Willard Movie Review

A pallid complexion, stuttered speech pattern, and naturally creepy persona have prevented Crispin Glover from achieving leading man status over the course of his 20-year career. Best known as George McFly from Back to the Future, Glover's main challenge lies in finding the right role for his unmistakable screen presence.

One such role is Willard, an introverted loner who discovers an innate ability to control rats. When the original Willard was released in 1971 with Bruce Davison in the title role, Glover was seven years old and probably horrifying a helpless babysitter. Thirty-two years later, with this remake from director Glen Morgan, the actor finally sinks his teeth into the role of his lifetime.

Social interaction with fellow human beings physically pains Willard. He still lives at home with his widowed mother (Jackie Burroughs), a bed-ridden waif who resembles Gollum in a nightgown. Not to say that Willard's relationship with his mom is deranged, but even Norman Bates would snicker and call this guy a weirdo.

By day, Willard works at the company his long-dead father founded. He's unhappy and unproductive, which gives his vindictive boss (R. Lee Ermey) reason to belittle Willard at every turn. In the evening, he finds solace training the rats that occupy the basement of his parent's gloomy tomb of a home. He favors a white lab rat, which he names Socrates, but also recognizes that one brown beast - a shoe-sized creature named Ben - leads the rat pack and just might offer a challenge to Willard's command.

What we're seeing on screen in this updated Willard is a perfect synthesis of actor and role. It would be difficult to imagine a better Willard than Glover, and director Morgan knows it. His lens stays tight on Glover for long frames, capturing every nervous facial tic, every bead of sweat on the actor's furrowed brow. It's a showcase for Glover's... talents? I guess that's the right word.

But Willard isn't a one-man show, as Morgan knows his way around the horror genre. He consistently strikes the right mood, hopping from comical to chilling at the drop of a rat. The film's playfully ominous cinematography adds spectacular camp value and calls to mind the works of David Lynch or Tim Burton. Composer Shirley Walker chips in with a gleefully sinister score that puts Danny Elfman to shame.

Like most guilty pleasures, Willard has glaring but forgivable faults. Morgan's screenplay contains more holes than Swiss cheese. It can be grossly immature in spots, but maintains its horror street cred by being shamelessly prophetic. When Willard's boss persists that he will not be devoured by the rat race of the business world, we snicker knowingly and patiently await his gruesome fate.

How could Morgan have built a better rat trap? Perhaps going the extra mile for the R-rating would have intensified the wrath of Willard's pets, which can come off as slighted but satisfyingly disgusting. Save for one CGI scene depicting Willard exiting an elevator brimming with rats, Morgan's film disturbs at the deepest level by using real rats for its multiple infestation scenes. Glover comes in closest contact with his furry co-stars, though armies of rats can be seen covering kitchen countertops and crawling on the bodies of deceased characters. Morgan gets his lens up close and personal as well, capturing priceless reaction shots from his rats that turn them into characters, not just creepy elements.

As the film winds down, a touching and surprisingly relevant Ben/Socrates rivalry stretches too far, reminding us that this film is too silly to be this involving. And as Willard scurries to its natural conclusion, we're stuck waiting too long for what we paid to see - retribution at the tiny hands of the rats. But it's still a terribly good time. I laughed. I cried. It was better than watching Willard's rats devour a cat.

The Willard DVD is a fun experience -- watch it with surround sound and you'll be convinced there really are rats in the walls. Deleted scenes, commentary (yep, Glover is included), and a making-of feature that's as long as the movie itself round out the extras.

Where did I put the strychnine?


Willard Rating

" OK "

Rating: PG-13, 2003


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