I was watching favourite Grindhouse movie I Drink Your Blood (David Durston 1970) recently and the extras connected it with these films mentioning that they shared some cast members. I would normally have known this but we are not talking about humans here but the other mainstay of Willard the furry lovely rats. Yeah I appreciate many people may shudder and stop reading about a film with rodents in principle parts but they really are lovely, sociable when domesticated and highly intelligent creatures as anyone who has had them as pets will contest. In fact I spent a good part of Willard (1971) cooing and going ahh over the lovely critters. Unlike in I Eat Your Blood they don’t end up on the menu here and definitely have the upper hand (I should also point out the no animals were harmed in any of these movies before we carry on).

Willard (Bruce Davison) is a bit of a social misfit. He is in the ignominious position of being forced to work as a pen pusher in the company that his family used to own. His boss Al Martin (Ernest Borgnine) is a controlling and rather nasty person out for himself and has only kept Willard on as a promise to his frail mother (bride of Frankenstein herself Elsa Lanchester). Instantly the film conjures up an air of innocence far removed from aforementioned splatter fest and emerging schlock 70’s independents that were beginning to emerge. I noted straight away that the Bing Crosby Corporation was behind the feature and with such a stalwart cast it has the scent of the golden age of Hollywood running right through it. We enter Willard’s house, a fantastic Gothic manse where he lives with his mother. She has assembled friends to celebrate his 27 birthday party, all cake bright clothing and garish wrapped presents, the colour leaping out the screen and showing just what a wonderful job has been done polishing this up for the Blu-ray generation. Willard is a loner but finds companionship with the rats in the backyard. Saving them from the death his mother wants him to provide he befriends and starts training them, a couple of these rats Socrates and Ben becoming firm favourites due to their intelligence and even accompany him to work in his briefcase.

Rats do what rats do and even when moved down to the basement they begin to take over. Willard very annoyed with his boss manages to use them to cause absolute cake flinging frenzy at his anniversary party and the old jump on chairs and scream when you see a rat standard is milked to amusing capacity. After Willard’s mother dies, his boss naturally has eyes on his house wanting to turn it into flats and with little money left in the estate and the tax man on his back Willard is going to have to do everything he can to keep it. Obviously things are about to go from bad to worse. The only real sympathetic character in the film is a girl that is brought in to help Willard get on top of his work load. Joan is played by a fresh-faced Sandra Locke and as with Davison this was just her third film of many. You couldn’t exactly call things between them a love affair at all, Willard far too awkward but the interaction between them really is sweet and helps move the film along nicely, especially when she gifts him just what every boy with a mischief of rats really needs. However even with them and a very zealous Borgnine in the film it’s the rats who are the stars of the picture and I suspect behind the scenes their wrangler who should take the most credit even over director Mann himself.

I found myself totally engrossed here and really enjoyed the film, if I had seen it previously it was many years ago and even if it’s obvious where things are going to lead it certainly doesn’t hamper the viewer’s enjoyment in the slightest. I can totally see that this is a film that could do with a bit of an upgrade and indeed a remake followed 43 years after the original directed by Glen Morgan in 2013. Considering it has Crispin Glover and R. Lee Ermey in it I am definitely going to have to give it a watch now but you know what they say kids, the original is always going to be better!

Sadly many involved with the film are no longer with us (the rats certainly aren’t). With over 250 credits to his name and still working like a trooper it’s up to Bruce Davison to chat about his time on the movie in a short interview piece. Not having a problem with his co-stars and seemingly getting the paws up (or a licked ear) from the main one Ben, he got the part quickly and seemingly had no problems with scenes involving hundreds of the fur-balls. Apparently Mann was the ever-ready bunny of directors and full of enthusiasm and tales about his illustrious Broadway career and what with working with him and Borgnine it must have been a very memorable shoot. Short but sweet, Davison is a funny guy and some of his anecdotes cracked me up. He’s also on hand providing the commentary track.

As for the film itself it was very successful at the time but seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth. It did appear via Brent Walker and AFE video in the 80’s but any copies of these tapes knocking around have no doubt been ironically eaten by rats. Possibly skipping DVD completely it’s great to see this again especially looking so pristine especially as it is coming out complete with 1972 sequel Ben, more on that in a shake of a whisker…

(Pete Woods)