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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Tear It Up: Revisiting the Rat-Infested Cult of ‘Willard’

As a teenager, I stumbled upon Willard by pawing through the discount DVD bin at Blockbuster. Intrigued by the premise of an outcast with a vengeful rat army, I purchased it on the spot and it was love at first viewing. 17 years later, I rediscovered the very same DVD amongst my collection. I wondered, “How do the Willard films stand the test of time?” 

The original Willard celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021. It was a critical and box office success that inspired copycats Stanley (with rattlesnakes), and Kiss of the Tarantula (a woman with tarantulas), giving way to ’70s animal revenge films like Frogs, Killer Bees, Night of the Lepus and years later, Jaws. Despite the film’s influence, its legacy remains an underrated horror gem. 

But before Willard was a film, it was a book… a diary, to be exact. Stephen Gilbert’s Ratman’s Notebooks first piqued interest by presenting itself as a series of journal entries, even opting out of chapter breaks for an authentic feel. The first page kicks off with mystery: Gilbert explains that the original manuscript was provided anonymously by a shy, middle aged man (later revealed as Willard’s next of kin) who suggested these words be published. Its success gained horror a reputability in the literary industry in the ’70s, which opened doors for Stephen King and James Herbert soon after. The film adaptation was hatched three years later.

Willard (1971)

Director: Daniel Mann

Through Daniel Mann and Bing Crosby Productions, our ratman first graced the screen in 1971 with the newly christened name, Willard Stiles. Mann paints the world with a colorful atmosphere, pacing it as a slow-burn daytime horror. Willard (Bruce Davison) is a 27 year old lonely, neurotic All-American boy. In Year of the Rat, Davison discusses his approach: “I made him as childlike as I could, and as you say, I wanted him to be this man-child stuck in a perpetual innocence.” Fun fact: Before he was cast, Davison recalled seeing an early poster of the film with Michael J. Pollard (Bonnie & Clyde) as Willard, suspecting he was originally set to star.

Willard lives with his domineering mother (Elsa Lanchester, The Bride of Frankenstein) in the notable Higgins/Verbeck/Hirsch Mansion, a designated Los Angeles Cultural-Historic Monument. At work he’s faced with a devilish boss, Mr. Martin (Ernest Borgnine), and the only person who offers sympathy is the office temp, Joan (Sondra Locke). He finds solace by befriending the rats in his backyard and trains them to terrorize at his command. He favors a white rat named Socrates who gets in-house privileges. A brown rat, Ben, seeks the same affection — but Willard despises him from the start. He rejects him repeatedly, and after a number of betrayals, Ben orchestrates a retaliation that leads to the ratman’s demise.

It was unique in its time, but for 2020 the rats in Willard are not particularly scary (though the rat training is worthy of applause) and the sunny palette doesn’t always work in its favor. However, the film endures with how it successfully highlights the horror in the mundane. In the words of Lee Gambin, Willard “took the story of Faust and cemented it into the world of real life problems.”

Ben (1972)

Director: Phil Karlson

The tale continued in the 1972 sequel Ben, pouncing off the success of its predecessor. It centers around a younger but similar protagonist: a 10 year old boy named Danny (Lee Montgomery), who has a heart condition that prevents him from leaving the house. He lives with his sister (Meredith Baxter) and protective mother (Rosemary Murphy), while creating his own friendships in a shed with impressively crafted marionette puppets. The film maximizes musophobia with Ben leading a colony to terrorize the city. Strangely, Ben is gifted the skill of reading, which is evident when the rats attack a truck marked “Fish and Poultry.” Tonally it tries to mix a sense of dread, comedy and heartwarming moments which are hit-or-miss. The climax in the sewers spends too much time to come back up — but there is a hilarious scene at the spa, feeling so vividly ’70s, as women scream with vibrating exercise belts on.

The most memorable aspect is the charming friendship between Ben and Danny, convincingly portrayed through the sincerity of Montgomery, so much that it feels like a scene from Stuart Little. At one point, Danny makes a marionette of Ben and performs a private musical number for the giggling rat. Furthermore, it’s a neat triumph that the theme “Ben’s Song,” (sung by Michael Jackson) was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song; though it lost to “The Morning After” from The Poseidon Adventure

If Willard is about revenge, Ben is about survival. The reporter covering the rat attacks confirms this idea by explaining, “The territorial imperative. Living area is all they want.” Overall, it doesn’t live up to the standards set by its source material, but it always tugs at my heartstrings when Danny and Ben reunite at the end. It’s a tender portrait of Ben finally receiving the love and acceptance he never got from Willard.

Willard (2003)

Director: Glen Morgan

31 years later, Willard gets a reboot. There was talk of a Bruce Davison and John Landis collaboration, but it was ultimately scrapped. Strikingly different from the original, the X-Files’ Glen Morgan (in his directorial debut) alongside producer James Wong up the horror with a gothic and Hitchcockian approach, pulling inspiration from Psycho and The Birds. Composer Shirley Walker pairs it with a gorgeous, sinister yet playful accordion-heavy score and Ben is revived as bigger than ever as a giant Gambian pouched rat. There is also a nod to Davison as Willard’s father, who makes a cameo in pictures and a painting, which was gifted to him when the film wrapped.

The cast is a lively ensemble of characters, including R. Lee Ermey as Mr. Martin, Laura Harring (fresh off Mulholland Drive) as Cathryn the temp, and Jackie Burroughs as Willard’s mother. It was a struggle to cast Willard: Joaquin Phoenix, Macaulay Culkin and Mark Ruffalo all rejected the role. Trying to keep the spirits high, the crew joked behind the scenes, “What if Willard was a girl? Neve Campbell?” Eventually they landed with Crispin Glover, who is brilliant and iconic in this role. He delivers an unforgettable performance that gives Willard a vulnerable and manic energy that just works. Glover himself published a collage book in 1988 titled Rat Catching, and these images were used in the opening credits. He also recorded a rendition of “Ben” with a surreal music video that is available in the special features.

Even with the ambitious and stylistic reincarnation of Willard, it was a box office failure — pulling in only $8 million on a $22 million budget. Morgan mentions regret in not fighting against New Line Cinema’s decision to make it PG-13 instead of R, which would have included more gore and terror. I suspect the marketing misguided audiences, as the trailer sets expectations for a tonally different film, playing The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” underneath it. This Willard is my favorite of the three, as it underscores the tragedy of loneliness most effectively. To watch it with no preconceived notions is the best way to experience it.

There is a special place in my heart for Willard; he’s a timeless character who neither fits in as villain or hero. He was a man who simply yearned for love, friendship, and respect… and found it within a group of rats. With the amount of animal revenge films that have since succeeded it, it’s easy for it to be tucked in the metaphorical basement.

But they rarely make feel-good horror films like these anymore, and Willard and his pals absolutely deserve a spot on the shelf today.


Gambin, Lee. Year of the Rat. BearManor Media, 2016. 

Gilbert, Stephen. Ratman’s Notebooks. Valancourt Books. 1968

Ng, Julie. The Year of the Rat Documentary. New Line Cinema. 2003.


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