1971's "Willard," starring Bruce Davison in the title role of a lonely
mama's boy who befriends a group of rats that have infested his house
and uses them to seek revenge on his belittling boss, was a surprise
box-office hit that spawned a 1972 sequel entitled "Ben." 32 years
later, the films have been more or less forgotten, relegated to a
small cult following. Such an insignificant fate did not exactly cry
out for an updated remake, but that is what we have in 2003's "Willard."
Taking over the Bruce Davison role is Crispin Glover (2000's "Charlie's
Angels"), a long-time actor with a cult following of his own who is
best-known as George McFly in 1985's "Back to the Future." Glover,
who is criminally underrated as an actor, is pitch-perfect as Willard,
a man in his early 30's who lives with his cranky old mother (Jackie
Burroughs) in a large, decrepit house that would almost make Norman
Bates recoil in fear. With no friends to speak of and receiving zero
respect at his late father's manufacturing company, since taken over
by hateful boss Frank Martin (R. Lee Ermey), Willard finds solace
in a quickly growing infestation of rats in his basement. For Willard,
the rats become his best and only true companions, particularly in
the case of a faithful white one he names Socrates. Ben, easily the
largest and most adamant of the rats, grows jealous of Socrates, dead-set
on making his presence to Willard known.
"Willard," which mixes melodrama with horrific sequences of revenge,
as Willard unleashes his deadly rodents on Frank Martin, works best
as an intimate character study. Willard, poignantly portrayed by Crispin
Glover, is a sympathetic figure who has no self-esteem or confidence
in his life, made worse by a cantankerous and overbearing mother who
puts Willard down every chance she gets. In one of the film's most
touching moments, Willard is informed that he will lose his house--the
only place he has ever called home--now that his parents have both
died. "This will give you a chance to start your life over," the insurance
investor tells him. "Start over?" Willard tearfully responds. "I'm
almost done!" If Glover was not born to play the role of Willard,
then nobody was. The actor has an off-kilter quality just right for
the part, but also an earnest solemnity that allows him to be accessible to viewers.
Where "Willard" fails is in nearly every other respect. Sure, there
are nice touches here and there, such as an impressive stop-motion
opening credits sequence; a Danny Elfmanesque score by Shirley Walker
(2003's "Final Destination 2"); an indelibly ominous production design
by Mark S. Freeborn; and an ingenious use of the song "Ben" by the
Jackson 5, but it all adds up to very little in the long run. As a
horror film, the movie is extremely dated.
The rats, although technically impressive and strong actors in their
own rights, are never once scary, and the stalk-and-kill scenes lack
even a rudimentary understanding of suspense. Indeed, the closest
first-time director Glen Morgan ever comes to ratcheting tension is
when a cat is terrorized by the rats, but it is done in decidedly bad taste.
With Crispin Glover acting mostly alongside his rodent companions,
the other human actors are sorely wasted. R. Lee Ermey (2001's "Saving
Silverman") is appropriately despicable as the ill-fated Frank Martin,
but plays this one note to the point of exhaustion. As Willard's compassionate
co-worker Kat, Laura Elena Harring (2001's "Mulholland Drive") serves
no real purpose and receives unsatisfying closure. On the other hand,
Jackie Burroughs (2003's "A Guy Thing") is an unforgettable nightmare
come to life as Willard's domineering mother.
Deliberately paced and subjectively muted, "Willard" is unlikely to
hold much commercial viability, although it is not without its merits.
Regretfully, those merits do not make up for a creaky story that falls
flat just when it should be getting to the goods. Crispin Glover's
marvelous turn notwithstanding, "Willard" simply does not belong in the 21st-century.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman