Friday, January 12, 2018

Willard (1971)

A film I remember only vaguely from late night TV showings in the late seventies, Willard was a popular independently made horror film which, at one time, had something of a cult following.  Not only did it boast an above average cast, decent direction and production values, but it was also based around a reasonably original idea.  Oppressed and alienated young man Willard (Bruce Davison), forms a bond with the rats living in his mother's decaying mansion and trains them, turning them into a private army with which he can take revenge upon those oppressing and bullying him.  Obviously, it eventually all goes horribly wrong for Willard. 

It's easy to see the appeal of Willard - it is a classic empowerment fantasy, with a down trodden anti-hero able, if only temporarily, to turn the tables on his tormentors through the acquisition of extraordinary powers.  It is a fantasy repeated across many genres, its most common modern manifestation being the superhero fantasy, with mild mannered ordinary guys (and girls) transformed by super powers into world saving titans.  Older versions might see the hero empowered by being able to harness supernatural agencies to their cause.  Willard presents a more practical and, on the surface, realistic version of this fantasy - the harnessing of natural forces in the cause of vengeance.

Willard is one of the earliest examples of the horror sub genre which sees an individual's affinity with a particular species allow them to take revenge on their enemies.  Thanks to the film's success, a number of imitators appeared, (Stanley, for instance involved a snake obsessed weirdo using his scaly friends to foil the plans of villainous developers, unfortunately, it is deadly dull).  Alongside these appeared the related 'revenge of nature' cycle of films, such as Day of the AnimalsWillard also spawned a direct sequel, Ben, featuring the independently minded chief rat from the previous film (he even had his own theme song, performed by Michael Jackson), effectively transformed from villain to anti-hero.  There was also a 2003 remake of Willard, (although not billed as a remake, but rather  a 're-imagining of the original source material, Ratman's Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert, it still followed the original movie's plot quite closely). 

Just writing this 'Random Movie Trailer' has left me feeling that I really should try and watch both Willard and Ben again.  As mentioned earlier, they were, for their day, reasonably original in their central ideas, marking the horror film's gradual move away from the supernatural, which continued apace through the seventies, culminating in the dominance of the 'slasher movie' from the late seventies and throughout most of the eighties.



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