It would be nice to say that back in the seventies evil rat films were all the rage but, funnily enough, they were not. Willard, made in 1971, is a true cinematic oddity, a tightly wound, extremely cheap looking, comedy-horror with a tone that shifts as quickly as the wind. What makes Willard even more of an anomaly is that it was extremely successful on its release, grossing well over $12 million in its first four months and going on to be one of the biggest box office successes of the year. With a reputation like this, a sequel was inevitable, but unfortunately Ben is much more of a rapidly deteriorating mess, a film for completists more than anything else. Nevertheless, it seems only right that a reappraisal of these two bizarre films is long overdue.
Willard begins by introducing us to our primary antagonist in the most basic of ways. The titular character of the film is a meek sadsack, struggling for money, still living with his mother and striving to get more out of his lowly life and career working at his dead father’s old company. He is unceremoniously humiliated on his 27th birthday when his mother throws a party for him that is entirely attended by her friends and begins to yearn for companionship, first finding it in a family of rats that live in his back garden and then falling for the beautiful assistant that has been brought in to help him with his workload. As the seemingly never ending rodents and Willard become closer, he begins to develop an unhealthy attachment to them, culminating in a frenzied attempt to bring his two social circles together, a mistake that will have hilariously deadly consequences.
The most noticeable thing about Willard on first viewing is how dated and cheap the aesthetic is. The sets look ready to fall down and the garish colours seem suited for a decades-old television set rather than a cinema screen. Strangely enough, this only adds to the depressing nature of Willard’s inner life, a depressing sitcom that seems to contain nothing but emasculation and indignity. A more impressive visual treat is the performances given by the trained rats in the film as they scamper and squeak around their environment of a decrepit old house, obeying commands and developing personalities that bring sentiment to the bonkers narrative. Those with keen musophobia will think they are watching a very clear horror film whilst those who have no problem with mice or rats may see a perplexing, idiosyncratic animal drama. Either way, Willard is not a boring film and it may be the aforementioned tonal shifts that keep it as entertaining as it is.
Much of this is down to the elastic performance of Bruce Davidson in one of his very early screen roles, (alongside Sandra Locke, a debutant herself). His portrayal of Willard swings between all-out slapstick and true strained horror and it is these lighter moments, complete with a tragically merry soundtrack, that allow the more horrifying, gory moments to stand out. It is difficult to tell whether these aspects of the film were the intentions of the director, Daniel Mann, or simply the after-effects of a muddled production but it works in the film’s favour. Well-respected actors such as Ernest Borgnine and Elsa Lanchester certainly bring a campiness to their scenes that seems more knowing than the film itself.
Whilst Willard has maintained a certain charm at this point in its ageing process, Ben has simply been dulled over time. Most famous for the Michael Jackson song of the same name that plays over the credits, Ben is not as strange and genre defying as its predecessor and that certainly works against it. Much more of an all out thriller-horror, Ben sets out to give people the creeps but without the shoddy, sitcom feeling of Willard most of the film, bar some really uneasy claustrophobic scenes, fall fairly flat. That being said, those who consider the killer-rat genre to be a home away from home will love sinking their teeth into both of these relatively forgotten seventies features.
Willard & Ben was released on the 30th October in glorious high-definition by Second Sight Films and is available from all good retailers.