Combustible Celluloid
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With: Crispin Glover, Laura Elena Harring, R. Lee Ermey, Jackie Burroughs
Written by: Glen Morgan, based on the novel and screenplay by Gilbert Ralston
Directed by: Glen Morgan
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for terror/violence, some sexual content and language
Running Time: 100
Date: 03/14/2003

Willard (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

A Rat's Chance

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The scariest image in the new horror film Willard does not involverats or mice. It's a close-up view of a gnarly toenail hobbling along ahardwood floor.

Of course, it all depends on your tolerance for furry rodents. If you don't mind them and are not afraid of them, Willard turns out to be a rather touching tale about loneliness and friendship -- with a few other twisted delights thrown in.

On the other hand, if you are afraid of rats, well, then, you should probably keep your feet up on the seat.

Based on Gilbert Ralston's novel and his screenplay for the original 1971 movie, Willard tells the story of a lonely, withdrawn young man, Willard Stiles (Crispin Glover), who has been stomped on his whole miserable life. His father has committed suicide some years before, and his mother (Jackie Burroughs) is a creepy-looking skeletal shut-in. (The toenail belongs to her.)

Willard's tyrannical boss Mr. Martin (R. Lee Ermey) has somehow taken over the Stiles family company and keeps Willard on as a clerk, demeaning him and tormenting him at every turn.

A pretty new temp at the office, Cathryn (Laura Elena Harring) is the only one who has any sympathy for him. But Willard is only interested in his new friends, the rats he has found in the basement of his family's giant, crumbling house. A small white one gets caught in a glue trap; Willard frees him and names him Socrates ('cause he's smart). And a great big black one -- about the size of a poodle -- turns up as kind of a tough leader type, and Willard names him Big Ben, or just "Ben" for short.

Willard quickly finds that the rats will do his bidding, and so he uses them to get revenge on Mr. Martin by popping the tires of his brand new Mercedes. But the rats figure out that they've got a good thing going and they turn up in ever greater numbers. Willard decides he wants to remain friends only with Socrates, but Ben and his followers do not prove terribly easy to get rid of.

In the original film, the rats revolted when Willard began paying too much attention to the girl, but writer/director Glen Morgan keeps the neurotic Willard focused on his one and only friend Socrates, making the girl a compassionate friend and not much more.

He also builds a rather sinister sibling rivalry between the cute, smart rat and the big, ugly rat (one could also read a "black" and "white" conflict into it, if one were willing to go that far).

As Willard, Glover gives a fantastic, white-hot performance with furious shivers, burning eyes, sweat, tears, the works. He's almost like a cousin to his withdrawn Bartleby from last year -- also the office scapegoat. Glover has been hugely successful as a character actor thus far (Back to the Future, The Doors, Dead Man, Charlie's Angels, etc.) and it's great to see that he can handle lead roles as well.

In a stroke of genius, Morgan "casts" the original Willard to play this new Willard's father. Actor Bruce Davison apparently donated his time to the new film without actually appearing. We see him in photographs and an ominous, ever-present painting.

In addition, Morgan manages to include Michael Jackson's 1972 theme song "Ben" into the film with brilliant effect. (A lesser filmmaker would have hired N'Sync to do a cover version in order to sell soundtrack albums.)

Morgan, who penned episodes of "The X-Files" as well as the fairly clever screenplays for Final Destination and The One, makes his directorial debut here. It's an affectionate tribute not only to the original film and its 1972 sequel Ben, but it also captures the feel of those great, classic E.C. horror comics from the 1950s -- immortalized earlier in Stephen King and George A. Romero's 1982 film Creepshow.

Rather than focusing on ordinary teens who stumble into extraordinary situations, the E.C. comics unearthed the real weirdos of the world -- introverts with unholy, insatiable lusts and obsessions. With his beautiful widescreen compositions and dusty, macabre set designs, Morgan creates his own twisted universe.

Ultimately, Willard neatly re-invents the modern horror film, moving it from ironic, screaming teens and sudden shocks to a sadder, more potent comment on the human condition. It may not please opening weekend crowds looking for a quick jolt, but it's a very good film that will be worth re-visiting.

DVD Details: Glen Morgan's first-rate remake of the 1971 classic has an unhinged Crispin Glover taming the rats in his basement and making killers out of them. The DVD comes with arguably the greatest making-of film -- Julie Ng's 73-minute The Year of the Rat -- ever included on a DVD.

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