Cast & Crew
On the day of his twenty-seventh birthday, shy Willard Stiles, who works as a cashier in the factory once owned by his father, comes home to a surprise party thrown by his ailing, domineering mother Henrietta and her middle-aged friends. Upon learning that his mother has invited his boss, Al Martin, Willard is furious, as Martin wrested control of the business away from the Stiles family after the death of Willard's father. Henrietta urges Willard to become more assertive so that he can advance in the company, but the dejected Willard storms out to the overgrown garden in the back of their huge, Victorian house. There, Willard sees a mother rat, and despite his initial fear, tosses her a crumb of his birthday cake. One afternoon, Willard is working in the garden, where he happily feeds the mother rat's babies and discovers, much to his surprise, that he and the tiny animals like and understand one another. Henrietta insists that he call an exterminator to deal with the rats, one of which she had seen from a window, and after Willard states that they do not have money for a professional, he promises that he will drown them in the empty pool in the garden. When Willard arrives at work, he is alarmed to learn that Martin has hired a temporary secretary, Joan, to help him with the backlog of invoices. Fearing for his job security, Willard is suspicious of Joan, although she is attracted to the lonely young man. Later, Willard tricks the rats into walking down a ramp to an island in the middle of the empty pool, then fills the pool with water while they are eating. The rats' distressed cries upset Willard, however, and he lowers the ramp for them to escape. As time passes, Willard spends more time with the mother rat and her ever-increasing brood, feeding and training them. He is pleased with their aptitude in learning words such as "food," and in completing various tasks. An all-white rat catches his attention, and Willard, after naming him Socrates, teaches the intelligent, gentle animal many tricks. Socrates and Willard become inseparable, with Willard carrying the little animal in his pocket or on his shoulder, although he is careful to keep Henrietta from learning about his new friends. Willard also makes a special pet of a new rat, a wily, brown one whom he names Ben. Pressured by Henrietta, Willard asks Martin for a raise, but Martin insults him and instead offers to buy his home. Willard refuses, and later, exasperated by Martin's bullying, takes the rats, whom he can now carry in a big satchel, to Martin's anniversary party. Willard unleashes the rats on the veranda and watches triumphantly as the screeching partygoers scramble for safety. The next day, Henrietta dies, and later, after the funeral, Mr. Carlson, one of her friends, informs a distraught Willard that his mother left him only $1,500 and the heavily mortgaged house. Willard refuses to consider selling the house, however, and that night, moves the rats into the cellar. Socrates is allowed to sleep in Willard's bedroom, and when the aggressive Ben makes his way upstairs also, Willard allows him to stay. Missing his pets during the day, Willard trains Socrates and Ben to stay quietly in the office storeroom, and after everyone leaves, the rats play on Willard's desk while he works late. Willard has also treated himself to a used car with his inheritance money, and one afternoon, drives Joan to see his home. There, he finds a notice that the property will be sold for back taxes unless he pays $2,500, and despite his appeals to Henrietta's friends for a loan, no one will help. At the office, Martin brags about a rich acquaintance, Walter T. Spencer, who is taking $4,000 in cash on a vacation the following day. That night, Willard takes two suitcases filled with rats to the Spencers' residence, and as the couple sleeps, the rats begin chewing through their locked bedroom door. Upon hearing the noise, Walt opens the door and the rats swarm in, after which the terrified couple flees. Willard steals the cash from Walt's money belt, then leaves with his pets. Later, Martin visits Willard's home to appraise it, as he wants to turn it into an apartment building, and Willard overhears Martin commenting that Willard will be forced to sell if he is unemployed. Glum and worried, Willard takes out his frustrations on Ben, and the stubborn rat destroys the cane with which Willard swatted him. In the morning, Willard relents and allows Ben to accompany him and Socrates to the office. That day, both Joan and Willard are given their notices, and tragedy strikes when Martin's secretary, Alice, sees Socrates in the storeroom. Because Ben is brown, he is able to hide, but the white rat is easily found, and Martin beats the animal to death. Although he is sickened, Willard cannot expose his secrets by preventing the slaughter, and that evening, must plead with Ben to trust him. Completely unbalanced, Willard fills his car with dozens and dozens of rats and drives to the office, where Martin is working late. Led by Ben, the rats follow Willard's directions as he shrieks at Martin that he destroyed his life. When Martin hits Willard with the stick he used to kill Socrates, Willard orders the rats to "tear him up," and Martin is attacked by the biting creatures. Screaming, Martin jumps out a window to his death. Horrified by what he has done, Willard says goodbye to Ben and runs off. At home, Willard drowns the remaining rats and seals the entrances to the house. The next day, Willard invites Joan over to eat, after which he tells her that because of his friendships with Socrates and her, he is no longer afraid of life. Their conversation is interrupted, however, when Willard spots Ben. Following him to the cellar, Willard sees swarms of rats waiting to follow Ben's commands. Willard ushers Joan out, then promises Ben, who bites him, that he will feed him and his friends if Ben behaves. Ben sees as Willard surreptitiously tries to put rat poison into the food, however, and Willard is forced to chase Ben upstairs with a broom. The other rats gnaw through the cellar door and follow Willard upstairs to the attic. Screaming at Ben that he was good to him, Willard is soon covered by rats and killed while Ben watches.
J. Pat O'malley
Louise De Carlo
Minta Durfee Arbuckle
Moe Di Sesso
Nora Di Sesso
Robert B. Hauser
Ralph S. Hurst
James J. Klinger
John K. "rocky" Nelson
Charles A. Pratt
Gilbert A. Ralston
A young actor adept on both the stage and the big screen, Davison had established himself as a tormented counterculture figure at this point with only two films under his belt, Frank Perry's controversial Last Summer (1969) and the campus revolt film, The Strawberry Statement (1970). A far cry from the hippie-inspired young characters populating the screen in recent years, his portrayal of Willard as an awkward, conservatively dressed young man conned out of his professional rights by the conniving Mr. Martin (Ernest Borgnine) resonated with audiences who cheered him on as he used his newfound abilities to control and communicate with rats to seek revenge against his oppressor.
The rest of the cast is rounded out with canny selections as well including screen legend Elsa Lanchester (in a very short role as Willard's mother) and another new face who had only appeared in two films, Sondra Locke, who had earned attention for her striking debut in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968). Credits behind the camera were also exceptionally strong for an independent horror film, starting with director Daniel Mann. A strong dramatist, Mann was known as an actor's director and had guided three women to Best Actress Oscars by this point: Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo (1955), and Elizabeth Taylor in BUtterfield 8 (1960). Also on hand was one of Hollywood's most respected composers, Alex North, who had just worked with Mann on A Dream of Kings (1969) and was best known for both his pioneering jazz scores and such towering epics as Spartacus (1960) and Cleopatra (1963). This would be the fifth of seven Mann-North collaborations, most famously including The Rose Tattoo and I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955).
Following the lead of the horror smash Rosemary's Baby (1968), Willard takes place in a modern, realistic world including numerous real-life locations. Willard's family home (which is still standing) is located on Lucerne Blvd. in Los Angeles. Built in 1902 and known as the Hiram Higgins Mansion, it was later designated a Los Angeles Cultural Monument in 1988 and was last used as a filming location in the 1990s. Horror fans will also recognize it from such films as Waxwork (1988), Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988), and Witchboard (1986). In fact, Willard was only the second feature to shoot on the premises, following William Castle's The Night Walker (1964).
Produced by Bing Crosby Productions, Willard was given a striking promotional campaign by the releasing company, Cinerama Releasing Corporation, when it rolled out in theaters in the summer of 1971. The distributor was initially hesitant about marketing the rat angle of the film, fearing it might scare off female patrons, and insisted the original poster design (an intense painting of a charging rat) be tempered with a larger image of Davison. Their worries turned out to be completely unfounded as women turned out in droves to the film, completely dispelling any stereotypes about the demographic. Much of the film's publicity centered on the achievements of animal trainer Moe Di Sesso, who provided the army of rats including the multiple animal performers who played Ben and Socrates. A high-profile source for Hollywood animal actors, he and his wife found themselves in high demand after this film, with projects ranging from the trained dogs in Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977) to Sandy in John Huston's Annie (1982).
The success of Willard naturally inspired a sequel, Ben (1972), which focused its human attention on an ailing boy who befriends Ben during a much larger rat revolution in L.A. The two films became a popular combo in hardtops and drive-ins for the remainder of the decade, including a memorable poster pairing as a "Tear 'Em Up Double Feature" (named after Willard's most famous rallying cry). Most of the cast and crew from the original Willard was replaced for the second film, though Di Sesso remained on hand to provide a far more extensive selection of cinematic rodents. Plans for a third film were discussed but ultimately discarded, though a remake of Willard appeared in 2003, starring Crispin Glover which significantly altered the original story's resolution. Though it became a popular rental title on VHS in the '80s, Willard (and its sequel) fell afoul of some major rights entanglements and remained unavailable for three decades. Fortunately, those issues have finally been resolved, so Willard and his tiny scampering friends can finally be enjoyed again by generations both new and old.
By Nathaniel Thompson
The working title of this film was Ratman's Notebooks, the title of the Stephen Gilbert novel upon which the picture was based. In both the opening and ending cast credits, Ernest Borgnine is listed "And Ernest Borgnine as Martin." Robert Goodstein's onscreen credit reads: "Assistant Director and Unit Production Manager." The film was the first theatrical production from Bing Crosby Productions (BCP) since its purchase by Cox Broadcasting in 1968. By 1971, Crosby was no longer associated with BCP, which had produced a number of pictures during the 1940s and 1950s.
According to the film's pressbook and other contemporary sources, husband-and-wife animal trainers Moe and Nora Di Sesso purchased a dozen rats from a pet store, then spent a year training approximately 500 of their offspring for the film. The rat "Ben" appeared only in closeups, according to a September 1971 LAHExam article, with fourteen "backup" rats of the same size and color "performing his stunts." According to a July 1971 Entertainment Today article, officials from the Los Angeles chapter of the ASPCA were "on hand at all times" to verify that the rats were not mistreated.
Several contemporary sources, including a June 1971 Variety article, reported that distributor Cinerama Releasing was initially uncertain about how much to emphasize the rats when advertising Willard. According to the Variety article, the advertising firm of Diener, Hauser, Greenthal organized two ad campaigns, both with the tagline "the one movie you should not see alone." One campaign featured the rats while the other did not. Two test screenings were held in Pennsylvania on February 26, 1971, and the screening using the advertising with the rats grossed higher than the one that did not, so Cinerama Releasing decided to emphasize the rats in its exploitation campaign. As noted by contemporary sources, the picture's highly popular posters featured either a single shot of Ben or a shot of Ben sitting on "Willard's" shoulder, and the posters have since become a cult collector's item. Willard became one of the biggest box-office hits of 1971, with Filmfacts reporting that it "grossed well over twelve million dollars in the first four months of its release."
According to the Los Angeles Times review, Willard's house was "the old Howard Verbeck mansion on Lucerne near Wilshire [Blvd., in Los Angeles], an imposing landmark built in 1908." Modern sources add Bern Hoffman and Paul Bradley to the cast. On January 22, 1971, Variety reported that actor Richard Minugh was suing BCP for wages owed to him for appearing in the film. Minugh's appearance in the completed picture and the outcome of the suit have not been determined. Willard marked the last film of prolific film editor Warren Low (1905-1989), who was nominated for four Oscars over his four-decades long career.
In 1972, Cinerama Releasing distributed a sequel to Willard entitled Ben, about a lonely young boy who befriends Ben and his army of rats. Directed by Phil Karlson with a screenplay by Gilbert A. Ralston, the picture starred Lee Harcourt Montgomery and featured a hit title song sung by Michael Jackson. In 2003, New Line Cinema released another movie, also entitled Willard, based on Gilbert's novel. Directed and written by Glen Morgan, the picture starred Crispin Glover as Willard. Photographs of Bruce Davison, who played the role in the 1971 film, were used in the 2003 film to depict Willard's late father.
Released in United States 1971
Released in United States 1971