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WILLARD

2003, dir. Glen Morgan
100 min. Rated PG-13.
Starring: Crispin Glover, R. Lee Ermey, Laura Harring, Jackie Burroughs.

Review by Noel Wood

Crispin Glover is just cool. Unusual, certainly, kind of creepy, admittedly, but he's just one cool actor. Now to the average moviegoer, he'll likely be best remembered as George McFly from BACK TO THE FUTURE. Others might remember his turns in RIVER'S EDGE, CHARLIE'S ANGELS, WILD AT HEART, DEAD MAN, THE DOORS, WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE, and a handful of other films. But he's never been the kind of guy you'd ever expect to see as a strong leading man. But thanks to the folks who decided to remake a little 1971 horror movie called WILLARD, that may have changed.

    

The role of Willard Stiles, the lead character in this dark comedy/horror movie, requires someone a bit off-center to really pull it off. Nobody seems to exemplify "Off-Center" better than the man who once directed a movie featuring primarily retarded actors, once tried to kick David Letterman in the head on national television while wearing platform shoes and a wig, and amuses himself by doing renditions of classic songs in a manner that makes Bill Shatner look like a maestro: Crispin Hellion (that's his real middle name. Seriously.) Glover. And Glover does just as you'd expect him to: pulls off the role with perfection. With his rodentesque features and character-filled facial repertoire, he perfectly fits the description of the ratmaster title character in this film.

WILLARD tells the tale of the title character, who is meek and feeble. He works for a manufacturing company and is hated by his boss, Mr. Martin, who started the company with Willard's late father (in a clever homage, his father is represented by a painting of actor Bruce Davison, who played the role of Willard in the original thirty plus years ago). His mother is very ill, but even she can't help but take potshots at Willard, blaming herself for giving him such a terrible name. She asks him to take care of the house's rat problem, but in the process of doing so, Willard makes nice with a white rat whom he dubs Socrates. Soon, he seems to have learned how to get all the rats of the house to do his bidding, including Ben, a rather oversized rodent. Ben seems to be jealous of Willard's relationship with Socrates, and begins to rebel against Willard's wishes. He even encourages the other housepests to follow his lead despite Willard's wishes, leading to some tense moments. When Mr. Martin pushes Willard too far, he regains the assistance of Ben and his crew for a final act of revenge. Unfortunately for Willard, he doesn't realize that it takes a lot to keep giant rats and their kin happy.

    

Fortunately, I was able to attend a premiere screening of the movie last night due to knowing some useless information at a bar one night, so I've got a leg up on the other movie review sites by having a review up before the release date. Man, I feel important right now. Oh, and I also managed to be one of the few in my theater to get one of the squeaky rubber promotional rats that were being handed out. Yay me. Of course, as per my general theater experiences recently, I manage to choose the spot in the theater closest to the most annoying theater patron. Last night's annoyance was a young man whom we'll call "Captain Obvious". Why that name? Well, because he felt tht need to explain everything that was happening on the screen as it happened. For starters, the opening scene following the title sequence involves Willard's decrepit mother telling him to do something about the rats in the basement. As the basement door opens, Captain Obvious was nice enough to point out, "that's the basement." So right away, I knew I was in for a treat. Thank God for Captain Obvious, because otherwise I wouldn't have known that the big rat coming up to visit Willard in bed was indeed Ben, the big rat we'd been introduced to quite a few times already. Or that the chewed tires on the Volkswagen were the work of the rats. Or that Willard's house has bars on the windows. Or that the decrepit old woman laying lifeless on the stairs was Willard's mom. Or that Mr. Martin was Mr. Martin when he's seen outside the funeral home. You get the picture.

Somehow, despite the intervention of Captain Obvious behind me, I was able to enjoy this film. Not quite a horror film, not quite a dark comedy, not quite a satire, but nestled somewhere in a genre all its own, the movie is effective exactly where it needs to be. There's plenty of the creepy moments you'd come to expect in such a film, most of them provided by the facial expressions of Mr. Glover alone. There's practically no gore (save for a little rat blood in a single scene) but there's plenty of make-you-jump moments as well as the overall creepiness you'd expect from hordes of vermin. Willard's mom is creepy enough for any movie all on her own, in this one she's just the icing on the cake. Oh, and it's also full of laugh-out-loud moments as well, involving failed extermination attempts, messy adhesives, and even internet porn. Even some of the most morbid bits are played for comedy.

    

One thing I enjoyed about the film was that it was truly centered around two characters, with very limited interaction from others. Basically, this is a story of conflict between Willard and his employer, Mr. Martin (played by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman himself, the great R. Lee Ermey). Neither really plays the role of the protagonist, nor is either character really made out to be a sypathetic one. The interaction of a pretty coworker (Laura Harring, she of the rather infamous lesbian sex scenes in MULHOLLAND DR) is largely inconsequential, as they tease a romantic involvement between her and Willard that never comes into fruition.

There's obvious comparisons with this movie to several different predecessors, the most obvious of which (not including the 1971 original or its sequel BEN) is with a couple of Hitchcock's best-known films, PSYCHO and THE BIRDS. There is a bit of a Norman Bates quality to Willard, both in appearance and in action, and the motherly bond doesn't exactly hurt either. The BIRDS connection is pretty elementary. There are elements that have just as easily come from a David Lynch or Tim Burton film as well. I've not seen the original, so I can't speak for how close it is to this version, but I'm definitely interested in doing so now.

The plot is drawn out deliberately to the point that the movie seems a little longish at a certain point, even though it clocks in at only 93 minutes. Honestly, that's really my only complaint about the film, and it really isn't even a complaint. Some of those little nuances and repetitive scenes are what gives this movie a good bit of its charm.

    

When Willard is offered the companionship of a cat named Scully to cheer him up after his mother dies, there's a sequence that will likely dishearten any feline fans in the audience, as Scully is chased through the house by hordes of Willard's underlings. Throughout the scene, Michael Jackson's song "Ben" (from before he decided to chop off his face and dangle babies out of windows) is played, as the rodent of the same name looks on with his ominous eyes. What's interesting about this is that not only was the song used in teh 1972 sequel to the original film, but Jackson actually penned the song about a pet rat with the same name who passed on during Michael's childhood.

Now if that fact alone ain't creepier than anything in the movie, then I don't know if there is anything that is.

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