One of the prevalent horror subgenres in the 1970s was the “Nature Gone Wild” or “Eco-Horror” film. Until I recently researched the topic, I always assumed this subgenre sprung from the blockbuster success of Jaws. However, Jaws was not released until 1975, and prior to it there were at least half a dozen movies about various members of the animal kingdom going crazy and attacking humans. More so than Jaws, I’d say the phenomenon was a result from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which was released in 1963.
Between the time panicked birds were picking at Tippi Hedren’s wig and rogue Great White sharks were taking bites out of Robert Shaw, humans on screen were victims to rats (Willard), rabbits (Night of the Lepus), snakes (Sssssss), ants (Phase IV) and cockroaches (Bug). Two of the earliest “Nature Gone Wild” films happen to also be two of my favorite childhood horror movies: Willard, from 1971 and Frogs, from 1972. I’d like to imagine they were actually the inspirations for the birth of the subgenre. In fact, they may just have been ahead of their time.
We learn everything we need to know about Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison) in the opening scenes of the movie Willard. He forgets papers at work, misses his bus and is smothered at home. His mother’s friends tell him he’s an extrovert, “but it’s all inside”, and verbally harass him about being tougher. Yeah, he’s a real loser. However, he’s a sympathetic loser. Each time the man is knocked down, suspense builds toward the inevitable moment when he will fight back.
In 2014, the method for his revenge may not seem terribly original, but when Willard was first released in 1971, it was quite unsettling. In the back yard that he is supposed to clean up for his sick mother (Elsa Lanchester), he befriends two rats, Ben and Socrates. He trains them and their growing number of friends and family until his cellar is virtually teaming with the creatures. Feeding them, taking them to work, he ultimately has them under his control.
He first uses them for a little harmless fun: ruining an anniversary party for his truly horrible boss, Al Martin (Ernest Borgnine). He then uses them as a distraction so he can steal the money he needs to pay back taxes. And finally, he uses them for murder. As we all know, though, deeds like this don’t usually go unpunished. When Willard realizes the errors of his ways, he tries to get out, but his new friends don’t want it to be that easy.
For a mostly straightforward story like this, Willard is surprisingly effective, even by today’s standards. I’ll admit it’s a little lighthearted at first, but once the last straw is placed on the camel’s back, the movie takes a sinister turn and is scary as heck. The penultimate scene where Willard confronts Martin in his office is chilling. Martin opens the door to find Willard standing there with a multitude of rats swarming over and around his feet.
There’s something inherently creepy in a movie about rats. Just seeing a rat makes me squirm. And to hear the tiny footsteps of hundreds of them marching along a wooden floor makes me lift my feet onto my chair. But to have my worst fears about them realized… that they might attack me… well, it’s almost too much to bear. All that aside, though, the movie contributes its own creepiness with a disciplined use of camera angles, close-ups and nightmare-like lighting.
Director Daniel Mann (Butterfield 8, Our Man Flint) maximizes the thrills with what appears on screen to be a very low budget. But he proves you don’t need a lot of money to make an effective movie. The screenply is by television veteran Gilbert Ralston; you name a 60’s TV series and he likely wrote an episode of it, including Star Trek (Who Mourns for Adonais?) It’s based on the novel, “Ratman’s Notebooks,” by Stephen Gilbert. I’d love to read the book sometime.
Besides the chilling scenes are a couple filled with dark humor. When Willard’s mother dies and her friends bring food to the house, they swarm around the dinner table, eating like a bunch of hungry rats. Willard stands back and watches. Never before disgusted with his friends that are literally rats, he looks like he’s going to be physically sick watching these people stuff their faces (while at the same time, by the way, ignoring him.
It’s also an intentionally humorous moment when a potential romance at the office, played by Sondra Locke what was only her third screen role, gives Willard a gift: a cat. After dropping her off, she tells him to take care of it. He replies, “I’ll take care of her all right.” Don’t worry; this is during the early, innocent part of the movie. He doesn’t feed it to the rats. Instead, he asks a man in a phone booth to hold it for a moment, then quickly drives away.
Near the end of the movie, Willard channels Norman Bates and talks to a framed photo of his mother. “Martin killed Socrates just like he killed my father. It doesn’t matter; I make the decisions now.” So it’s really all about power and control. Willard doesn’t have it. Then he thinks he does. But it isn’t too long before he has to unconvincingly say to his rats, “Each time I come down here there are more of you. Stop it. I am the boss here.” The lesson is brewing…
Willard remains important today if for no other reason than because of its cast. Sondra Locke later became Mrs. Clint Eastwood. Elsa Lanchester was the original Bride of Frankenstein. Ernest Borgnine was an Academy Award winner. And you’ve seen the great character actor Bruce Davison in any number of the 207 films in which he’s appeared. But you’ve never seen the skinny, awkward and, yes, mousy Bruce Davison until you’ve seen him in Willard.
Frogs themselves aren’t so deadly, even if they’re piling up and rubbing their slimy digits on your glass porch windows. So they’re just the title villains in a movie where snakes, spiders, lizards, alligators and even butterflies take their revenge against a rich family that abuses the local ecology. It sounds almost comical, but Frogs is played straight, and offers some surprisingly effective scenes.
It’s the 4th of July at the Crockett estate in rural Florida. Jason Crockett (Ray Milland) is a bitter old man confined to a wheelchair. It doesn’t matter why, other than the fact that because of his handicap, he insists his entire clan get together once a year to go through the motions of being a normal, functional family. It is so important to Jason, in fact, that when confronted with the question, “What if nature were trying to get back at us,” he’d rather die in his chair than be late for dinner or cancel the annual croquet match.
The family members are numerous, but the intimacies of their relationships are merely suggested. They’re mostly on hand simply to be killed. Frogs would be absolutely sublime if there was more of a story in regards to the family. Jason is an old, rich man who’s going to die, whether at this 4th of July party or soon after. Why not have the children and grandchildren backstab each other for his inheritance? Family drama against the backdrop of nature knocking them off one by one could actually make an interesting statement about whom the real monsters are.
Frogs has no such aspirations. It is simply another assembly line production from American International Pictures (AIP). But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If any of the aforementioned creatures of the swamp make you shiver, then you’re naturally going to be anxious when they appear on screen. It stands to reason, then, that any competent director could manipulate the footage even slightly to send you over the edge. I think veteran TV director George McCowan does it here. OK, so maybe lizards aren’t scary. But when they knock over bottles of poison, they can be.
The killings in Frogs aren’t nearly as creative as the circumstances that get people in positions to be killed. These aren’t super-frogs (or snakes, spiders, lizards, alligators and butterflies). But if you think about it, death by any of these creatures would be pretty gruesome. As for the frogs themselves, the sound of them croaking all day and night would be enough to drive me crazy. The movie soundtrack seems completely filled with the noise and every scene seems to be intercut with an image of them hopping closer to the house.
The make-up in Frogs is pretty good, especially the decaying body of the first victim that is discovered face down in the swamp. And the music by Les Baxter is appropriately schlocky, particularly the abrupt stinger during the penultimate shocker. I particularly like the ending. Using creative close-ups, camera angles and sound, it’s effective without being silly. I mean, it could really happen as shown. In a movie like Frogs, you keep waiting for them to do some damage. But sometimes simply hopping on top of an already dead body is damage enough.
For more on these movies, visit It Came From Beneath My Mind and the Countdown to Halloween 2014.