Based on Stephen Gilbert’s nasty little chiller Ratman’s Notebooks, Daniel Mann’s 1971 “Willard” is a horror movie that has the feel of a domestic drama about loneliness that just happens to feature a few rat homicides. Though the film is generally faithful to the narrative letter of Gilbert’s book (though it does eliminate the escalation of criminal activity leading to the “Ratman” reference in the title), there is a tremendous disparity in creative approach: the problem lies squarely in how the film was adapted in spirit from book to film. The novel is a epistolary narrative written in a very matter-of-fact manner despite the clearly unhinged behavior in which the protagonist engages; the character being clearly deranged, but like all good madmen, only recognizes the faults in others. This is a perspective critical to which the film makers seem to have completely overlooked, as their Willard Stiles is portrayed as a fragile victim of the relentlessly coarse, stupid and insensitive people around him. Willard is a young man incapable of taking control in any social situation until emboldened by a pack of rats who become loyal to the youth, serving as surrogates to strike out against his frustrations. The story is a contemporary update of the creaky Gothic-fueled horror films featuring killer bats and other minions from the animal kingdom, as semi-anthropomorphized abetters to the villain’s criminal enterprises, stretching back to Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, but it’s in the complete tonal shift from novel to film that the story becomes a dishonestly rigged game with the added thematic detraction of conceding to the popular generational polarization that was fueling American film at the time, reflecting the creative tug-of-war between “New” Hollywood and Studio Hollywood and Hollywood’s shameless pandering to the self-aggrandizing Youth Movement of the time.
The movie opens with a generic title sequence showing fiery foundry work, layered with an uninspired Alex North score which is more episodic television drama than chill inducing, an inauspicious starting point for a horror movie as it begins the film in an atmospheric vacuum: except for the fact that Willard supposedly works at the aforementioned company (we are never informed what the company actually does- it might just be a demonstration of a directorial affection for sparks), there is no clear reason for such a mundane opening unless it is part of a grander design in which the fantastic elements are to be intermingled with the deliberately mundane; a strategy which has the potential to yield interesting results (as demonstrated in Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby”), but also may cause the film to fall flat by relinquishing the fullest possibilities of the horror elements through subjugation by the trivial. Unfortunately for Mr. Mann, not the most imaginative director for such a dip into the darker end of Man’s nature, his foray into the macabre succumbs to the latter circumstance, through an irretrievably damaging focus on the banal, rather than skillfully combining elements of the ordinary with the horrific, the director manages to make mundane a story which features one of the more squirm inducing animals subject to prominence in a film: rats. How is this possible?
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