As geeky characters in film go, Willard Stiles is a too often overlooked role model. What makes him a Geek is not a love of comic books or science fiction, but his personality. He’s a loner, socially awkward, withdrawn, maladjusted and misunderstood. He has few friends and when he finally does find some, well, let’s just say they’re as misunderstood as Willard himself.
Despite it’s reputation as simply a horror film about a creepy guy who loves rats (a reputation confirmed by the forgettable Crispin Glover remake), Willard is actually much more than that. It’s a complex and sympathetic character study and for a few misfits in the audience, it gave us a protagonist we could finally identify with and a film that helped define our later lives. It was Willard and not Catcher in the Rye, where we finally came to recognize our own alienation. Even long after moving to New York where rat encounters are an expected daily occurrence, I have much more patience for the diseased vermin in the subways than I do for most people and it’s all on account of that picture.
The film’s success is due in no small part to a production designer who made everything in Willard’s world (with the exception of the rats) feel mildewed and decayed; Stephen Gilbert’s original novel, The Rat Man’s Diaries which, though changed quite a bit for the film still provided an unforgettable portrait; and the measured and confident direction by veteran Daniel Mann.
Most important of all, though, was Bruce Davison. He went o to much bigger things (including the X Men films), but it was his brilliant performance in Willard, only his third film, that proved to be his breakthrough. In his hands, Willard is an absolutely believable character, bumbling and hapless at work, uncomfortable around people and finally finding a sense of camaraderie with the rats who, like him, are despised outcasts. Throughout the film, Willard only relaxes when he’s with the rats. He can talk comfortably with them, look them in the eye, even order them around, none of which he’s capable of with people.
Willard’s 27 and working as a clerk in the factory his father built up from nothing. But his father’s dead now and his boss, Mr. Martin (the inimitable Ernest Borgnine), has little patience for his sloppy work ethic, only keeping him around out of pity for Willard and respect for his mother.
At home Willard’s mother (The Bride of Frankenstein’s Elsa Lanchester) is mostly bedridden, summoning Willard countless times a day with a little bell in order to complain about her health, give him orders or berate him. The decrepit estate in which they live is falling into ruin, the taxes are becoming too much and the only money that’s coming in anymore is Willard’s meager salary. He and his mother both, however, dismiss any suggestion that they should sell the place.
If you think about it, Willard shares quite a bit in common with that other notable and unsung Geek, Norman Bates. They both live in rambling, crumbling old houses they’re reluctant to sell (perhaps because crumbling old houses make such good metaphors). Their fathers left the scene awhile back, leaving them alone with their shrill and domineering mothers. When their mothers die, they compensate in some fairly unconventional ways. And when they finally find a girl, that post-mother compensation gets in the way. Plus there’s that whole “madness and murder” business, but at least in Willard’s case it’s more understandable and justifiable, for some of us anyway.
When Willard escapes from his birthday party (a party attended only by his mother’s elderly friends), he hides in the overgrown garden and has a friendly encounter with one of the rats who seem to have overrun the place. He gives her a little food and the next day a few more rats show up. Willard starts feeding them regularly, gives them names, even has his favorites; a clever white rat he names Socrates and a big Norway rat he names Ben. Instead of following his mother’s orders to kill the rats Willard begins to train them. And those rats, I gotta say, both individually and as a pack, are mighty fine actors, squeaking on cue and everything.
Instead of stealing paper from the supply closet to exact a little revenge against that abusive Mr. Martin, Willard unleashes a suitcase full of rats upon a garden party at Martin’s house. Things don’t get any easier at work, for some reason.
Borgnine’s is another performance worth noting here. His Mr. Martin isn’t sinister or evil, he’s just a very believable asshole boss, but at the same time you can understand his frustration, given that Willard’s an undeniable screw-up. Still, he does take a sleazy turn after Willard’s mother dies when he plots to fire Willard and buy up the property for cheap. And as an audience member you want to hate him when he kills Socrates, but at that point we’re seeing the events of the film solely through Willard’s eyes, which again marks it as a great film. Martin was simply behaving as that moment dictated he had to behave (and after the garden party fiasco he had his reasons), but it’s not something we’re paying attention to at the time. Even as Willard becomes more dangerous, slips deeper into isolation and madness, we’re rooting for him and the rats. And when he shows up at Martin’s door with an army of rats, well, we’re with him. Or I am, anyway. When that sting in the music hits and Willard screams, “Tear him up!” I always want to cheer.
That, too, marks another connection between Norman Bates and Willard. Outside the theater, as icons and cultural references, Norman and Willard are both creepy, deeply disturbed killers. But when we’re watching the film we can’t but help to identify with them. In Psycho the turning point comes when Norman’s sinking the car in the swamp after the first murder. From that point on we’re on his side. In Willard it comes when he runs away from that awful, abrasive birthday party and first meets the rats. Who hasn’t wanted to run away from a birthday party? And when he finds a friend in that first rat we’re happy for him and happy he finally has the means to stand up against all those people who’ve been grinding him down his whole life.
Sadly, in both cases, Norman’s and Willard’s obsessions get the best of them in the end. It was inevitable, I guess. As inevitable as the sequels and remakes that would follow. The funny thing is, as painfully loathsome a picture as 1972’s Ben was (Lee Montgomery remains unchallenged as the most hateful child actor of all time), the fact that they made the protagonist a 12-year-old boy reveals at least that the filmmakers knew who that first film was touching. Unfortunately I never identified with Montgomery the way I did with Davison’s Willard. In fact I spent the duration of the sequel just waiting for the rats to tear that little bastard to shreds. Still do.