Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison) feels if he didn't have bad luck he'd have no luck at all. He works in the offices of a business that he should have by all rights inherited from his late father, but his boss, friend of the family Mr Martin (Ernest Borgnine), stole it away from him and now treats him like a slave around the building, hectoring him and ordering him about. At home things aren't much better, as Willard's mother (Elsa Lanchester) has him at her beck and call, as she's not getting any younger and relies on him to look after her. On the day of his twenty-seventh birthday, he feels his life suffocating him as his mother's friends turn up for the party, but then....
Ah, but then he goes out into the back garden and spies a rat there, and so a whole cycle of revenge of nature horror movies was born in this decade. Most of those efforts owed much to Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, but it was Willard that proved a bunch of animals, or simply one very big one, on the rampage was enough to set box office tills a-ringing during the nineteen-seventies. Which makes it odd to see this influential film today, as most of it is not concerned with rats on the revolt, but with the pressure on its title character who is almost but not quite in the downtrodden Norman Bates role. More than anything, this is an office drama.
So far from acres of footage of the vermin wriggling around and planning their show of superiority over mankind, what you actually get is acres of footage of Borgnine haranguing Davison, where Willard is such a doormat that he puts up with it and only seethes when he is alone in the safety of his own home. This is where the rats come in, as once he has started to train them he discovers they are far more intelligent than he could ever have expected and he manages to communicate with them. Nothing complex at first, just words like "food" to indicate when he has something for them to eat, though after a while he is holding conversations with his new pets, one-sided conversations, true, therefore no helium-voiced squeaky replies, but still.
There are two lead rodents, Socrates, the white one who is loyal and friendly and Ben, the brown one who does what he is told but strikes us as having a rebellious streak which means it would be wise for Willard to keep an eye on him. Of course, this is all dependent on how much intelligence you can read into all those closeups of evidently oblivious small furry creatures, and there are a lot of them - closeups and rats both - which not only grows repetitive but also has an air of unshakeable silliness about it too. Unless you have a real phobia about these animals, the film isn't that scary, and at times comes across as a twisted version of those Disney movies where a kid will befriend some animal and they embark on adventures, rather than the cinematic predecessor to James Herbert's soon to be huge shocker paperback.
Fortunately there is Davison to hold all this together, and make what could have been an infuriating and offputting character someone we have a measure of sympathy with. It was a star-making part, and if he went onto more character acting than leading man business that's no slight on his talent, make no mistake, it took that to render Willard credible as the worm who turns. On the other side of the divide was Borgnine, indulging in one of his most typically brash bad guys as Martin gloats over the power he has over Willard, womanises around the office, and even commits raticide in an act that pushes our hero over the edge. Even if you've never seen this before, or its rather better remake, you will have guessed where it's headed and what fate has in store for Mr Martin, which makes for slow going as in spite of the script's emphasis on character, not quite enough happens to supply the requisite chills. Nevertheless, for pet rat lovers it has a certain something. Music by Alex North.
[Second Sight have released Willard in the UK on a restored Blu-ray double bill with its sequel Ben. Special features include audio commentaries and featurettes.]