Willard (1971 film)

Willard is a 1971 American horror film directed by Daniel Mann and starring Bruce Davison and Ernest Borgnine. Based on the novel Ratman's Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert, the film was nominated for an Edgar Award for best picture. The supporting cast included Elsa Lanchester in one of her last performances before her death, and Sondra Locke in one of her first. The film was a summer hit in 1971; opening to good reviews and high box office returns.

Theatrical release poster
Directed byDaniel Mann
Produced byMort Briskin
Screenplay byGilbert Ralston
Based onRatman's Notebooks
by Stephen Gilbert
StarringBruce Davison
Elsa Lanchester
Ernest Borgnine
Sondra Locke
Music byAlex North
CinematographyRobert B. Hauser
Edited byWarren Low
Bing Crosby Productions
(Rysher Entertainment)
Distributed byCinerama Releasing Corporation
Release date
  • June 18, 1971 (1971-06-18)
Running time
95 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$14,545,941[1]


Willard Stiles is a meek social misfit who develops an affinity for rats. He lives in a large house with only his cranky and decrepit mother Henrietta for company. On his 27th birthday, he comes home to a surprise birthday party thrown by his mother, where all of the attendees are her friends. After leaving the party in embarrassment, he notices a rat in his backyard and tosses it pieces of his birthday cake.

His mother tells him to eliminate the rats. Willard uses food and a plank bridge to lure them into a pit in the backyard, then begins filling the pit with water to drown them. However, moved by the rats' piteous squeals as they realize their plight, he replaces the plank, allowing them to get to safety. He later begins playing with a rat he names Queenie. A white rat, which Willard named Socrates, becomes his best companion. Other rats emerge, including a bigger black specimen whom he names Ben.

At work, Willard is tasked with an overwhelming number of accounts by his boss Al Martin, who usurped the business from Willard's father. Willard asks Al for a raise, having not received one since his father's death despite working after hours and weekends. Al refuses and pressures Willard to sell him his house. Willard sneaks into a party that Al is hosting, opens a rat-filled suitcase, and urges them to get the food. The guests are terrorized by the rats, and Al destroys the catering tables trying to fend them off. The next day Willard's mother dies. He is informed that not only did she have no money to leave him, the house is heavily mortgaged.

Willard starts bringing Socrates and Ben to the office on Saturdays to keep him company while he is the only one there. His friend/temporary assistant, Joan, gives him a cat named Chloe to comfort him in the wake of his mother's death. He hands Chloe off to a stranger. Meanwhile, the rat colony is growing and Willard cannot afford to keep feeding them. After overhearing one of Al's friends boasting of a large cash withdrawal, he sneaks into the man's house and orders his now-trained rats to tear up the bedroom door. The man and his wife wake up and flee the house upon seeing the rats, and Willard steals the bundle of cash.

The next day, a worker spots the rats. Al bludgeons Socrates to death, devastating Willard. When Joan refuses to persuade Willard to sell his house to Al, he fires both her and Willard, believing that unemployment will force Willard to sell. That night, while Al is still at work, Willard enters the office with all of his rats. He confronts Al over the death of Socrates, the mistreatment of his father, and Al's machinations to buy his house, and instructs the rats to kill him. Unable to endure the agony of being chewed to death, Al commits suicide by jumping out the window. Unnerved by Al's gruesome death, Willard abandons Ben, orders the remaining rats into crates, and drowns them all in the backyard pit. He seals up any holes through which the rats could gain entry.

Willard has dinner with Joan, telling her of his newfound self-confidence, which he attributes to her and Socrates. He is startled to hear Ben in the kitchen. Investigating, he finds hordes of rats in the basement. He orders Joan to leave and locks the door. Willard offers Ben and the rats food, which he mixes with pesticide. Ben sniffs the pesticide box and squeals loudly, alerting the others. Willard chases Ben upstairs, cornering him in a storage room. He barricades the door against the other rats, leaving Ben to face him alone. While Ben eludes Willard's attacks, the rats gnaw through the door. As the rats attack him, Willard shouts, "I was good to you, Ben!"



Box office

The film earned rentals of $9.25 million.[2]

Critical reception

Critical reception for Willard has been mixed. Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported an approval rating of 57%, based on 23 reviews, with a rating average of 5.8/10. The critical consensus reads: "Willard has an intriguing character study lurking within - but much of those elements, like many of the movie's characters, are swallowed up by rats."[3]

Vincent Canby of The New York Times dismissed the film as "a dull movie of no major consequence," with the rats "no more scary than fat, friendly hamsters, except for one or two shots when they are seen by the hundreds—and hundreds of anything might be a scary sight, even hundreds of bishops."[4] Variety said, "Neat little horror tale ... Some good jump moments, at least two stomach-churning murders committed by the rats, and superior production values with tight direction of Daniel Mann develop pic into sound nail-chewer."[5] Roger Ebert gave the film 2 stars out of 4.[6] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune also gave the film 2 stars out of 4 and wrote that although it "will have you keeping your feet up off the theater floor, Daniel Mann's slow direction will lower your eyelids. The acting credits, however, are top notch."[7] Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote that "one could not ask for a more satisfying yet less pretentious hot weather suspense-horror entertainment. With its disturbed young hero, crumbling old mansion and macabre developments it immediately brings to mind 'Psycho.' The more apt comparison, however, is with that much-cherished English comedy of some years back, 'The Green Man,' in which Alastair Sim (at his drollest) went around blowing up a series of troublesome types."[8] Tom Milne of The Monthly Film Bulletin thought that the rats were "so well-mannered and prettily groomed that they are more likely to elicit coos of delight than shudders of fear ... When the horrors do come, they are very tame indeed: not one single shot to match the chilling menace dispensed by the brooding crows in The Birds or the prowling felines in Eye of the Cat. Instead, Daniel Mann settles for facile effects, like the cut-in shot of rats tearing at a piece of raw meat while they are supposedly demolishing Ernest Borgnine, and gradually drives what might have been an unusually intriguing horror film pretty much into the ground."[9] Leonard Maltin gave the film 2 of 4 stars in his annual home video guide, writing, "Touching story of a boy and his rats captured public's fancy at the box office, but [the] film's lack of style prevents it from being anything more than a second-rate thriller."[10]

Ben the rat won a PATSY Award as the best animal performer in a feature film for 1971.[11]


See also


  1. "Willard, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved January 11, 2012.
  2. "All-time Film Rental Champs", Variety, 7 January 1976 p. 44
  3. "Willard (1971) – Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes.com. Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 11 November 2016.
  4. Canby, Vincent (June 16, 1971). "Screen: Affinity for Rats". The New York Times. New York City: New York Times Company. p. 16.
  5. "Film Reviews: Willard". Variety. Los Angeles, California: Penske Media Corporation. June 16, 1971. p. 22.
  6. Ebert, Roger (January 1, 1971). "Willard". Chicago Sun-Times. Chicago, Illinois: Sun-Times Media Group. Retrieved May 7, 2019 via RogerEbert.com.
  7. Siskel, Gene (June 24, 1971). "Willard". Chicago Tribune. Chicago, Illinois: Tribune Media Services. p. 12.
  8. Thomas, Kevin (July 22, 1971). "'Willard' Story of Suspense, Horror". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California: Tronc. p. 13.
  9. Milne, Tom (November 1971). "Willard". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 38 (454). p. 229.
  10. Maltin, Leonard; Carson, Darwyn; Sader, Luke (2014). Leonard Maltin's 2014 Movie Guide. New York City: Penguin Press. p. 1563. ISBN 978-0-451-41810-4.
  11. "Ben, Rat in 'Willard,' Earns Patsy Award". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California: Tronc. September 29, 1972. p. 22.
  12. Cover of Mad #149
  13. Carr, Kevin (March 14, 2003). "Willard Movie Review". Fat Guys at the Movies. Retrieved 6 November 2018.
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