Willard FILM review

Film / Video Reviews
Willard FILM review
Mar 14, 2003, 22:29

WILLARD directed by Glen Morgan; New Line Cinema, 2003

To many, even the most hardened film buffs, the nine-year-period between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars was a black hole. First there was HAL, then came R2D2. That was it.

Not exactly. In between, there was a very different strain of sci-fi that infested theaters. It starred creepy little critters that rebelled against mankind's intrusion on the natural world. Yes, killer bees. Blood-sucking leeches. Out-of-control toads. All sorts of vengeful vermin that play on our phobias. The leader of the swarm was Willard. The 1971 flick told the story of a repressed outcast who befriends a cute li'l rat only to find that he's opened a Pandora's box of crazed nibblers.

Though successful—it even inspired a sequel, Ben, that featured a drippy ballad to a rat sung by a young Michael Jackson—Willard was largely forgotten, thanks to the overflow of sci-fi sewage that followed. That's what makes the idea of a remake so bizarre. Willard might qualify as a lucrative enterprise for Mystery Science Theater. But Spider-Man it ain't. That, however, is what makes this Willard charming, in a perverse way. (What other way is there with a flick about rats?) Directed by X-Files writer Glen Morgan, it follows the basic premise of the original and the Stephen Gilbert book that inspired it.

Willard (Crispin Glover) is a loner caught in human trap. His elderly mother (Jackie Burroughs) is overbearing and just plain crazy. His boss (R. Lee Ermey), who purchased the business from Willard's father for a pittance, is nasty and sadistic. He even has a framed picture behind his desk that reads, “Prudent Aggression.” Then there are the rats. One day, mother demands that Willard rid the house of them. “New people are moving in and stirring up the rats,” she declares. But the rats are so lovable, especially when human friends are so hard to find.

For the first half-hour, Willard is your basic love story between a boyish man and whiskered critter he calls Socrates. You know it's bound to go wrong.

The writing comes in all sorts of Hitchcock-like macabre machinations. The house is dusty; the Persian throw rugs are musty; mommy starts to look more and more like something out of Psycho. Then there's the boss man, who announces to Willard, “Business is a rat race. I will not allow myself to be devoured by all those other rats because of you.” What more do you need? Well, Glover of course. He's so quirky and creepy that he rapidly transforms Willard into an ooky-spooky exaggeration of the original. Things get even bigger and weirder when Big Ben crawls in. A supersize, thinking-man's rat, he works his way up every rung on the animal ladder—until he starts lumbering around like a cross between an otter and a horse. When Ben proves that he can slay a kitty—as the original version of Michael Jackson's Ben plays in the background—he assumes dictatorial rule. (Couldn't they just have stuck to evil humans?)

Sounds ridiculous? Why yes, so much so that I couldn't resist cracking up during a recent screening. I'm not sure that's what Morgan intended. But he packs enough outrages in the film to turn Willard into one of the darkest comedies you'll see this year. Anyway, who cares if all the humor was intentional? A riot is a still riot, especially when there's a big fat rat leading the mob.

-John Petkovic

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