It has been a long, long, long wait, but news arrived this past week that director Daniel Mann’s 1971 film adaptation of Gilbert Ralston’s horror novel, “Ratman’s Notebooks,” which was retitled for the screen as simply, Willard, will finally be available (legitimately) as a Blu-ray/DVD product offering on May 16 from Shout! Factory.
This Cinerama Releasing production was a sleeper theatrical hit during the summer of 1971 and has been on every genre fan’s must-own list since the launch of DVD (and for that matter, Blu-ray) … but nothing, nada, no Willard year after year! The drought is finally over.
After scoring solid reviews in both Last Summer and The Strawberry Statement, Bruce Davison was suddenly a star — not because of those films — but for his portrayal of Willard Stiles, the lonely young man who develops a friendship with a cadre of rats — Socrates, Queenie, Ben and their legions of friends.
He’s a nice guy. The rats like him; he’s kind to them. But, they just keep coming and coming and before you know it poor Willard is up to his elbows in rats.
“Tear it up” is his command to the rats (who have learned basic commands from him) and so they do (poor Ernest Borgnine), but when he double-crosses their titular leader, Ben, it is the rats that do the tearing up!
Another actor who catapulted into star status as result of Willard, was none other than Sondra Locke. Although she had scored rave reviews for her debut performance in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968), it was her appearance here as Willard’s love interest that got her noticed (six films with Clint Eastwood would follow).
Shout! Factory is out early with the news, so according to their website: “Extras in progress and will be announced at a later date.”
The following summer (1972) Cinerama Releasing trotted out a sequel (when you have a hit and the main character is killed off, you still find a path to a sequel … possibly even a franchise) and titled it after the black rat, Ben, who turned on poor Willard in the first film. On May 16 Shout! Factory also has Ben on its release schedule as a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack.
Willard was iconic, Ben was dreck … there is just no way around that. It plays like a bad TV movie (MOW) of the period, but it did accomplish something that even Willard couldn’t do (no, nothing to with rat count or anything like that).
Ben was nominated for an Oscar! True! Some 14-year old pop sensation named Michael Jackson (perhaps you’ve heard of him) sang an ode to Ben the rat during the closing credits and the member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deemed it Oscar-worthy in the Best Song category (it was, however, sunk by “The Morning After” from The Poseidon Adventure).