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Willard (Blu-ray Review)

Like most of my generation, I believe I first came into consciousness of Willard with the 2003 remake. What looked like an odd, cooky horror film starring Crispin Glover and Laura Harring about a guy who seemingly had some sort of weird psychic thing with his pet rat looked just right up the alley for that of Glover. When it released, I came to find it wasn’t an original film, but a remake of one from 30 years prior.  Digging even further down that rabbit hole, I’d find that movie even got a sequel that had an Academy Award nominated song, made historically notable because it was performed by Michael Jackson. Willard and its sequel, Ben, will be making their way to Blu-ray courtesy of the Scream Factory label.  You can go ahead and pre-order them to have them in their your mailbox on release day, which is May 16.

Film 

Willard Stiles is a young man with a big problem. He lives alone in a crumbling house with his ailing mother. His boss, Al Martin is a vulgar, cruel man who stole his business from Willard’s father and is now working Willard to death at his factory job. Lonely, depressed and isolated, Willard is on the verge of a breakdown when he makes a new friend: Ben, one of the many rats who inhabit his dilapidated home. Not only can Willard communicate with the rodent, but he can actually command him to do his bidding. Using Ben and his furry friends as instruments of retaliation, Willard commands his pets to carry out his vengeance…

Daniel Mann’s 1971 kinda sorta quirky horror oddity Willard is a interesting little character on someone with a bit of a lack of confidence, guidance and esteem. A kind, but strange individual pushed to a sort of edge after he gets screwed over multiple times and befriends a rat (ultimately a kingdom of rats). While this movie still sorta works, it feels less of a strange movie in our modern age and Willard kinda is more like a sort of anti-hero that we’d follow on a TV series and root for nowadays.

While ultimately villainous, Willard is the only character in this film that we can really open any sort of sympathy with. I’m sure this was the intention of the book and filmmakers at this time, but I’m not sure if audiences back then took it this way. And Bruce Davison’s performance here is really anything but strange except for his affection and discussions with the rats. This opposed to what Crispin Glover presented in the 2003 edition (Which, btw, this movie is primed for the sort of update or remake). Davison is strange, but a sort of easily relate-able strange. Either that, or I’m just strange myself. He does have to pay for his behavior, but still

This cast has a little bit of fun to it. Its great to see Ernest Borgnine play a total arrogant dick in the film, being its ultimate antagonist. He’s worse than the rats. Sondra Locke is absolutely adorable here, and its nice to see her in something non-Eastwood, meaning she’s likely not being violated for the sake of someone getting their revenge. And in a bit of a nice horror call back touch, Elsa Lanchester plays Willard’s mom in a very fun, colorful and memorable turn.

Willard is a unique tale in the 1970s horror canon. Its never really scary, but its the study of a sort of troubled mind as the result of an unhealthy environment. This tale has aged into something that really isn’t too bizarre or unsympathetic in the modern age. Though, many may have found it all along, I’m talking moreso in much more populated sense in 2017 than it would have been in 1971. I could see many dismissing it as weird or not even feeling a thing toward poor Willard back then. The film is a bit slow and very 70s-like in its structure, pacing and development, but still works and engages enough to hold up.

Video 

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Layers: BD-50

Clarity/Detail:  Willard debuts on Blu-ray with a brand new 4K scan of the original camera negative. And boy does this look marvelous. The image still retains some film grain and such, but the negative is in great shape. Details run rambunctious with clothing textures, surfaces and more oozing with little signs of wear, showcasing patterns, wrinkles, scuffs, powders and seasonings on food and more. You can see little polishing finishes and such on women’s shoes in medium shots. The image also retains a crisp, sharp look. Hell, even grass is pretty astounding. This is a nice, very impressive image from Scream Factory and one of their best.

Depth:  Willard carries a nice three dimensional appearance with characters feeling very free and very distanced from background and other things in the frame. Background clarity is also top notch.  Movements are cinematic and smooth with no real troubling issues of blur or jitter present.

Black Levels:  Blacks are pretty rich and impress in shaded areas by holding up strong with details. Grain keeps even and doesn’t get heavier with darker lit scenes, surfaces and clothing. No crushing was witnessed during the watch for this review.

Color Reproduction:  Coloring fares very strong in this image. Outdoors, greens on plants and grass burst pretty strongly with little red and and yellow flowers sticking out really neatly. Clothing is where the strength lies in the image with purples, pinks, blues and other clothing. Charlotte’s make-up and Sondra Locke’s hair are real standouts as well. Natural colors and whites feature many different variations and impressive looks of tints and the like throughout.

Flesh Tones:  Skin tones take on a natural look and keep the appearance from scene to scene throughout the duration of the film. Facial features like wrinkles, stubble, glossy sweat from lighting, make-up, freckles and blemishes come through great in close ups and for the most part, really good in medium shots.

Noise/Artifacts: Aside from grain and a few pops, this looks great.

Audio 

Audio Format(s): English Original Mono 2.0 DTS-HD MA

Subtitles: English SDH

Dynamics:  Willard comes with a surprisingly really crisp audio track that is very spacey and free sounding for a film of this age. There is a really good balance between the film’s musical score, sound effects and vocals. Its not a real deep track, being more on the high end, but there’s really nothing demand a boom in it. For what is given, its really impressive.

Height: N/A

Low Frequency Extension:  N/A

Surround Sound Presentation:  N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Dialogue is really clear, crisp and clean. For an early 70s film with a mono source, the dialogue has no real analog hiss or distortion and features most of the diction represented.

Extras 

Willard comes with the DVD edition of the film.

Audio Commentary

  • With Actor Bruce Davison

I Used To Have Myself But I Like Myself Now (HD, 12:27) – An interview with Bruce Davison. Davison realizes he was and still is Willard. He goes through how he got the part and working with his co-stars, especially all the knowledge and life tips he received from Ernest Borgnine. There are also some really good and funny onset memories the actor shares as well.

Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:23) 

TV Spot (SD, 1:02) 

Radio Spots (HD, 1:26) – Watch your volume, these are really loud.

Still Gallery (HD, 5:52)

Summary 

Willard is a nice little oddity, but I think has moreso aged into something a little less odd in the 46 years since its release. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release really does take the cheese though. Its 4K transfer from the original negative is one their most impressive outings and the audio is surprisingly crisp and fresh sounding. You also get some relatively nice extras thrown in. For fans of the film and those curious to check out for the first time, this is a nice little release.

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Writer/Reviewer, lifelong obsessive film nerd. As eager to educate in the world of film as I am to learn. An avid lover of horror, schlock and trash, Brandon hosts the Cult Cinema Cavalcade podcast on the Creative Zombie Studios Network (www.cultcinemacavalcade.com) You can also find more essays on his blog Naptown Nerd (naptownnerd.blogspot.com).

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