Director: Glen Morgan
Imagine a rat. A chubby, fuzzy, squeaky little rodent hiding in the walls, in the shadows. Now imagine a few dozen of the little buggers hanging out in your basement. That doesn't sound too fun, does it? If you don't think so, then this review is not for you. A large multitude of rodents were the stars of the 1971 film Willard, featuring Bruce Davison as its human protagonist. Based on Stephen Gilbert's novel Ratman's Notebooks, the movie has become something of an obscure cult classic since its release and inspired a sequel, Ben, in 1972. (However, it should be noted that both movies were eclipsed by Ben's Oscar-nominated theme song, the first hit song of Michael Jackson's solo career.) Both Willard and Ben have faded into relative obscurity, but that didn't stop New Line Cinema from releasing a remake of Willard in 2003. Made by the minds that created the Final Destination trilogy, the movie was an enormous failure at the box office, but I think that it should have done a lot better.
Willard tells the story of Willard Stiles (Crispin Glover), a social misfit tending to his ailing, bed-ridden mother (Jackie Burroughs). Willard's stuck in a dead-end job at the company his deceased father founded, and his boss, Frank Martin (R. Lee Ermey), absolutely hates him. In fact, Willard continues to be employed only because his late father made it a condition of his partnership with Martin. If it weren't for that, he'd be in the unemployment line. Willard is at the pinnacle of lonliness until he discovers a small white rat stuck in a trap in his basement. He forms a close bond with the rat, and impressed by its intelligence, he names it Socrates.
Willard is introduced to other rats in the basement as well, and discovers that he is almost a Pied Piper to his new friends. With simple commands, the rats, whose numbers grow into the hundreds, will do whatever he tells them to do. Willard also discovers another rat he hadn't seen before, a rat that's four times bigger than any of the others. Willard jokingly calls him "Big Ben"; the name sticks.
Back at work, Mr. Martin has hired a lovely office temp, Cathryn (Laura Elena Harring), to cover for Willards incompetence. She takes pity on Willard and decides to help him with his problems, at one point giving him a cat to keep him company. Yeah, that's right. She gave a cat to a guy with an army of rats in his basement. You can assume how that went over with his little friends. Regardless, Cathryn's help doesnt seem to work, but the help of the rats does, assisting Willard by letting him relieve some of his building rage. After noticing some of the rats have taken a liking to chewing on an old tire, he decides to take some of his friends by Mr. Martin's house in order to vandalize his beloved new Mercedes. But popping some tires is just the start. Soon, Willard decides to bring great vengeance and furious anger upon his oppressors with his legion of rats while engaging in a power struggle with Ben.
Willard is one of those movies that you'd have seen forty years ago. It probably would have been directed or produced by Roger Corman, and it would have starred Vincent Price. Shirley Walker's score, which (in what I believe is a first) included an accordian section, made the film feel very odd, which was befitting of a movie about an extremely odd fellow. The acting is also absolutely wonderful. R. Lee Ermey's take on Mr. Martin is so much fun to hate, and Mrs. Stiles is both saddening and disturbing at the same time. She also serves as proof that sometimes, putting your senior citizen relative in a rest home just might be a good thing. But most commendable is Crispin Glover as Willard. Never heard of him? Watch Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter, the first Back To The Future, or the two Charlie's Angels movies. Crispin is absolutely wonderful in Willard, and if he continues doing movies like this, I'm sure he'll be the next cult star. Having not yet seen the 1971 version, I can't really compare the two, but I do enjoy this one very much.
There's also plenty of fun references things to notice in the movie. Bruce Davison, star of the original Willard, is seen in portraits and photographs as Willard's father, and the scene in which the rats swarm Cathryn's cat is set to Michael Jackson's 1972 hit "Ben," which I noted earlier as being the theme song to the original film's sequel. The cat's name also happens to be Scully, which I think might be a reference to The X-Files. In fact, I'm sure it is, as writer/director Glen Morgan once served as one of the main writers for The X-Files. And I also think it's kinda funny that a woman named Cathryn is so involved with a guy who loves rats.
I can guarantee that Willard won't appeal to everybody, which is probably the reason that it bombed out of theaters after just two or three weeks. It might disgust people who hate rats or love felines. Like I said, you don't see this kind of movie anymore. If I had to compare it to any specific style, it's almost reminicent of something Tim Burton would make. And that's not a bad thing, is it? If rats don't bother you, and you like campy thrillers or just odd movies, go check it out. You might not be disappointed.
Final Rating: ****