Willard has a part custom made for its star, Crispin Glover: creepy guy. Something about the actor is eerily off-kilter (likely by his own design), yet there's also a very sympathetic quality to his onscreen persona. He can walk the line between weirdo and lovable loner like no one else. This film, a remake of the 1971 chiller, benefits greatly from his efforts. It came out in 2003 and only earned $6 million total at the domestic box office. Honestly, it always deserved better than that because, unlike many remakes, this one pretty closely matches the original in terms of quality. Hopefully, Scream Factory's Blu-ray will help new viewers discover it.
Glover plays the title character -- a nebbishy, socially avoidant mama's boy. Willard takes care of his aged, ailing mother who continually puts him down and insults him. One particular day, she starts screaming about hearing rats in the basement. He goes down to investigate and indeed finds a family of rats living behind a grate. After his efforts at exterminating them fail, Willard decides he actually kind of likes the rats, especially a white one he names Socrates.
Willard feeds Socrates, and eventually other rats show up as well. He trains them to obey his commands, then unleashes them on enemies, such as the boss (R. Lee Ermey) who continually humiliates him. One of the rats is a big one, whom Willard dubs Ben. This particular rodent is jealous of the relationship between Willard and Socrates, so he tries to assert some authority among the other rats. This leads to a rodent takeover of the home and an all-out battle between man and mouse. And yes, the famous Michael Jackson song "Ben" does appear in the film, as does a closing credits version performed by Glover himself.
Willard was remade by Glen Morgan who, along with producing partner James Wong, also made the original Final Destination. They bring an ironic, almost self-referential humor to the story. The movie might have been more effective had it played up the squirms to a greater degree, but the humor still works. It's not funny in a ha-ha way, but rather in an amusingly offbeat kind of way. You never really feel like anyone's in genuine danger because the film so frequently winks at you, although that's alright because the humor does add to the dark tone of it.
Even with the wicked comedy added, there's a natural uneasiness in the idea of rampaging rats. Each scene showing tons of the varmints crawling around the floor (and over each other) brings a little chill to your spine. Something about the idea of a flood of them scurrying is inherently uncomfortable. This is especially true as the story evolves into its slightly gory conclusion.
What really makes Willard work, though, is the unhinged performance from Crispin Glover. We all know that he's played goofballs in other movies, and anyone who remembers his infamous appearance on David Letterman many years ago understands that he brings a certain amount of baggage to the screen with him. He's good playing creepy guys because he seems creepy in real life. But it's not all natural; Glover is a talented actor capable of playing off his own image. He evokes not only apprehension about Willard but also empathy for him. This is especially true in the scenes he shares with Laura Elena Harring, who plays a sympathetic coworker. Without giving away the outcome of their relationship, it shows how Willard might have finally found a real friend had he not become so consumed with ideas of revenge and power.
Willard explores the idea that this pathetic loner finds strength in his ability to control rats. There's also a theme of friendship, as Socrates is the only person (or thing, rather) to whom he relates. Nothing earth-shakingly profound comes of either idea, but the intentional weirdness of the whole movie is entertaining.
Scream Factory's Blu-ray comes loaded with goodies, starting with a new 2K scan, as well as two brand new audio commentaries. The first is from writer/director Glen Morgan and director of photography Robert McLachlan, and the second is from animal trainers Mark Harden and David Allsberry of Animals for Hollywood. A third commentary is from a previous DVD release. It brings together Morgan, producer James Wong, and stars Crispin Glover and R. Lee Ermey.
Morgan sits down for an excellent 80-minute interview in which he discusses his earliest writing jobs, his work on The X-Files, and the making of Willard from start to finish. The director is very open and candid, and he has a lot of great stories to tell, so this is a must-watch. McLachlan is also interviewed. Over the course of 45 minutes, he discusses Willard's visual style and working with Crispin Glover.
After that comes a series of behind-the-scenes docs. "The Rat Trainer's Notebook" offers footage of the crew at Animals for Hollywood training the rats for their various on-screen tasks. If you've ever wondered how such things are accomplished, this will provide significant insight. "The Year of the Rat" is a 70-minute doc about the making of Willard, covering just about anything you could ever want to know. "Rat People: Friends or Foes" focuses on rat trainers, their lives, and their unusual profession.
The supplemental materials additionally include 26 minutes of deleted/alternate scenes, a "Ben" music video from Crispin Glover, footage from the original electronic press kit, the theatrical trailer, and some TV spots. The wealth of material is exciting, as it's all well-produced and enlightening.
For more information on this and other great genre titles, please visit the Scream Factory website.
Willard is rated PG-13 for terror/violence, some sexual content and language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.