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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

Willard  (1971)

Reviewed for by Dustin Putman

The Film
2.5 Stars
(Release Date: May 16, 2017) – "This is the one movie you should not see alone," touted the hyperbolic tagline on the original "Willard" one-sheet from 1971. A lofty warning, indeed, and one which doesn't quite fit this observant psychological drama about an introverted young man who forms a friendship with a colony of rats. Audience members with a rodent phobia are destined to become squeamish at the sights found within, but this isn't exactly a gruesome horror film with frights galore and victims aplenty. Instead, director Daniel Mann and screenwriter Gilbert A. Ralston (adapting to the screen the novel "Ratman's Notebook" by Stephen Gilbert) approach the story as a sad-eyed character study. Feel free to watch it alone.

A strikingly youthful Bruce Davison gives a nuanced performance, prickly yet sympathetic, as Willard Stiles, a 27-year-old introvert domineered by his ill mother Henrietta (Elsa Lanchester) and demoralized by an awful boss, Al Martin (Ernest Borgnine). Mr. Martin has taken over the business from Willard's late father—a company that should have gone to Willard—and he never wastes an opportunity to humiliate the young man in front of his co-workers. When tragedy strikes, Willard turns to the rat friends (led by Ben) for comfort. As he trains his rapidly increasing furry housemates, he moves ever closer toward a desperate act of retribution.

"Willard" is more thriller than horror film, and only then does it flirt with this genre in the third act. Seen with modern eyes, it strikes as anticlimactic and rather quaint. The practical use of hundreds of rats in an era long before the advent of CG is mighty impressive, however, while the film's forthright, unsentimental depiction of a man coming into his own while edging toward a dark fate hasn't aged a day. "Willard" is understated, classy and dramatically effective. Despite what the promotional materials may have misleadingly suggested, though, it's far from scary, and barely tries to be. It has other, more high-brow pursuits, and succeeds accordingly.

Blu-ray Picture/Sound

"Willard" has been MIA from any home-video format since VHS, which makes its long-awaited 1080p transfer all the more pleasurable. The picture hasn't received an immaculate clean-up (there is a host of persistent, if unobtrusive, age-related nicks and white specks on the print), but the uptick in detail, clarity and dimensionality are frequently eye-opening. The image includes appreciable depth (particularly in daytime sequences) and a healthy, natural layer of filmic grain. Black levels are solid, with few instances of crush, while fine detail in clothing, faces, and flyaway hair is apparent. There is no doubt "Willard" looks far and away superior to all previous versions found on home video. The Original Mono 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio sticks largely to the front channels as expected, but never sounds lacking in accuracy or robustness. Dialogue is clear and evenly modulated, as is the music score. No hints of pops, cracks or hisses are noticeable.

Blu-ray Features
  • Audio Commentary with Actor Bruce Davison
  • "I Used to Hate Myself but I Like Myself Now: An Interview with Bruce Davison" Featurette (12:27, HD)
  • Theatrical Trailer (2:23, HD)
  • TV Spot (1:02, SD)
  • Radio Spots (1:26, HD)
  • Still Gallery (5:52, HD)
Bottom Line
Scream Factory brings the long-unavailable and out-of-print "Willard" to the Blu-ray format with an excellent high-def transfer and a pair of substantive bonus features (an audio commentary and a new interview with lead actor Bruce Davison). Fans of the film should be over the moon by this release. With 1972 sequel "Ben" also receiving a day-and-date Blu-ray release from Scream Factory, now all we need is for a distributor to step up and finally release the 2003 remake starring Crispin Glover.

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© 2017 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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