Dec 171971
three reels

Neurotic weakling Willard (Bruce Davison) lives with his overbearing mother (Elsa Lanchester) and her equally overbearing friends, and works for sleazy Mr. Martin (Ernest Borgnine) who stole his father’s business. While failing to do his chores, he meets, and slowly bonds with some rats in his backyard. The bond becomes closer and closer, particularly with two unusually intelligent rats, the friendly and submissive Socrates and the more independent Ben. Willard begins to use the rats, first for pranks, then for a robbery, and finally for revenge. But the important word is “use” as Willard is selfish and petty and Ben in smarter than he realizes.

The Birds started the “animal horror” movement, but Willard set it blazing. However, Willard isn’t like The Birds or the films that came after. It isn’t really horror. In other films, the animals are either evil, or represent nature repaying man for his foolishness. The animals rarely have personalities. But here, the rats are the heroes. With the exception of the office temp (Sondra Locke), every human is scum. They are universally cruel and self-serving and most are cowardly. You want them punished. But no matter how horrible they all are, Willard is the worst. After all, Martin only hurts people in his way. Willard turns on his friends.

The rats are loyal and good. They elicit sympathy, and Ben is the best of them (it doesn’t hurt that he’s the one rat that is photographed well—I have to give credit to the animal handler and cameraman, though in most films I’d be lauding the great acting for the performance that ends up on screen). Ben is the one I cared about.

The development of the rats as characters, as well as the relationships between rats and Willard, play out better in the book, “Ratman’s Notebooks.” Such things need time and that isn’t available on screen, whereas the book could dig deep into Socrates, Ben, and Willard. But Bruce Davison is excellent as the sniveling man-child and the scenes with Ben work well enough to sell the idea.

The rest of the cast is good, and while the picture drags a bit, the big moments really work.

It was followed by Ben.

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