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WILLARD, 2003
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WILLARD,   MOVIE POSTERWILLARD, 2003
Movie Reviews

Directed by Glen Morgan
Starring: Crispin Glover, R. Lee Ermey, Laura Harring, Jackie Burroughs, Ashlyn Gere, William S. Taylor
Review by Jane Hopkins


SYNOPSIS:

A young man with an unusual connection with rats, uses them at his own sociopathic will.

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REVIEW:

Remakes are rarely as good as the originals, especially when it comes to horror films. Still, it’s possible for a remake to equal or even surpass its predecessor, but this can only happen if the filmmakers take the original material and expand upon it in a new way. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Based on Gilbert Ralston’s novel “Ratman’s Diaries,” the original 1971 film adaptation “Willard” has attained a minor cult status. Actually, it’s perhaps most famous for inspiring the Michael Jackson hit “Ben,” although really, that was the theme song for the 1972 sequel of the same name. Starring Ernest Borgnine and a young Bruce Davison as the title character, “Willard” was an enjoyably creepy film that didn’t seem to demand a remake. Happily, the 2003 version of “Willard” is a perfect example of reimagining a film with new ideas and insights. Rather than sticking to a step-by-step retread of the original, this updated version more deeply explores the mental issues of its protagonist, using his relationship with the rats to illustrate his increasing insanity.

Life is not kind to Willard Stiles. He’s been cheated by his father’s tyrannical former business partner, who refuses to give Willard his share of the company but instead keeps him on as a clerk. Things are no better at home, where Willard has to care for his nagging mother as she decays physically and mentally. You wouldn’t think a rat infestation could improve the situation, but it does: when Willard runs across an especially clever little white rat, he finally feels a connection with another living creature. Soon the house is crawling with rats, and Willard discovers an unusual aptitude for training them to do his bidding. But a power struggle begins when a gigantic rat named Ben starts vying for Willard’s attention, and as the horde of rodents grows, their master finds them harder and harder to control…

This remake takes the original and delves deeper into the protagonist’s psychosis, and various critics – as well as the filmmakers themselves – have pointed out that the rats symbolize Willard’s increasing madness. The white rat, named Socrates, represents the good in Willard, whereas the dark, massive rat Ben represents his violence and anger. As the rat population increases, so does Willard’s paranoia and resentment, until a tragic accident sets the final descent in motion.

Screenwriter Glen Morgan, who adapted “Willard” from Gilbert Ralston’s original screenplay, proves here that he’s also an excellent director. Although this film is focused on suspense and character development, Morgan still makes sure the atmosphere is intriguing enough to keep the audience interested. Morgan is also clearly a movie buff, and references to various cinematic classics abound in this film. Fortunately, he knows the difference between homage and rip-off. Although you can certainly see traces of “Psycho” in Willard’s mother, this resemblance is mainly to do with tone rather than with any actual similarities.

Although Glen Morgan began this project with the excellent character actor Doug Hutchison (“The Green Mile”) in mind for the lead role, it’s difficult to imagine anybody performing the character as effectively and intensely as Crispin Glover. It’s a demanding role, since the film is essentially a chronicle of the character’s descent into madness. Yet as Willard becomes more and unstable, Glover uses that same damaged psyche to keep the audience on his side. He brings a vulnerability to the character that makes it easy to pity him, even if we can’t go along with his choices. We’ve all felt, at one time or another, that we’ve been treated unfairly. Willard represents that feeling of oppression, but it’s how he deals with those feelings that makes him insane. Glover should also be applauded for playing Willard with no reservations. Where other actors might have been reluctant to launch into such wild hysterics, or might have wanted to play the rat-human interaction with a joking self-awareness, Glover commits himself absolutely.

As Willard’s boss, Frank Martin, R. Lee Ermey is another example of perfect casting. We can see that Martin enjoys dealing out punishment and humiliation, but he doesn’t become a simple caricature. Just as we can understand Willard’s resentment at being treated so badly, we can see how Martin would view his employee as a lazy weak link. The problem is that, although Martin has every right to be concerned with the productivity of his workers, his commitment to business has overshadowed his ability to see them as real people. Ermey gets this across in his portrayal, understanding that Martin is more than just a one-dimensional villain. Although there’s nothing likeable about Martin, it’s not that easy to cheer Willard on when he exacts his final revenge on him. Ermey and Glover play off of one another wonderfully, the former making it very clear as to why he is often cast as drill-sergeants and other intimidating authority figures.

Laura Elena Harring plays Cathryn, a temp at Willard’s office who takes a liking to him. Although her key scene was eventually left on the cutting-room floor, Cathryn still represents a serious chance for Willard to live a normal life. As the filmmakers commented, if Willard had paid more attention to Cathryn and less attention to his quest for vengeance, things could have turned out differently. The tragedy is seeing Willard realize, all too late, that he threw away his chance to be happy. Harring is sympathetic in her role, but it’s a shame we don’t get to know more about her. A look at the aforementioned deleted scene shows how Cathryn reaches out to Willard, only to be turned away by his awkwardness. Still, Harring is very likeable in her role, and she and Glover have some touching moments together.

As Willard’s mother, Jackie Burroughs treads a fine line between sympathetic and repulsive, which is just what the role demands. It seems Willard’s mother has never recovered from her husband’s suicide, and although we never learn what’s wrong with her, it’s reasonable to assume she’s lost her mind. Burroughs’ performance suggests what her character would have been like before her illness took hold, and she lets us see glimpses of the normal motherly behaviour that’s been buried beneath the madness.

Kimberly Patton is also memorable as Ms. Leach, Martin’s secretary and unwilling recipient of his attentions. Although she doesn’t have many scenes, she’s worth mentioning as another example of how nuanced the characters are. We don’t learn anything about Ms. Leach, but we can sense that the filmmakers had some back story in mind for her, even if they don’t reveal it. The characters in “Willard” all seem to be conceived as more than stock characters, and the actors perform them that way.

Finally, take a look at the portraits and photographs of Willard’s father: they’re of Bruce Davison, who played Willard in the original film.

It seems strange to comment on the performances of the rats, but as they’re so integral to the success of “Willard,” let’s just say the trainers did a fantastic job. It must have been a difficult task, getting so many rats to do as they were supposed to, but it pays off brilliantly. Even without being anthropomorphized, the rats have a certain degree of personality that comes across. Socrates, for example, seems genuinely loving when he curls up on Willard’s shoulder. And Ben, portrayed by a member of the largest rat breed in the world – the Gambian Pouch Rat, for trivia fans – is an absolute nightmare.

The special effects are limited, since real rats are used for the majority of the film. However, when fake rats are used, they blend right in. The animatronic Ben is particularly impressive, as it’s difficult to tell the difference between the puppet and the real thing. As for the computer graphics, they’re used just as they should be used: as a last resort. Composer Shirley Walker, known for her phenomenal work on “Batman: The Animated Series,” uses no fewer than six accordionists to infuse her score with a weird, unsettling quality that perfectly suits the tone of the movie.

The original Michael Jackson hit “Ben” makes an appearance about halfway through the film, and during the credits, we get a cover of the same song performed by none other than Mr. Crispin Hellion Glover. If you get your hands on the “Willard” DVD, check out the “Ben” music video. It’s imaginative, to say the least.

“Willard” was not a success when it was released in 2003, and only stayed in theatres for about two weeks. In an attempt to cut down its runtime and earn a more marketable PG-13 rating, the filmmakers were forced to cut out material (and change the original, bleaker ending). Yet although it had a cold reception, “Willard” remains a satisfying gem of a movie. See it if you’re a genre fan, a Crispin Glover fan, or if you’re in the mood for thoughtful, atmospheric horror.

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