Willard (2003) Review

“When the cat is away, the rats will play...”

And they do just that, in Glen Morgan’s underrated remake of Daniel Mann's 1971 opus; a film lost in the sands of time. The remake trend is certainly reaching new extremes (much to the annoyance of the horror fan base, whose favourite films are usually targeted.) Therefore, it’s rather refreshing to see a “re-imagining” of such a little-seen, and rarely available classic. Thankfully, the new and improved Willard is well-worth seeking out; one of the hidden gems from last years frantic release schedule. Denied a theatrical release here, this DVD proves a must for fans of eccentric horror.

Before I continue, I'll admit that I had never heard of Willard before the remake was announced. I have been assured by many people that the original was far from excellent; a film that could have utilised the technology of today. So, without seeing its predecessor, I was in good stead for analysing Morgan's modern day take on the tale. Here, the story is exactly the same. Willard Stiles (Crispin Glover) is a social misfit alienated by everyone, including his co-workers, and his demanding boss Frank Martin (R. Lee Ermey). After being late repeatedly, he is squeezed out of the company established by his dead father. Thrown into emotional turmoil, Willard begins a strange friendship with the rats in his basement. He discovers that he can control them - they listen to him, and do his bidding. When his favourite rat Socaretes is killed at work, Willard goes over the edge. Using his army of pests (and an evil rat dubbed “Ben”), Willard exacts revenge on Martin, and soon, a trail of bodies is left by his small, furry friends...

As soon as the film begins, it is clear that Willard was a labour of love for Morgan. The film is well established by the fiendishly creative opening credits, that are very Tim Burton-esque. Setting tone and style, they introduce us to this world with precision, and even reference the first film (Willard’s father is represented by a painting of actor Bruce Davison, who previously had the role.) Cut to the gothic strings of Shirley Walker’s score, I knew Willard was a minor classic before the story commenced. There's no denying that the story is silly, but with the right approach, it could take a chilling direction. Morgan's updated screenplay of Gilbert Ralston's original bares the hallmarks of greatness. There is a lot of potential here, some of which is never realised, but the filmmakers get points for effort. Willard is not perfect by any means, but the tale is still told with a great deal of heart.

For a directorial debut, Morgan does a tremendous job. His work on The X-Files and the Final Destination movies, has clearly given him a sharp eye. The production design and overall look of the film is spot-on for the creepy premise, and he manages to build some tension and atmosphere. He brings you into Willard’s universe steadily, and refuses to rush the proceedings. It pays off, since a great deal of sympathy is generated for him. The interplay between Willard and his mother (Jackie Burroughs) is perhaps the most heartbreaking; no matter how hard he tries, she is never grateful. And then he reaches work, where he has to deal with the biggest ball-busting boss around. Indeed, the casting of Ermey was perfect - a man who has made a career of playing such heartless figures of authority. He relishes the role, and by the time Willard has concocted his plan for revenge, you want him to suffer too.

Some of the sequences are real gems. Early on, the increasingly desperate Willard sets the rats on Martin’s brand new Mercedes, where they proceed to slash through the tires. It’s a fun moment, and at this point in the film, we’re right there with him. But soon, events take a turn for the worst. After Willard’s mother mysteriously dies (perhaps the work of Ben), his life goes down the drain. But Morgan still finds the time for pitch black humour. Willard’s co-worker, Cathryn (Elena Harring of Mulholland Drive), regrettably brings him a pet cat to raise his spirits. The next thing we know, the cat is being hunted through the house by the four-legged army, to the sound of Michael Jackson’s “Ben”. It’s a wonderfully subversive scene, that works well. Also listen closely for the notes of “Three Blind Mice”, which seeps into Walker’s orchestrations. These amusing touches raise the film above the norm.

However, the realisation that Willard can communicate with rats, takes a suspension of disbelief. No explanation is given for his “gift”, but we take the phenomenon with surprising ease. It is also quite eerie; just imagine Willard as a demented Dr. Dolittle, and you’re there. That old adage, “never work with children or animals”, was clearly swept aside during production. The sight of those rats is enough to cause a shudder or two. Using a combination of real animals and CGI, some of the shots are true eye-openers (there is an over-head angle of the rats attacking Martin, which gets right down to the yuck factor, despite the PG-13 rating.) I usually hate computer generated creatures, but here the effects are subtle and used when necessary. That said, the rat-wrangling budget for this picture must have been huge.

While the script moves along with deft pacing, the characterisation is fairly weak. We never really learn much about our title character's motivations or history. Thank God then, that the sublime Crispin Glover was brought on board. Despite the Back to the Future actor’s reputation, Glover is perfect in the role. It seems like he was born to play Willard. His performance is full of nervous energy and facial tics, that bring home a sense of reality amidst the weirdness. While he has the tendency to go over-the-top in the films final third, Glover is still an interesting actor to watch. The film rests on his shoulders, and he does an admirable job.

Willard is certainly a weird little movie. As a “horror” film, I guess it doesn’t stand up. The atmosphere has a vale of foreboding, but the picture never raises the heart rate, and due to its rating, it is pretty much bloodless. There are the customary “jump” moments placed here and there, but at the end of the day, Willard is an intense character study; a peek into the life of a pathetic young man, who discovers he has a gift, and uses it for his own diabolical ends. It also doesn’t help that the film is predictable - I hate to say it, but anyone schooled in the genre will know where the film is headed. But these faults barely seem to matter. Willard is a well-made and enjoyable remake, and it is a testament to Morgan and his crew that I was left with a desire to see the character again.

It’s a shame then, that the film was pretty much dumped by New Line. I have no idea why, either. Barely released theatrically in the US, it opened to largely-positive reviews but chronic business. It’s attracting a cult following on the home format, and I hope that following grows. Despite some flaws, and the fact that it’s a little too quirky for the commercial horror crowd, Willard will surprise many with its quality. Unashamedly old-fashioned, it deserves to be seen by a larger audience, and provides an obvious alternative to the slasher film. Recommended.

The Disc

Released in the US as a New Line “Platinum Series” title, it’s good to know that the transfer and extras have been ported over, since the R1 set screamed quality. New Line seemed to be making up for their mistreatment of Willard, and have fashioned a sublime package. The only nit-pick here, is EIV’s box art, which keeps up their poor track record. Still, it’s the disc that counts.

The Look and Sound

Willard is showcased wonderfully in the anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer, which makes the film look much more expensive. The baroque design of the production is retained effortlessly, with deep blacks giving way to muted colours and expressive greys. It’s a dark film, but the image is very sharp, and clarity is retained from beginning to end. I did detect some edge enhancement (relegated mostly to the shadows), but it’s not too severe. In many respects, Willard looks outstanding.

The Dolby Digital EX Surround track is also up to snuff, projecting music, dialogue and sound effects with ease. Always active, the track is at its best when providing those incidental effects that can be missed without a surround set-up. The sound of the rats moves across the field, often coming from behind the viewer. It fits the visuals well, and it’s certainly moody.

The Menus

As you’d expect from the “House That Freddy Built”, this horror title is given unnerving menus from New Line. Animated with gusto, the options sure look great, and the transitions are accomplished (and don’t outstay their welcome.)

Bonus Material

Fans of the film will be well-served with this platter, and considering Willard’s mediocre cinema run, there is more here than expected.

Audio Commentary by Glen Morgan, James Wong, Crispin Glover and R. Lee Ermey

A fun and frank discussion of the feature, the commentary is constantly engaging. There is much talk of the films crippling low-budget (in comparison to other mainstream features), and how the crew had to pull off the variety of effects. Morgan is also very vocal about his influences, and Willard is clearly a patchwork of existing material (though the groups affection for the film is clear.) A few neat anecdotes are raised, and you’ll be surprised to hear about Glover’s work as an author. Ermey doesn’t speak much unless prodded, but the main focus is the banter between Morgan and Wong, whose friendship provides a genial air to the proceedings.

“The Year of the Rat”

The highlight of the set, is this outstanding 73-minute documentary. This is what all movie documentaries should be like, and follows the films production step-by-step in a comprehensive, diary fashion. It is also very honest. Morgan struggled through the entire production, facing many obstacles, though he is pleased that the film has acquired somewhat of a cult audience. This also sports a lot of behind the scenes footage, and interview material. Bonus points for showing those rats in action, between set-ups.

“Rat People: Friends or Foes”

This piece runs 19-minutes, and is more fun than insightful. Here, a group of people discuss their adoration, or phobia of rats. A little unsettling, since you realise the story of Willard might not be too far-fetched after all.

The set is rounded off by a gallery of "Deleted/Alternate Scenes", complete with optional commentary by Morgan and Wong. The footage serves little purpose, but the commentary is worth sitting through due to the pairs amusing comments. A "Music Video" follows, which is worth noting for Glover's freaky take on Michael Jackson's "Ben", and finally there are 3 TV spots and the original theatrical trailer.


Few films deserve a second chance like Willard, a cult oddity with much to admire. It also makes me curious to see the original (especially since it inspired a sequel, aptly titled Ben.) Thanks to an outstanding presentation, and top-shelf bonus material, this is a definitely worth a rental, and perhaps even a purchase. However, if you hate rats, you should think twice...

Willard is released on DVD, on September 27th 2004

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