Tuesday, 16 June 2009

No. 157 : Willard (1971)




Having looked at the 2003 remake yesterday, today we’re looking at the original. That’s just the kind of crazy back to front film reviewing you can expect here at the ‘W’ movie challenge.

For the most part the two films follow the same plot with some sequences intact in both. In this film Willard Stiles is played by Bruce Davison whom I also remember as the senator who gets filled with water in ‘X2’. He works in the office of a steel mill under Ernest Borgnine’s tyrannical boss. At home he lives with his mum Elsa ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ Lanchester who is a lot more mobile here than her corresponding character in the sequel.

After a tough day at work Willard returns home to his sprawling family mansion and is greeted by a surprise party for his birthday hosted by his mother and attended by a gaggle of her crusty friends. After hearing one home truth too many Willard retreats to the garden where he shares some cake with a passing rat. After some nagging Willard plots to kill the rats but after being impressed by their ingenuity he befriends them and soon forms an affinity for a white rat whom he names ‘Socrates’.

His mum soon takes to bed and dies shortly thereafter. Willard’s boss Mr Martin sees this as a chance to get rid of Willard and buy his house, which he plans to turn into apartments. With his now trained rat friends Willard exacts some small revenge by invading his boss’ party, an exploit that cheers up his co-workers no end.

With death duties now due Willard has to resort to crime to save his house while slowly falling for Sondra Loche’s willowy temp. When Willard takes some rats to work Socrates gets killed by Mr Martin, sending our man over the edge. With Mr Martin in the firing line Willard has to juggle his crimes and love life with a falling mental capacity and the malevolence of king rat Ben.

This film was OK but I have to side with the 2003 remake as my favourite rat fest. The original is clearly a lot cheaper and has the look of a TV movie. Obviously there is no CGI to increase the rat numbers but sometimes it looks like there are barely a dozen rats bringing a man down - never heard of a good stamp?! It is clearly of it’s time with a beige look and an invasive score that often sends the film into melodramatic territory.

The romance aspect is a lot more pronounced in the original and I think the sequel was right to largely jettison this plot strand as unnecessary and largely unbelievable - the guy hangs out with rats for goodness sake and Sondra can snare Clint Eastwood! Bruce Davison is good as Willard but I prefer Crispin Glover’s creepiness, a quality that the role really demands. Borgnine is similarly good as the brutish boss but I preferred the bluster of R Lee Emery in the sequel - he’s a bone fide bastard and it shows.

People will tell you that the original is always the best as it’s, well, original. I can see this point of view to some extent but when the remake extracts the essence of the film and expands and improves upon it, it’s clearly a worthwhile venture. My own view is echoed by the voters of the IMDb who give the remake a full star more than the original. Nothing to get ratty about, they are both good pictures - I just need my rat obsessed nut job to be that bit more creepy and my bastard bosses that bit more bastardly.

Best Bit : Boss’ Party Tanks
‘W’ Rating : 15/23

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