*½/**** Image A Sound A Extras A+
starring Crispin Glover, Laura Elena Harring, Jackie Burroughs, R. Lee Ermey
screenplay by Glen Morgan, based on the screenplay by Gilbert Ralston and Ralston's novel Ratman's Notebook
directed by Glen Morgan
by Walter Chaw If you're going to remake an Ernest Borgnine movie from the Seventies, I'd rather see a redux of The Devil's Rain. But Willard it is; for the blissfully uninitiated, Willard concerns the travails of a lonesome weirdo who makes friends with a bunch of rats, Phenomena-style (Argento not Travolta, which brings us back to The Devil's Rain, curiously), and sends them on a crusade against an evil boss who wants to buy Willard's house. Bruce Davison as the original Willard has a nice moment in that film where he implores his rat-kinder to "tear it up" good, but the film is probably best remembered for the theme song of its sequel, Ben, penned by Michael Jackson v.0.2. The theme song, and Davison, have stupid cameos in the new Willard.
While the casting of Crispin Glover as a disassociated loner who discovers he has the power to talk to rats is sort of inspired, "X Files" expat writer Glen Morgan's Willard suffers (and yes, I feel silly for saying this) from a lack of character development, a forced psychoanalytic structure, and a sort of inbred Comic Book Guy fondness for self-reference (i.e., the majority of the bit characters have animal names--a sort of thing used best in Landis's An American Werewolf in London and Dante's The Howling: Mrs. Leach, Mr. Garter, Janice Mantis, George Boxer, and so on) that grates. The film is unable to decide whether it's too smart for its audience or a part of its audience--it's in love with overt Hitchcock homage and looming oil portraits of Davison though never sure if it stands as a thriller, a shrine, a melodrama farce, a Theater of the Absurd, or an Oedipal love story. Unfocused, its middle section is extraordinarily boring, little more than a power struggle in an empty house between Glover (ego), a white rat named Socrates (superego), and a giant brown rat named Ben (id). The by-product of that kind of wilful absurdity, unfortunately, tends to be pretension and steadily mounting disinterest.
Not content to be the rat version of Joe's Apartment, scenes of Willard at work and at the mercy of evil boss Mr. Martin (R. Lee Ermey) suggest Glover's recent foray into Melville-ian allegory, Bartleby, with cinematographer Robert McLachlan's bleached green-blue-grey colour palette during the office scenes even a reflection of Wah Ho Chan's minimalist work on Jonathan Parker's film. The scenes set in Willard's gothic home, shared with his demented crone of a mother (Jackie Burroughs, so memorable as Johnny's insane mother from The Dead Zone), however, are shot in deep shadow and saturated browns à la Conrad Hall. The two looks of the film seem reflected in the pallor of Willard's superego white rat Socrates and the dung-hue of Willard's id rat Ben--leading to the idea that director Morgan intends the intrusion of Ben into the sterility of Willard's workplace as an intrusion of chaos into reason (and vice versa: Socrates represents Willard's chance for normalcy), a lofty visual and narrative trope that just can't be supported by what is essentially an arch send-up of a B-movie chintz classic.
More, the quasi-interesting struggle between Willard and his overbearing mother (who, in the highlight of the film, demands to see her son's stools: "I'm still your mother, you know") and its Freudian resolution in first the fantasy-satisfaction of Ben's murderous act (swiftly following a scene where Willard carries "Mother" into the bedroom), then in the interring of Socrates's corpse in the urn holding Willard's father's ashes, becomes a shambles when Morgan decides to introduce a human love interest predictably named "Cat" (Laura Elena Harring, her resemblance to a Hitchcock femme the only (here and probably henceforth) echo of her work in Mulholland Drive). Willard is a dysfunctional marriage between the highbrow and the lowbrow--a timid picture afraid to appear as though it's just a revenge fantasy carried off by rats (something done better in Argento's Inferno, anyway) and afraid, too, to appear as though it's not interested in the rats at all. The result is a horror movie without horror and an adolescent bully comeuppance intrigue (see it best in Carrie) that has as its centre a character so Crispin Glover (so "one big cockroach right on his anus" Jingle Dell Crispin Glover) that it defeats sympathy and sense.
Willard aspires for an artsy intellectualism, in other words, in the belief that the modern horror audience is still hungry, seven years after Scream, for post-modernism in their horror films. (The references to Psycho and The Birds so plentiful and overt that it draws unfavourable comparison to the early Hitchcock-obsessed work of both Dario Argento and Brian DePalma, finding itself lacking in that its homage is more replication than transplant and reorientation.) At the same time, Willard is a little desperate to establish itself as respectful of the cheese of '70s ecological horror, indulging in a little cat and boss cruelty but showing its true colours in a quailing cop-out involving the sacred cow of a pet dog. (For all its shortcomings, 1971's Willard is a fairly nasty bit of business.) Afraid to be too smart (so it's not) and terrified to be too stupid (so it is), Willard misses the boat coming and going, leaving Glover to his own devices. Which is always fun to watch, of course, if never a particularly good idea. Originally published: March 14, 2003.
by Bill Chambers New Line's Platinum Series DVD release of Willard is the sort of disc that provokes the knee-jerk response of "How come this piece of shit warrants so many extras when X and Y masterpieces don't even have a bonus trailer?" But I strongly advise you to put aside any prejudices and give Willard's supplementary material a chance, lest you miss some of the most compelling SE content of the year. (You don't have to appreciate the film beforehand, either, though you're likely guaranteed to afterwards.) It all starts with a buoyant movie-length yakker featuring director Glen Morgan, producer James Wong, star Crispin Glover, and scenery-chewer R. Lee Ermey (recorded separately but smoothly integrated into the track) that miraculously avoids, for the most part, ruining the surprises of the documentary pieces and deleted scenes commentary. The film over which this is heard is exhibited in both 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and fullscreen transfers on opposite sides of the platter; although the picture was shot in Super35 (as opposed to 'scope), there is more horizontal information restored and less vertical information cropped than usual for the format, making the decision to stick with letterbox a definite no-brainer. The image itself is dim but one's eyes grow accustomed and in no time flat absorb a wealth of buried detail. The film's soundtrack has been optimized for home theatres and is in skin-crawling (a compliment) Dolby Digital 5.1.
Torontonian Julie Ng's 73-minute "Year of the Rat" (73 mins.) is an astonishingly good and intimate making-of, and its missteps are not worth dwelling upon. Though Ng dropped out of film school with one semester left for the chance to document Willard's journey to the screen, I can't imagine she'll live to regret it: She's the best I've seen at compiling on-set footage with momentum since David Prior and should find steady employment in the specialized field of DVD production. What makes "Year of the Rat" so vital is how, incidentally or not, it goes from denouncing the auteur theory (through not only the typically insecure observations of actors, but also the deflective statements of Morgan and long-time creative partner Wong) to validating it: In a coda, we see that the movie's poor box-office showing has shaken Morgan and only Morgan to the core; call filmmaking a "collaborative effort" to your heart's content, but as William Shatner, of all people, opines on the recent Star Trek V discs, at the end of the day no one on the set has as much emotionally invested in the picture's success as the person at its helm. And if you just want to know the secret to getting a rat to eat a tire, that's here, too.
The unsettling featurette "Rat People: Friends or Foes? Real Rat Documentary" (19 mins.), narrated by the original Willard himself Bruce Davison, admirably sides against the titular rodents in interviewing a cross-section of people who keep rats as pets (such as the "Rat Lady of Chicago," she of the belief that rats are better than men because "they won't ever leave you for that blonde down the street") and people who despise rats or exterminate them for a living. Crispin "Hellion" Glover provides speedy optional commentary--in which he pimps his experimental first feature What Is It?--over the kinky video he directed for his cover of the Michael Jackson song "Ben" (the 2-minute clip cost as much as all of What Is It?) and re-teams with Morgan behind the microphone for a section of twelve deleted sequences. Most of these omissions, presented uncut and in finished 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with 5.1 audio, were carried out to get the film a PG-13, although a few reveal precious character development that was sacrificed due to impatient reception from preview audiences. That test subjects also hated "the fact that there were rats" perhaps should've told the studio not to put a lot of stock in NRG's findings in the case of Willard. A trailer and three TV spots for the film round out this highly-recommended package. Originally published: October 22, 2003.