Friday, May 5, 2017

WILLARD (1971) (Blu-ray Review)

WILLARD (1971) 
Label: Scream Factory
Release Date: May 16th 2017
Region Code: A
Rating: PG
Duration: 95 Minutes 
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: Daniel Mann
Cast: Sondra Locke, Elsa Lanchester, Ernest Borgnine, Bruce Davison, Michael Dante


Willard Stiles (Bruce Davidson, Lords of Salem) is a bit social misfit, he lives with his overbearing mom Henriette (Elsa Lanchester, Bride of Frankenstein) in a run-down Victorian mansion. He works at a factory formerly owned by his now deceased father, a business stolen away from the family by his new boss Al Martin (Ernest Borgnine, Escape from New York), who is always on him, pushing him around and making him feel small in front of everyone at work.. At home his mother is both a doting harasser and totally smothering, between her and his boss Willard is about at his rope's end. Increasingly unhappy with his lot in life Willard befriends a pair of rats he find living in the basement of his home, a white rat he names Socrates and a darker rat named Ben, who becomes the lead rat to Willard's legion of the rats. 


Hiding away in his basement Willard develops a rudimentary form of communication with his rats, forming an army of rodents who begin to perform his bidding, beginning by ruining his bosses annual party, the rats invading his home and causing quite panic. At work Willard befriends a new employee, the pretty and kind Joan (Sondra Locke, The Outlaw Josey Wales), with his new found rat friends and a lady in his life things are looking up for Willard, but his nagging mother is in failing health, and his boss is trying to screw him out of his Victorian mansion, he's at the edge and things turn dark soon enough, first with the death of his mother, and second when his boss kills Socrates at the office. 


After being fired from his job by Mr. Martin Willard goes to the factory after-hours with his army of rats and confronts Mr. Martin in his office, calling him out for all his evil deeds and slights against him, before commanding the rats to "tear him up!", which they do, forcing the bastard to leap out a window to his death as he is gnawed upon my dozens of rats.  Unfortunately, in the aftermath Willard begins to mistreat his rat-friends, tricking them and drowning them, and Ben is not having any of it, launching an attack against Willard, proving that you should never betray your friends, even yur rat friends. I love it when Willard is on the run from the horde of vengeful rats, screaming "I was good to you Ben!".

The shots of rats are well-filmed and rather creepy, directed by Daniel Mann (Our Man Flint) the films has a nice look and atmosphere, though the film does have a certain TV look about it, not surprising since cinematographer Robert B. Hauser (The Frisco Kid) worked in TV for twenty-five years, but the shots are nicely lit with colored lighting adding a dramatic flair. If you have a fear of rats this is gonna be an icky watch for you, they did good work capturing the rodents on film, particularly the shots of the lead rat Ben, some of which do give him some kitschy menace. You have to laugh when you clearly see that the rats are obviously being flung in the cast from just off camera.   

Willard is a weird, dark movie that holds up well, Bruce Davidson is wonderful as the sort of pathetic weird guy turned rat-commander, who himself proves to be a villainous character in the end, but he is the most likeable of the characters the movie focuses on. Ernest Borgnine is superb as the cruel, larger-than-life Mr. Milton, who puts upon poor Willard at every turn, but he gets his comeuppance and then some.  Elsa Lanchester as Willard's mum is also a blast, a slightly insane sort of woman in poor health, her eyes read crazy, and his relationship with both her and Mr. Milton makes for some great scenes, you can see why Willard is such a frustrated weirdo. 


This was my first time watching the movie, I've seen clips pop-up here and there on YouTube through the years, but this is the first time the film has been available on any digital home video release, this sucker has been dormant since the days of VHS! It was worth the wait, this is a great film and a wonderful looking release, the extras with actor Bruce Davidson are fantastic, highly recommended. 


Audio/Video: Willard (1971) arrives on Blu-ray for the first time-ever on any digital format from Scream Factory, benefiting from a gorgeous new 4K scan looking sharp and details from the origial negative, blues and greens really pop, the textures and fine detail are wonderful, those 70s furnishing and fashions pop right off the screen. There's some modest depth to the image, the moody lighting in the latter scenes look great, this is a wonderful presentation. 

The extras are slim but good, beginning with a brand new commentary with actor Bruce Davidson moderated by Nathaniel Thompson of MondoDigital.com, a fun track with Bruce waxing nostalgic about his time working on the film with not just the rats but the amazing cast, including Elsa Lanchester (Bride of Frankenstein) who gave him some sage advice about director';s and their loads of codswallop, plus some great anecdotes about working with the larger-than-life Ernest Borgnine (Escape from New York), impersonating him while saying his line "This place is a woodpecker's hamburger". Davidson approaches his own career with some wry humor, mentioning how after kissing a rat in this film he didn't have the chance to kiss a girl on film for the next years! Thompson does good work keeping the conversation flowing, prompting Davidson to speak about his work in Short Eyes and Long Time Companion, and his own ideas about what the sequel should have been. 


There's also an on-camera interview with Davidson, he touches on a lot of the same information as the commentary, speaking about what an enthusiastic director Danny Mann was, again relaying the story of how at one point when struggling with a scene Mann told him to "think of the Nazis", and his love for actress Sondra Locke. We also get a selection of radio spots, TV spots and the theatrical trailer for the film, plus a gallery of images which includes promotional stills, lobby cards, and posters from various territories. This release is a dual format BD/DVD Combo, containing both HD and SD versions of the film, each disc having the same feature and extras, two-discs housed in a standard blue keepcase. The artwork is not reversible but features a scene from the film on the reverse side. 

Special Features
- NEW 4K scan of the original camera negative
- NEW audio commentary with actor Bruce Davison
- NEW interview with actor Bruce Davison (12 min) HD
- Theatrical Trailer (2 min) HD
- TV Spot (1 min)
- Radio Spots (1 min) HD
- Still Gallery (6 min) HD


This is the sort of cult releases I celebrate Scream Factory for, we've been waiting for Willard (1971) and it's sequel, Ben (1972), to come to Blu-ray for years, and now it's here, and it was totally worth the wait. I hope this release brings some younger viewers to the altar of Willard, a film that deserves a wider audience, but because it has been so scarce for so long it's reputation has languished and waned. I'm sure many folks don't even realize the 2003 movie was remake, and that's just a damn shame. 4/5

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