Friday, June 16, 2017

WILLARD (1971) Blu-ray Review

Willard (1971) d. Mann, Daniel (USA)

Bruce Davison stars as the title character, a shy and awkward young man slaving away in the factory office under the thumb of his bullying ogre of a boss (Ernest Borgnine, superb) who stole the business away from Willard’s father. To make matters worse, he has no real friends except those of his batty bedridden mother (Elsa Lanchester) and spends his spare time waiting on her and/or making repairs on their crumbling abode. But Willard’s life takes a dramatic turn when he discovers a nest of rats living in the backyard, especially once he discovers that they can be tamed and trained to perform certain simple tasks... like infiltrating his boss’ dinner party or assisting in petty thievery.

His two favorites, Socrates (white) and Ben (big and gray), help keep the rodent troops in line, and all seems to be going our antihero’s way. But when he strikes up a romance with his pretty young officemate Joan (Sondra Locke) and elects to leave his weirdee ways behind, the whiskered ones take issue with the decision.

I first became aware of this dynamite little slow burn character study, based on Stephen Gilbert’s creepily suspenseful novel Ratman’s Notebooks, via the myriad of scary movie clip shows that would roll out every October in preparation for the Halloweens of my youth. As a result, the infamous “Tear ‘em up!” set-piece was spoiled for me (along with the twist ending of Psycho, for that matter), but even so I found a great deal of enjoyment in the talented Davison’s central performance, as well as that of the tremendous supporting cast, two-and-four-legged alike.

Unfortunately, due to a quagmire of distribution/ownership woes, the film languished in obscurity for years, unable to be properly released on DVD even with the 2003 Crispin Glover remake priming the pump. Happily, all such matters seem to have been resolved and the 46-year-old film finally makes its high-definition debut for a new generation to discover and the elder crowd to happily bask in nostalgia for a pre-CGI creature feature age.

Shout! Factory has delivered the goods in the form of a stellar audio commentary with Davison, who has nothing but warm memories of his breakout role, celebrating his onscreen comrades and bestowing much of the credit to his director Mann. (“Go bigger, Bruce! Bigger!”) There is also a 20-minute interview with the actor, although it is largely redundant being that he tells all of the same stories almost verbatim.

The film has probably never looked as good as it does now, thanks to the 4K scan of the original negative and the widescreen presentation means that we get to see all the rats all the time as opposed to the cropped TV versions. Theatrical and television trailers, radio spots, and a still gallery round out the special features.

Willard is available now (along with its lesser sequel Ben) from Shout! Factory in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack and can be ordered HERE:

Trivia: Sondra Locke's 1986 directorial debut was the much-derided Ratboy.

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