(US - 1971)
Directed by Daniel Mann. Written by Gilbert A. Ralston. Cast: Bruce Davison, Ernest Borgnine, Sondra Locke, Elsa Lanchester, Michael Dante, Jody Gilbert, William Hansen, John Myhers, J. Pat O'Malley, Joan Shawlee, Alan Baxter, Sherry Presnell. (PG, 95 mins)
A surprise sleeper smash for Cinerama Releasing in the summer of 1971, WILLARD, from the masters of horror at Bing Crosby Productions, has been out of circulation for a number of years but has resurfaced, along with its sequel BEN, on Blu-ray courtesy of Shout! Factory. To those under 30, WILLARD has probably been supplanted by the minor cult following of its over-the-top 2003 remake, but for Gen Xers and older--those fortunate enough to have seen it theatrically or on one of its many TV airings as kids throughout the '70s and '80s--the original WILLARD remains one of the most beloved horror films of its day. It's creepy enough to make you squirm and give everyone the willies, but carries a PG (or GP at the time) rating that allowed it to have a huge impact on kids who were actually allowed to see it. It also helped that everyone at some point in their lives probably felt like Willard Stiles, the slumped-shouldered sad sack played by Bruce Davison in the role for which the veteran character actor is best known, even with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for 1990's LONGTIME COMPANION. Endlessly picked on at work by his cruel, bullying boss Al Martin (an essential Ernest Borgnine performance) and never given a moment of peace at home by his needy, domineering mother Henrietta (Elsa Lanchester), Willard is a ticking time bomb looking for a way out. He has no friends and his birthday party is attended only by his mother's elderly friends who start in on him about how he needs to stand up to Martin, a conniving asshole who co-owned a foundry with Willard's late father only to muscle him out of the partnership and stress him into an early grave. Martin kept Willard on the payroll as a consolation prize for being screwed out of co-ownership, putting him in sales accounting, dumping everyone else's work on him and forcing him to come in on weekends in the hopes that he'll quit. Willard's only joy in life comes from a family of rats he finds in the backyard. He spends all of his free time with them, playing with them and teaching them tricks, eventually getting them to understand voice commands and perhaps even developing a kind of psychological connection with them. He bonds with two in particular: good-natured and playful white rat Socrates and clingy and vaguely sinister black rat Ben.
STANLEY, about a PTSD-stricken Vietnam vet (Chris Robinson) who trains his pet rattlesnake to take out his enemies, but can be seen in retrospect as a loose precursor to two later 1970s trends: the "nature run amok" (JAWS, GRIZZLY, THE FOOD OF THE GODS, etc) and the "social outcast exacting telepathic revenge" subgenres (CARRIE and JENNIFER--the latter about a teenage girl with both CARRIE-like powers and an ability to control snakes, starring Lisa Pelikan, who was married to Davison for many years--as well as popular made-for-TV-movies like THE SPELL and THE INITIATION OF SARAH). What helps WILLARD a lot is the genuinely terrific performance by Davison, who sells the character much the way Anthony Perkins did with Norman Bates in PSYCHO. Sure, there's the similarities in that they're both sheltered mama's boys, but like Norman Bates, you sympathize with Willard until he starts crossing lines. Norman Bates got off easy by getting to spend two decades in an institution for his crimes. Willard Stiles wasn't so lucky: he made the mistake of fucking with Ben.
|WILLARD opening in Toledo, OH on July 2, 1971|
(US - 1972)
Directed by Phil Karlson. Written by Gilbert A. Ralston. Cast: Joseph Campanella, Arthur O'Connell, Meredith Baxter, Lee Harcourt Montgomery, Rosemary Murphy, Kaz Garas, Kenneth Tobey, Paul Carr, Richard Van Fleet, James Luisi, Norman Alden. (PG, 94 mins)
In theaters less than 12 months after WILLARD, the quickie sequel BEN looks and feels even more like a made-for-TV movie than its predecessor, a vibe enhanced by the presence of TV stalwarts like Joseph Campanella and a young Meredith Baxter in leading roles, both of whom accumulating only a small handful of big-screen credits over their long careers (unless I'm mistaken, BEN is the only time Campanella headlined a theatrical release). Stepping in for Daniel Mann was veteran journeyman Phil Karlson, whose directing career dated back to Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys programmers in the 1940s and included some westerns and film noir in the 1950s and Dean Martin's Matt Helm movies in the 1960s. Karlson's biggest success would come 30 years into his career with his next-to-last film when, right after BEN, he directed the surprise 1973 blockbuster WALKING TALL, with Joe Don Baker in his signature role as ass-kicking, hickory-clubbing Sheriff Buford Pusser. Karlson came from the "Let's just get it in the can and move on" school of no-nonsense efficiency, but things get off to a shaky start with an awkward and stilted opening with a bunch of people standing as silent and still as a freeze frame outside the home of Willard Stiles, with BEN picking up immediately after the events of WILLARD. Willard's body has been found in the attic following the Ben-orchestrated revenge attack on him. Dogged detectives Kirtland (Campanella) and Greer (Kaz Garas) find Willard's diary, where he details his training of an army of rats, but the incredulous cops are quick to dismiss it as the rantings of a kook since the rats are nowhere to be found. That's because Ben has directed them to hide in the walls undetected, and while the detectives bicker with cigar-chomping newshound Hatfield (Arthur O'Connell), Ben waits patiently to lead them to a safe place. The safe place turns out to be the sewer, from which Ben and a few other scouts emerge to befriend lonely Danny (Lee Harcourt Montgomery), a frail eight-year-old with a weak heart who lives in Willard's neighborhood. Like Willard, Danny has no friends and spends his time putting on marionette shows in the garage, converted into a workshop/playroom by his single mom Beth (Rosemary Murphy) and big sister Eve (Baxter). Danny and Ben bond immediately, with Ben doing for Danny exactly what he did for Willard when he leads a rat attack on a neighborhood bully who's picking on Danny. Meanwhile, Kirtland and Hatfield are scouring the city for the rat army, though who knows what they intend to do when they find it?
"The Morning After" from THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Yes, BEN is an Oscar-nominated film.