Willard Blu-ray Review
Written by Robert Gold
Blu-ray released by Scream Factory
Directed by Daniel Mann
Written by Gilbert Ralston
1971, 95 minutes, Rated PG
Blu-ray released on May 16th, 2017
Bruce Davison as Willard
Sondra Locke as Joan
Elsa Lanchester as Henrietta
Ernest Borgnine as Al Martin
Joan Shawlee as Ms. Rickles
Jody Gilbert as Charlotte Stassen
Willard Stiles is an unassuming young man who lives with his mother, spends time with her friends and is overworked at the local factory. His boss, Mr. Martin, swindled the business away from Willard’s late father and is taking steps to claim the family home in a strangely obsessive power play. Without friends of his own, Willard turns to nature and befriends two rats, Socrates and Ben. Soon the basement is filled with rodents of all sizes and they establish a sort of communication with their human host. They are loyal at all costs and will do his bidding, including terrorizing the guests at Mr. Martin’s anniversary dinner party. A rare glimmer of hope arrives at the office in the form of Joan, a beautiful temp worker who knows that Willard is stronger than anyone believes and she hopes to build his confidence. Following the death of his mother, Willard spirals out of control, giving the rats more power in their relationship before finally standing up for himself in a terrifying manner.
Bruce Davison (Apt Pupil) stars as Willard, the quirky, socially awkward man-child whose best friends are a family of rats. Davison shines in the role and is always compelling to watch as the titular character is put through one uncomfortable situation after another. Elsa Lanchester (The Bride of Frankenstein) is absolutely wonderful as the overbearing mother who means well, but has also gotten used to blaming her son for her ailments. The real scene stealer in this picture is Ernest Borgnine (Deadly Blessing) as Mr. Martin, the boorish antagonist who sucks all of the oxygen out of the room with his huge personality. He doesn’t think twice about embarrassing Willard in front of his co-workers nor does he have a problem sexually harassing his secretary. Sondra Locke (Sudden Impact) is Joan, the attractive temp who gives Willard hope for a life of his own. Locke doesn’t get to do a lot here, but remains memorable and is always a pleasure to watch.
Director Daniel Mann (Our Man Flint) had never directed a horror film before Willard and this fresh perspective brings empathy to the material, particularly the early embarrassing moments for our hero. Screenwriter Gilbert Ralston adapts Stephen Gilbert’s novel Ratman’s Notebooks into a well-realized and claustrophobic nightmare where the human characters can be just as repellent as their rodent counterparts. Which brings me to the rats—Socrates is a marvel to watch on his own, but the scenes of Willard training small groups of rats are nothing short of incredible. Davison reveals in his commentary that the secret to getting results is peanut butter and a lot of takes. By the end of the film there are hordes of rats running through the house and if this caters to one of your phobias, you are in for a rough time of it.
Willard had a successful theatrical run in 1971, played on cable television and was released on VHS before vanishing into legal rights limbo. Bootleg DVDs circulated with murky transfers but the film remained unavailable for decades. Scream Factory has stepped in to correct this slight by securing not only distribution rights, but access to the original film elements for a stunning 4K restoration. This is another brilliant example of a company knowing their market and delivering a knockout to both fans of this title and to those simply interested in why Willard has remained so elusive for all of these years. If you haven’t seen it before, you are in for a treat that is well worth the wait.
Video and Audio:
Presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Willard has undergone a full restoration that goes above and beyond all of my expectations. Colors pop like never before and there is so much information in the image that it is like seeing it again for the first time. I seriously cannot rave about this transfer enough as it is a rare occasion for such a niche cult film to receive such lavish attention to detail.
The DTS-HD MA 2.0 track preserves the original mono recording and both music and dialogue levels benefit from the mix. When the rats attack, the crinkly sounds of their claws scratching is unsettling and audiences are all the more rewarded for it.
Optional English subtitles are included for anyone in need.
Willard himself is on deck to deliver an all new audio commentary. Star Bruce Davison clearly has a soft spot for this feature and aside from some self-deprecating remarks, has nothing but wonderful things to say. He shares anecdotes from the set, divulges conversations he had with fellow actors at the time and reveals quite a few behind-the-scenes tidbits. It is a really nice listen as it feels like Davison has wanted to revisit the material for a while.
Bruce Davison sits down to discuss all things Willard in an all-new interview titled I Used to Hate Myself - But I Like Myself Now (12 minutes). He talks about his audition, meeting the rats and working with legendary character actors. There is some overlap of information from the commentary, but it is fun to hear him tell these stories.
A photo gallery (71 images) provides production stills, lobby cards and poster art (both foreign and domestic).
The theatrical trailer (2 minutes) is paired with a TV spot (1 minute) and two radio spots (1 minute).
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