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WILLARD: Not much is going right for meek misfit Willard Stiles. He’s constantly screamed at by his overbearing mother, ruthlessly bullied by the boss who stole his father’s business and mercilessly laughed at by his co-workers. Willard eventually turns to a colony of rats for friendship and with training they will soon do anything for their new friend. It’s time for Willard to get even.
BEN: Danny Garrison, a lonely young boy with a heart condition finds a friend in Ben, a rat once trained by misfit Willard Stiles. Danny’s new best friend protects him from bullying and keeps his spirits up through hard times. But all is not well in Ben’s colony and the other rodents terrify the town with a series of violent attacks. The police are determined to wipe them out. Can Ben survive?
One of the earlier examples of natural horror, Willard is strangely a sweet tale about a confused young man finding happiness after befriending rats that sees his world crash down around him for the same reason.
Made by, of all companies, Bing Crosby Productions this flick was a sleeper hit upon release. Taking in millions at the box office and being devoured (no pun intended) by audiences the world over, Willard (originally The Ratmans Notebooks, also the name of the novel it was based on) was the spark for a slew of animals-gone-wrong horrors that were to follow in the next decade.
All these decades later this Blu-ray release is a reminder of the features power. A lot has changed since the early seventies and, admittedly, Willard is not as effective as it use to be it is safe to say this still has power and is genuinely impressive horror for its era.
Willard spends much of its first sixty minutes establishing what a put-upon, naïve and easily manipulated character Willard is. This is in part due to the ability of director Daniel Mann but much of it is because of the performance of Bruce Davison. Very earlier into his career, Bruce here is believable in every aspect of the characters transformation. The skinny, awkward looking Willard is almost child like in his friendship with the rats, Davison not afraid to get hands on with his vermin co-stars and amping up the roles pathetic qualities. A lesser actor would have struggled, especially during the finales downfall of Willard Stiles, but throughout Bruce is consistently outstanding.
The rest of the cast carry their weight and they almost outshine the features star. The biggest name involved, for horror fans, will be that of Elsa Lanchester. The original Bride of Frankenstein, Lanchester was approaching the end of her career by this point but gives a performance as the overbearing mother that works: the viewer feels sorry for her henpecked son. The dynamic between Willard and mommy dearest has similarities with Psycho (1960) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).
There is also the scene stealing Ernest Borgnine in a role that is the polar opposite of Willard. Loud, brash and too confident the legendary Ernie is at his best.
As for ‘natural horror’ of this film, it only rears its head at the end of the runtime. This incredibly slow build by Mann will have the viewer thinking when will it turn nasty, not if it will. Of course the rats turn nasty and it is quite the sight.
The other title on this release is the sequel that followed a year later, Ben. There are no returning actors or characters (unless you include Ben the rat) and the first few minutes show the ending of Willard.
All the magic of the first movie is gone here, Ben is lacking in most areas and is a big comedown. The story this time sees a young boy Danny (Lee Montgomery) befriends the nasty rat Ben after it escapes from the house where it lead the other rats in killing Willard. Ben and co then go off and kill various people, for the smallest of reasons it seems, while the viewer is meant to fear for little Danny.
Suffering from ‘Bad Sequel Syndrome’, Ben is laughable and goes for the more-is-never-enough approach of using killer rats. Instead of a slow build this feature has rat attack after rat attack. The rats attack a man driving a truck, the rats attack people in shops, the rats attack school kids etc. More often than not everyone screams hysterically whenever they see the rats or stand there in absolute frozen terror.
The sole good point of this sequel is the ending. The police and locals find Ben and his gang in the sewers and start torching them with flamethrowers. It makes for quite the visual, although the HD exposes how the shots are accomplished. ‘Ben’ by Michael Jackson plays over part of this and the end credits, the sole thing many will probably remember of this flick.
The release comes with the standard TV spots, trailers and stills. Willard has a commentary by Davison while Ben sees Montgomery do the talk track. Davison also does a short, 7 minute interview. Looking good for his age (he’s in his early seventies now) the actor is great to listen too and it’s a shame his video is so short. Montgomery’s interview is 10 minutes and he recalls being hyperactive on the set and having not seen Ben since its release.
This set is worth it for Willard alone, while Ben will be for those that feel they should see it knowing in advance it is nowhere near as good as the original film in the set.
Limited to just 2000 copies, it also comes with a poster of the new artwork by the always impressive Graham Humphreys.