Willard is available to buy now on Blu-ray and stream on Shudder.
Much like the rodents at its heart, Willard (1971) has long been overlooked for its sheer intelligence, humour and creativity, and despite Daniel Mann’s film holding the title cult classic, many people have yet to see this brilliant slice of early 70s horror. Much of this is due to the movie’s disappearance during the 1980s and 1990s, when many assumed it had been eaten away by rats in a dusty garage. But, Willard had survived and finally received the Blu-ray release it deserved in 2017, alongside its bizarre sequel Ben (1972).
Many would scoff if I were to say Willard is a masterpiece of 1970s horror. But for me, Willard is, without a doubt, just that; it’s socially reflective horror taking cues from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). While at the same time directly challenging themes of toxic masculinity that many may have missed at the time of its release.
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Bruce Davison’s gentle and persecuted Willard Stiles bears an unmistakable resemblance to Norman Bates, his gentle demeanour, mop of boyish blonde hair and shyness hiding a simmering rage. Equally similar is Willard’s complex relationship with his mother; however, unlike Psycho, his mother is alive at the film’s start. Here they share a vast, gothic house holding a maze of mother/son issues ranging from control to emotional manipulation. In many ways, Willard’s relationship with his mother feels like a prequel to the events of Psycho. But, for Willard, his need for control, place and purpose takes a different turn from Bates.
Willard is not a serial killer dressed in his mother’s clothes; he is a scared and lonely young man struggling to find his voice. The small army of rats he befriends is his first taste of popularity, friendship and belonging with his rodent family, unlocking his deepest desires for justice in a world where he has long held no power.
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Willard is not evil, nor is he as psychologically damaged as Norman Bates; he is lonely, different and oppressed. Here, Willard’s character goes much further than Bates in portraying the isolation of his existence and the toxic masculinity surrounding him (embodied by the brilliant Ernest Borgnine).
The resulting movie tiptoes around one big question, is Willard gay? This question alone deserves far more time than we have here. But, one thing is for sure, Willard’s victims represent toxic masculinity at its worst, and his family of rats represent acceptance and belonging unavailable in the human world. Therefore, one could argue Willard delves deeper than Psycho into themes of alienation, repressed anger and belonging. Here the mental imbalance in Perkins Norman Bates is stripped away to create something far more human.
The movie’s final scenes are devastating, as young Willard finally accepts himself, only to become the victim of the family who gave him freedom. Remade in 2003 with Crispin Blunt in the central role, while also inspiring a range of horror movies, including Stanley (1972), Willard is no simple creature horror flick; it’s a psychological maze of belonging, desire and oppression that deserves the title of masterpiece over and above that of a cult classic.
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