Willard is available to buy now on Blu-ray and stream on Shudder.
Willard (1971) has long been overlooked as a horror classic. Yet, Daniel Mann’s film is one of the most creative, complex and ingenious horror flicks of the early 70s. Its disappearance and lack of critical assessment were mainly due to the film vanishing during the 1980s, with many assuming it had been eaten away by rats in a dusty garage somewhere. But Willard survived and was finally released on Blu-ray in 2017, alongside its utterly bizarre sequel Ben (1972). Taking its cue from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Mann’s movie would, like Hitchcock’s, explore the concepts of sexual repression, loneliness and isolation. Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison) is an introverted and socially awkward young man who lives with his overbearing and controlling mother. His repressed sexuality is evident throughout as he struggles to form meaningful connections with others, leading to a profound sense of loneliness and frustration. Here Mann’s film suggests that sexual repression can contribute to a distorted sense of self and a yearning for any type of loving connection.
Unlike Bates, Willard’s manipulative and controlling mother is alive at the start of the film, and the vast house they share is a maze of psychological torment for the young man as he attempts to navigate his own needs while his mother demands he attends to hers. In many ways, Willard’s relationship with his mother feels like a prequel to the events of Psycho, but unlike Norman Bates, Willard’s need for control and freedom takes a different turn. Willard does not become a serial killer dressed in his mother’s clothes; instead, he befriends rodents that offer love and companionship at a price. Willard is not evil, nor is he as psychologically damaged as Norman Bates; he is lonely, nervous and oppressed. Here Mann’s film explores toxic masculinity, power and control in relation to Willard’s sexuality. Willard works in a low-level position at his office, facing constant humiliation and mistreatment by his superiors and coworkers, brilliantly led by Ernest Borgnine. His lack of assertiveness and inability to challenge the power dynamics in his professional life mirrors his mother’s maternal control over him.
As Willard befriends the rats that surround his gothic mansion he finds solace and companionship free from human judgement and a power that enables him to play havoc with those who persecute him. Mann’s movie tiptoes around the question of whether Willard is gay. Yet, it also explores the feelings of so many young men who hide their true selves as they attempt to navigate a heteronormative world. However, as with many early queer horrors, the movie’s final scenes are devastating, as young Willard’s journey to self-acceptance is cut short as he attempts to move away from the family of rats who initially gave him freedom. Willard would be re-made in 2003 with Crispin Blunt in the central role, but it’s Mann’s delicate psychological horror that shines as Davison skillfully explores the psyche of a lost and lonely boy looking for freedom, liberation and escape in all the wrong places.