Bay of the Living Dead: You Made Me Hate Myself–Well I LIke Myself Now!
Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a twice a month column about the horror genre.
Willard was a sensation when it was first released in 1971. The low budget chiller played to packed houses for months, grossing $14,545,941, an enormous amount of money in those days.
Willard was a love story, perhaps one of the most bizarre ever told. Willard himself was a bizarre boy–boy being a relative term, since he was around 25 years old. Willard was in love with Ben and Socrates, his pet rats. Actually, Willard had thousands of rats. He took care of them, and they were willing to do anything for him. Anything.
Willard was actor Bruce Davison’s third film. He had begun to attract attention for his performances in Last Summer (1969) and The Strawberry Statement (1970) two films which were very much a part of the era’s counter-culture revolution. No one who saw the actor in those films were prepared for the extraordinary work Davison would offer in Willard–a film which, in this writer’s humble opinion, should have garnered the actor an Academy Award for Best Actor.
“You made me hate myself,” a maniacal Davison, as Willard, says to his evil, abusive boss, Mr. Martin (Ernest Borgnine). “Well I like myself now!” It’s a bone chilling moment. At Willard’s command, hundreds of rats run into Mr. Martin’s office and surround him.
“TEAR HIM UP!” Willard screams as the rats begin running up Martin’s body. Davison’s work in this scene is exquisite. Though it’s Mr. Martin who meets a grisly demise, it’s Willard who captures the audience’s sympathies–Davison beautifully captures Willard’s agonizing loneliness.
In a newly shot interview shot for Scream Factory‘s brand new DVD/Blu Ray combo of this long unseen film, Bruce Davison smiles proudly as he recalls being told by the great horror writer Stephen King that “You made me hate myself–well, I like myself now!” is King’s all time favorite movie line. Davison also shares his personal memories of Willard’s supporting cast. Borgnine had been a major star for decades–he won an Oscar for his extraordinary work in the drama Marty (1955).
In 1935 British actress Elsa Lanchester achieved cinema immortality when she was cast as The Bride of Frankenstein. Three and a half decades later the highly eccentric yet always delightful Lanchester appears in a few scenes as Willard’s long-suffering mom. During his interview Davison does a side-splitting impression of Lanchester’s over-the-top English accent.
Willard, unfortunately, went unseen for many years. Some have speculated that the film was in legal limbo due to Cinerama Releasing, the company which distributed Willard, having been liquidated for reasons unknown in 1978. Who owned the rights to Willard at that point?
We’ll probably never know why Cinerama Releasing went under or why Willard remained unavailable for so long. Thankfully the film is available now.
Shout Factory offers a good print of this horrific masterpiece. Davison’s extraordinary performance is as powerful today as it was nearly a half century ago. And though he never got the recognition he deserved for Willard, Davison went on to enjoy a wonderful career, amassing dozens of credits in film, on television and in the theater. He received an Oscar nomination for his work in the powerful AIDS drama Longtime Companion (1990), and won a Golden Globe for that same film.
Bruce Davison’s acting chops are incomparable. Willard displays the actor’s range as no other film ever has, so please do consider checking the film out. Shout Factory’s disc of Willard is now available at Amazon.
Of course whenever a film is hugely profitable, as Willard was, a sequel is inevitable. The opening credits of Ben are superimposed over Willard’s chillingly unexpected ending sequence. The story then picks up a few hours later as Willard’s bloodied, partially eaten body is discovered.
As Ben continues, a bare bones plot, in which Willard’s furry friend Ben seeks refuge with Danny, a terminally ill adolescent boy (Lee Harcourt Montgomery) ensues.
One would think that a dying kid would garner audience sympathies, but character development in Ben is paper thin. What made Willard resonate with audiences was the desperate loneliness of the film’s lead character, the abuse he took from his boss, and his toxic relationship with his eccentric and overbearing mom. The makers of Ben, obviously in a hurry to cash in on the mother film’s success, couldn’t be bothered with trying to bring that kind of multi-layered character development to the second film’s story. In spite of his tragic circumstances, Danny is a relatively happy kid with a happy home life.
Ben‘s purpose as a film is singular: to show as many scenes as possible in which human beings are covered with rats. While there’s obviously a market for that, we prefer a little more meat on our horror movie scripts.
Shout Factory’s DVD/Blu Ray combo pack of Ben includes a lively interview with Montgomery, who seems like a cool dude! The film is now available at Amazon.
Long Ago and Far Away:
Kino Lorber continues to be one of the finest purveyor’s of classic cinema for home viewing audiences. The company has just issued two new titles from the early 194os–one of which will be a mouth watering treat for fans of horror legend Bela Lugosi. Lugosi of course had shot to international fame when she starred in the original Dracula (1931), reprising the role he had played on Broadway four years earlier. The actor’s portrayal of the bloodthirsty count remains mesmerizing even today–Lugosi’s future as a movie star should have been assured.
Unfortunately for Lugosi, his work in Dracula was overshadowed by Boris Karloff’s groundbreaking performance as the Frankenstein monster later that same year. Lugosi was relegated to second banana status where he remained for the rest of his life.
It was a fate which Lugosi did not deserve–he was a wonderful actor. In 1941 he accepted a starring role in The Invisible Ghost, a no budget cheapie brought to the screen by Monogram Studios, a company which produced films that were barely a step above student films.
“Poor Bela,” was the reaction of many in Hollywood. As is often the case, there was more to the story. The Invisible Ghost was the first of nine films which Lugosi made for Monogram. The studio treated him like a star, treatment he was, by that point, rarely accorded elsewhere. They kept him steadily employed at a time when he had a wife and a young son to support. Audiences flocked to see these films–they were all moneymakers.
Poor Bela? Give me a break!
The Invisible Ghost is not a great film. The script is full of holes–no explanation is ever offered as to why the sight of his catatonic wife turns Lugosi into a psychotic killer. Nor is it ever made clear why Lugosi thinks his wife is dead when she can clearly be seen walking the grounds of his estate almost every night. Little in The Invisible Ghost makes sense, but Lugosi, a classically trained stage actor, gives his all and rises above the material. Even in a cheapie like The Invisible Ghost, the actor commands the screen as few other performers could have.
Kino Lorber offers a pristine, fully restored print of The Invisible Ghost. Lugosi expert Gary Rhodes, who has authored a number of books on the actor’s life and career, joins several other film scholars on a lively commentary track. Look for some of Rhodes’ more recent tomes to be covered in a future edition of this column.
Kino Lorber is also offering Chamber of Horrors, a 1940 mystery which looks, feels and sounds like a horror movie. Based on famed mystery novelist Edgar Wallace‘s book The Door With Seven Locks, Chamber of Horrors is set in a desolate English castle–there’s even a drafty crypt nearby. A fortune in jewels lies hidden in that crypt. Where are the keys, and who’s willing to kill to get that door open?
The film’s title is a bit misleading–this is not a horror movie, it’s a thriller about murderous would be jewel thieves. But Chamber of Horrors might manage to get under viewers’ skin regardless. The castle and that gloriously creepy crypt are wonderfully expressionistic set pieces–are you sure there aren’t any ghosts in there?
As with The Invisible Ghost, Kino Lorber has fully restored Chamber of Horrors to its former glory. This 77 year old film looks crisp and sharp, as though it were just made. Viewers expect nothing less from Kino Lorber–film restoration is the company’s specialty. Cinema historian David Del Valle and filmmaker Kenneth J. Hall discuss the history of Chamber of Horrors–and author Edgar Wallace–on a delightfully fun and informative commentary track.