Director : Glen Morgan
Screenplay : Glen Morgan (based a by Gilbert Ralston)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Crispin Glover (Willard), R. Lee Ermey (Frank Martin), Jackie Burroughs (Henrietta Stiles), Laura Elena Harring (Cathryn), David Parker (Detective Boxer), Kristen Cloke (Dr. Bludworth)
First-time director Glen Morgan certainly had Tim Burton on the mind when making Willard, a darkly comedic remake of the 1971 cult classic about a social misfit who befriends an army of rats and teaches them to do his bidding. Right from the gaudy opening credits sequence that features a musical score by Shirley Walker channeling Danny Elfman, Willard is right in the vein of Burton’s signature work, sympathizing with strange characters and finding twisted humor in the most unlikely of circumstances.
The first thing Morgan did right was insist on casting Crispin Glover as the title character (the studio had been pushing for more “mainstream” up-and-coming actors like Mark Ruffalo). The lanky, angular Glover has created a multi-decade career playing outsiders and oddballs, from the uber-nerd father in Back to the Future (1985) to the picked-upon office worker in the dreadful Bartleby (2001), and here he gives one of his best performances as a meek, mother-dominated man who can’t seem to get a leg up anywhere until he makes the life-changing choice of not killing a rat in the basement of his crumbling familial mansion. Glover is best when suggesting both the pathetic and the menacing; his Willard is a strangely compelling character, one you feel sorry for even though you wouldn’t necessarily want to be in a room with him. What Glover does so well is suggest the potential for refined madness beneath his bumbling lack of composure. His performance is subtle and nuanced, but it feels over the top because we are always aware that it could go that way at any minute.
Willard works for a company that was once owned by his proud father (amusingly portrayed in old photographs by Bruce Davison, who played Willard in the original), but is now run by his father’s ruthless partner, Frank Martin (R. Lee Ermey), who bought him out and now makes it his life’s pursuit to humiliate Willard at every turn. At home, Willard has it even worse as he takes care of his decrepit mother (Jackie Burroughs) who berates him in a more gentle, but no less humiliating fashion. It isn’t surprising that Willard finds solace in the gloomy basement surrounded by hundreds of rodents who eventually do his every bidding. In a strange way, Willard simply re-enacts the abuse that is directed at him by other people in his treatment of the rats, particularly the gargantuan one named Ben, who he constantly rejects in favor of Socrates (many have read a racial component here, in that Ben is clearly black and Socrates is snow white). In his own way, Willard wants to assert the kind of control and dominance that Frank Martin and his mother wield over him.
Thus, like the original film, Willard has some interesting thematic statements about cycles of abuse and torment—the abused simply find weaker creatures upon whom to inflict their own abuse. Yet, Willard never becomes a full-fledged villain, even when he turns his rat army into an instrument of bloody vengeance against Martin (who, as played by Ermey, is such a one-dimensional bad guy that it’s impossible to feel anything for him other than loathing). Granted, in the film’s last reel, Willard does become more creepy than sad, but even then we understand and feel for him, which more than anything is what aligns Morgan’s film with those of Tim Burton: sympathy for the outsider.
However, the visual nature of Willard also evokes Burton’s films (at least the good ones prior to his Planet of the Apes remake). Morgan, who has a long list of writing credits for cultish TV shows such as Millennium and The X-Files, clearly understand that slick style can go a long way, and he and cinematographer Robert McLachlan (Final Destination) gives Willard a dank, inky, slightly otherworldly look that constantly reminds us not to take any of this too seriously. From the grotesque close-ups of Willard’s mother to the startling shots of Willard surrounded by thousands of rats (most of which were real, rather than computer-generated), this is a film that celebrates a long lineage of familiar horror movie clichés without making them seem in the least bit banal.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick