Willard [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Shout! Factory
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (23rd July 2017).
The Film

Despite their association with plague, disease, garbage, and filthy environments rats actually make some of the best pets. They’re clean, sociable, can learn tricks, and are affectionate in their own way. The biggest downside to owning one is their lifespan, a mere 2-3 years. I have had three as pets during various times in my life and each one had a distinct personality, something Willard recognizes when he comes across a family of rats in his backyard in the eponymous film, “Willard” (1971). Although I had never seen the original, I am a fan of Glen Morgan’s 2003 remake that stars Crispin Glover as the bookish social outcast who counts only rats as his friends. That re-working of the source material is far superior to this dated 70's relic, and it also features the sequel’s title track “Ben” as sung by Crispin Glover in a DVD bonus feature that is enough to warrant a purchase all on its own. This 1971 version is a flat-lined mess, with no suspense and a weak lead in Bruce Davison who, ironically, comes across as the least sympathetic character in the film.

Willard (Bruce Davison) is a nebbish social outcast with no friends and a stressful workload. He toils under the watchful eye of Mr. Martin (Ernest Borgnine), a macho manager whose biggest crime is trying to get Willard to get his head in the game. His home life is no better; he lives with his ailing mother in a large Victorian estate. For his birthday, the only “friends” who show up are his mother’s elderly chums. Despondent, Willard heads into the backyard and tosses some birthday cake to a rat. The next day Willard goes into the yard again and comes across another rat, this one with babies. Willard’s mother insists he kill the rats scurrying around the property but instead he makes friend with them, giving each names and teaching them simple tricks.

One day Willard comes across a white rat that he names Socrates, because it shows such intelligence. He also befriends a large black rat of equal smarts, which he names Ben. As Mr. Martin’s tirades toward Willard become increasingly volatile, Willard decides to exact a bit of revenge by employing his newfound friends as party poopers, unleashing them upon Mr. Martin’s home during a get-together. The next day Willard’s mother dies, leaving him alone within a large home with an unexpectedly large mortgage. Mr. Martin pressures Willard to sell him the home but Willard refuses, preferring to remain with his furry friends. He uses his rat army to do his bidding, but the population quickly gets out of control and Willard finds himself overwhelmed. The rats’ actions grow increasingly violent, unnerving Willard who, at this point, seems too powerless to stop this madness he created.

The real hero of this story is Mr. Martin, so perfectly played by the late Ernest Borgnine. Martin is a man who takes charge of a situation and only expects the same of those beneath his rank. This guy has quotas and sales goals to meet, and when someone like Willard is chronically late and slacks on his workload it only makes Martin look like more of a saint that he hasn’t canned the guy yet. Maybe if a few of Mr. Martin’s pep talks had actually rubbed off, Willard wouldn’t be in a position where he needs to train wild rats to be his friends.

Daniel Mann’s film commits the greatest sin any horror or thriller possibly could: it’s boring. There is no suspense. None of the actions taken by the rats is presented with a hint of terror or imposition. It is actually laughable to see how some people fall victim to a handful of animals weighing eight ounces or less. Had the movie done something cool and dropped in a handful of monster-sized rats, then I could see some physically weak people possibly dying. But these little guys? No way.

Other than Borgnine, the best thing about the film is Alex North’s grand, sweeping main title theme. It sounds majestic and flowing and is one of the few things to elevate this droll journey with Willard.

Video

The 1.85:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded image is often stunning, with a bright & pristine picture full of vibrant 70's colors and inky rich black levels. Film grain is smooth and minimal, adding just the right sheen of cinema to the old-school image. Wear & tear is minimal, with few hints of dirt or debris. Dimension is added to the picture thanks to an appreciable level of depth within the frame. Fine detail is evident in every frame, from wide shots to close-ups, with plenty of minutia and texture available to be seen at all times.

Audio

An English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track capably handles delivery of clear and concise dialogue, balanced alongside a multitude of subtle effects and “rat sounds”. Composer Alex North’s score soars with a grandness and punctuality found nowhere else in the film, but its classic cues and instrumentation, as mentioned, do wonders to amplify and elevate an uneven story. Subtitles are available in English SDH.

Extras

There are a few extras, an audio commentary, an interview, a theatrical trailer, a TV spot, a radio spots, a gallery, and a second disc with a DVD version of the film.

DISC ONE: BLU-RAY

An audio commentary with actor Bruce Davison is included.

“I Used to Hate Myself but I Like Myself Now” (1080p) is an interview with actor Bruce Davison, who discusses his casting, working with a legend like Ernest Borgnine, Mann’s directorial style, and much more, running for 12 minutes and 27 seconds.

A theatrical trailer (1080p) runs for 2 minutes and 23 seconds.

A TV spot (SD) runs for 1 minute and 2 seconds.

A couple of radio spots run for 1 minute and 26 seconds.

Finally, a still gallery (1080p) contains all sorts of promotional photos, posters, lobby cards, etc. 70 images in total, running for 5 minutes and 52 seconds.

DISC ONE: DVD

This is a standard definition DVD copy version of the film.

Packaging

The two-disc set comes housed in a standard Blu-ray keep case.

Overall

Far less exciting than its remake, and less interesting than cinema history would lead viewers to believe, “Willard” is a dry, lifeless look into the life of a loser who can’t make a friend to save his life… unless they happen to be vermin on four legs. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release provides a gorgeous picture and a nice bounty of supplements, but the film itself is such a chore that I would strongly suggest a rental first if you haven’t seen it.

The Film: C- Video: A+ Audio: A- Extras: C+ Overall: C+

 


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