of his life.

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“I thought a lot about it, hating myself.”

“Willard,” as a character and a film, is more strange than scary, and all the while very difficult to look away from. Between the incestuous mother-son innuendo and squirming swarms of squealing vermin, the word “uncomfortable” sums up its tone quite nicely. Even though the film is lauded by critics as a cult forerunner to the psychological thriller genre for its deeply disturbed protagonist, I’ve admittedly put off watching this movie, and its well-known remake starring Crispin Glover, for a number of years until now. With the absence of over-the-top special effects, radical gore or jump scares, the original “Willard” is renowned as an effective horror film thanks to the way it draws upon the droll, depressing reality of a pathetic young man’s life as its key source of terror—an hour and a half-long prospect that seems to be more of an agonizing undertaking than a gleeful escape. After gritting my teeth for a watch, I was relieved to find that the bizarre subject matter is surprisingly reminiscent of the grotesque work of Faulkner, and just as engrossing. If you have a taste for delightfully weird American tales of the socially deviant, then “Willard” is definitely the movie for you.

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“Well, I like myself now.”

Bruce Davison’s (recognizable to younger audiences for his role as Senator Robert Kelly in the “X-Men” film series) performance as the manic-depressive, complex young Willard is the stuff of cinematic gold. Even while making a successful effort at being certifiably creepy, I enjoyed how he was able to simultaneously earn my sympathy. Willard is a lost man looking to find his footing on the path of life; I was rooting for him every time he faltered, whether it be after a lashing out of his own deep-seeded malice or some other character’s. Neither a good person nor bad, the film plays up his yin-yang personality with Socrates, the wise white rat who enjoys Willard’s favouritism, and Ben, the sinister black rat who finds his way into Willard’s bedroom no matter how much he tries to keep him out. The obvious symbolism here is impressively deep stuff for a 70’s horror, yet the overall execution is more playful than pretentious, and gives way to a pretty satisfying pay-off in the end.

“Do unto others before they do unto you.”

“Willard” is an eerie yet evenly paced story about human and rat behaviour. All performances are pulled off with finesse, including those of the three hundred trained rodents. As weird as the premise may seem, I found that the film is far more intelligent than I ever supposed it could be. But intelligence can’t make a thing any less unsettling than it already is. Say what you will of rats—I’ll never warm up to them, especially after seeing this movie.

Overall Rating: 7/10

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About Angela

Angela McInnes is an English major and up-and-coming horror film aficionado. To her, happiness is a bottle of rum and a creature-feature on a Saturday night.

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