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Willard

Willard(1971)

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While Alfred Hitchcock may have pioneered the modern animal attack film with The Birds (1963), it was the release of Willard (1971) that turned the "Me Decade" of the 1970s into a nonstop barrage of critters both big and small on the silver screen. This adaptation of Stephen Gilbert's 1969 novel, Ratman Notebooks (a title the film kept early in production), which doesn't even give its bullied protagonist a name, is also among the first of the "abused misfit strikes back" cycle that would also flourish well into the '80s with films ranging from CarrieEvilspeak (1981). Although no one ever delivered a performance quite like the quirky, shady one given here by Bruce Davison.

A young actor adept on both the stage and the big screen, Davison had established himself as a tormented counterculture figure at this point with only two films under his belt, Frank Perry's controversial Last Summer (1969) and the campus revolt film, The Strawberry Statement (1970). A far cry from the hippie-inspired young characters populating the screen in recent years, his portrayal of Willard as an awkward, conservatively dressed young man conned out of his professional rights by the conniving Mr. Martin (Ernest Borgnine) resonated with audiences who cheered him on as he used his newfound abilities to control and communicate with rats to seek revenge against his oppressor.

The rest of the cast is rounded out with canny selections as well including screen legend Elsa Lanchester (in a very short role as Willard's mother) and another new face who had only appeared in two films, Sondra Locke, who had earned attention for her striking debut in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968). Credits behind the camera were also exceptionally strong for an independent horror film, starting with director Daniel Mann. A strong dramatist, Mann was known as an actor's director and had guided three women to Best Actress Oscars by this point: Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo (1955), and Elizabeth Taylor in BUtterfield 8 (1960). Also on hand was one of Hollywood's most respected composers, Alex North, who had just worked with Mann on A Dream of Kings (1969) and was best known for both his pioneering jazz scores and such towering epics as Spartacus (1960) and Cleopatra (1963). This would be the fifth of seven Mann-North collaborations, most famously including The Rose Tattoo and I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955).

Following the lead of the horror smash Rosemary's Baby (1968), Willard takes place in a modern, realistic world including numerous real-life locations. Willard's family home (which is still standing) is located on Lucerne Blvd. in Los Angeles. Built in 1902 and known as the Hiram Higgins Mansion, it was later designated a Los Angeles Cultural Monument in 1988 and was last used as a filming location in the 1990s. Horror fans will also recognize it from such films as Waxwork (1988), Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988), and Witchboard (1986). In fact, Willard was only the second feature to shoot on the premises, following William Castle's The Night Walker (1964).

Produced by Bing Crosby Productions, Willard was given a striking promotional campaign by the releasing company, Cinerama Releasing Corporation, when it rolled out in theaters in the summer of 1971. The distributor was initially hesitant about marketing the rat angle of the film, fearing it might scare off female patrons, and insisted the original poster design (an intense painting of a charging rat) be tempered with a larger image of Davison. Their worries turned out to be completely unfounded as women turned out in droves to the film, completely dispelling any stereotypes about the demographic. Much of the film's publicity centered on the achievements of animal trainer Moe Di Sesso, who provided the army of rats including the multiple animal performers who played Ben and Socrates. A high-profile source for Hollywood animal actors, he and his wife found themselves in high demand after this film, with projects ranging from the trained dogs in Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977) to Sandy in John Huston's Annie (1982).

The success of Willard naturally inspired a sequel, Ben (1972), which focused its human attention on an ailing boy who befriends Ben during a much larger rat revolution in L.A. The two films became a popular combo in hardtops and drive-ins for the remainder of the decade, including a memorable poster pairing as a "Tear 'Em Up Double Feature" (named after Willard's most famous rallying cry). Most of the cast and crew from the original Willard was replaced for the second film, though Di Sesso remained on hand to provide a far more extensive selection of cinematic rodents. Plans for a third film were discussed but ultimately discarded, though a remake of Willard appeared in 2003, starring Crispin Glover which significantly altered the original story's resolution. Though it became a popular rental title on VHS in the '80s, Willard (and its sequel) fell afoul of some major rights entanglements and remained unavailable for three decades. Fortunately, those issues have finally been resolved, so Willard and his tiny scampering friends can finally be enjoyed again by generations both new and old.

By Nathaniel Thompson

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