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Willard   C+

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Glen Morgan
Writer: Glen Morgan
Cast: Crispin Glover, Jackie Burroughs, R. Lee Ermey, Laura Elena Harring, David Parker.

Review by Rob Vaux

What can one say about a boy-meets-rats, boy-controls-rats, boy-uses-rats-to wreak-a-horrifying-unholy-revenge picture? Willard sets up shop in the cliché-ridden horror movie cage, then works like hell to break itself out. As a diversion, it's surprisingly effective, though it never quite succeeds at its appointed task. Then again, success for a movie like this is a relative term. Any film with Crispin Glover's name above the title is marching to its own beat, and it has little interest in convincing us to dance along; we simply will or we won't. The results aren't great, but they're certainly different, and in today's clone-a-film environment, that's a victory unto itself.

It's all the more surprising because Willard is itself a remake (the 1971 original starred Bruce Davison). Like its predecessor, it has some very old horror chestnuts in its foundation, causing problems that it never really shakes. The title character (Glover) is an abused misfit who nobody likes. He works for a monstrous boss (R. Lee Ermey) who stole the company from his father, and lives with a passive-aggressive mother (Jackie Burroughs) straight from the Norman Bates collection. His old gothic house is full of rats and falling apart, yet he really has nowhere else to go. Then something amazing happens. He finds himself talking to the rats down in the basement... and the rats start listening. They understand his words and seem to understand his troubles as well. Pretty soon, they're sleeping on his pillow, hiding in his briefcase, and obeying his commands without question. Naturally, it's only a matter of time before he assembles an army of rodent minions, and then -- wouldn't you know it? -- some hapless bully pushes him too far. Marauding layers of squeaky mayhem follow.

The scenario is quite stale, and Willard does itself few favors by declining to shy away from it. From the opening scene to the final shot, it has a constant sheen of predictability to it. The characters are all drawn very broadly, adhering to their stereotypes without undue alternations. Some fine casting helps matters (sure, Ermey's doing the same old Full Metal Jacket routine, but dammit he's good at it) but it can't escape the niggling sense of déjà vu that creeps around it interminably. We know exactly where it's going, and it has no intention of surprising us en route.

Yet within this framework, director Glen Morgan continually finds ways to keep us looking. The sets and costume design have a wonderfully archaic feel, reminiscent of Charles Addams or Tim Burton in his more ghoulish moments. As an update, Willard adds a few unnecessarily modern touches (such as cell phones and the Internet), but otherwise conjures a sense of gothic timelessness that handsomely compliments the subject matter. Morgan applies it with an assured hand -- honed, no doubt, from his old gig on The X-Files -- and the fairy-tale atmosphere helps rescue the film's creakier moments... including the belabored "light vs. dark" motif that every horror film seems to embrace. As Willard proceeds, the rats form a none-too-subtle embodiment of their master's soul. Two particular beasts hold sway over the chittering masses -- Socrates, who's cute and white and brings a sense of peace to the lonely young man, and Ben, who isn't a rat so much as a scarier version of the baby kangaroo that tormented Sylvester in all those Warner Bros. cartoons. As they vie for Willard's attentions, Morgan delivers their machinations with a strange joy, often slipping into camp but also evoking some real chills. Rats, in and of themselves, aren't really as sinister as we think, but damned if this film doesn't try its utmost to convince us otherwise.

And then there's Glover. With his angular frame and twitching facial expressions, he inhabits this world like he was born to it. Though his performance crescendos into over-the-top histrionics towards the end, he also brings heartfelt pathos to the role and his circus geek enthusiasm borders on the infectious. Indeed, he becomes an extension of Willard's bizarre charm, the funky rhythm that almost breaks it out of its by-the-numbers doldrums. When Laura Elena Harring shows up as a potential (non-rodent) love interest, her cover girl glamour is jarringly abnormal -- a sign of just how affecting both Glover and the atmosphere have become. Beautiful people have no place in a movie like Willard; it's the freaks who command our attention.

That sensibility helps set the film apart from its contemporaries. Open praise may be too much -- I can't think of a single friend or relation I could recommend this to -- but Willard lingers in the mind more than one would expect. A cult following seems preordained and for all its adherence to formula, you won't walk out of it thinking, "It's just like that other film I saw last week." The most amazing part is that Morgan and Glover show a deep-based affection for the material. They believe in their hero, they believe in his Brothers Grimm world, and they want to do justice to it no matter what the cost. Rightly or wrongly, Willard is an act of love. God help us all.

Review published 03.16.2002.

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