WILLARD (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Terror/Violence, some Sexual Content and Language

Willard poster

Directed by: Glen Morgan

Written by: Stephen Gilbert & Glen Morgan

(based on the novel THE RATMAN’S NOTEBOOKS by Stephen Gilbert)

Starring: Crispin Glover, R. Lee Ermey, Laura Elena Harring & Jackie Burroughs

I don’t whose idea it was to fund a remake of the 1971 cult horror film WILLARD (still unreleased on Region 1 DVD), but they’re out of pocket quite a bit of money. It’s a weird choice to redo a 1971 film that not many people have heard of or remember, let alone one that focuses on such a dark story of an isolated character. 2003’s WILLARD did not do well at the box office at all and since has been resigned to the fate of being a mostly forgotten film. This is a damn shame. I would even go as far as saying even a cinematic crime, because WILLARD is awesome. With this premise (which I’ll break down in a moment), this movie could have easily devolved into a slightly unusual slasher or just a cheesy killer animal B-flick. WILLARD is neither of these things, but rather an intense, suspenseful story of a loner driven to the edge of his sanity.

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Willard Stiles is a reclusive, timid man living in a decaying mansion with his dying mother. His lonely existence is made all the worse by his verbally abusive boss. Whilst trying to kill an infestation in his basement, Willard comes across a white rat and spares its life. He gives the rodent the name of Socrates and keeps it as pet/friend. Developing a special bond between himself and the ever-growing colony of rats (including the massive sized Ben), Willard trains them to do his bidding. As circumstances get even worse at work and his mother’s health debilitates rapidly, Willard begins an obsessive quest to get revenge on his boss and what’s left of his miserable existence falls apart around him.

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If there was ever an actor born to play the part of Willard Stiles, it’s Crispin Glover. Glover practically delivers a one-man show. There are side characters (some with more presence than others), but Crispin is phenomenal. A good stretch of the movie is spent on Willard in isolation. Without many words, Glover expresses exactly what his character is feeling in these situations. Other than Glover, a huge standout is R. Lee Ermey as Mr. Martin (Willard’s domineering boss). Ermey has become known for playing drill sergeants and overly angry people who yell a lot. As Martin, Ermey takes an unusual step in a more professional direction. He certainly does yell, swear, and go on verbal assaults in Willard’s direction, but it’s in a far more restrained sense than you might expect. Jackie Burroughs (playing Willard’s mother) and Laura Elena Harring (in the role of a possible love interest) are great, but they aren’t the focus of many scenes. Both actresses deliver what’s needed of them to make the story flow smoothly around the character of Willard.

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The last thing a person expects from a movie featuring killer rats (which is the only thing all of the bad trailers and commercials showcased) would be a solid emotional core, but that’s exactly what makes WILLARD such an amazing movie. Everything is constructed in a way that gets the viewer feeling for Willard’s increasing predicaments and understanding his actions (even if they don’t agree with the extremes that he takes them to). The entire movie is creepy and disturbing, never once exploiting the fact that there are killer animals amok. A couple of neat in-jokes are made to the original 1971 horror flick (including Bruce Davison’s photo as Willard’s deceased father). The camera angles and fantastic music score elevate the quality as well. I legitimately cared about Willard and that makes everything that much more upsetting by the conclusion.

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WILLARD is also one of the few films that I would recommend checking out the deleted scenes and bonus features on the DVD. The movie was originally going to be an R-rated, far more gruesome film and was whittled down to a PG-13 rating. This quality (which usually is obvious in most movies) doesn’t detract from how amazingly compelling it is to watch. This bombed at the box office and should have never been expected to draw that big of an audience to begin with (though I was interested and 12 years old at the time). It’s a dark story driven by a main character, some side characters, and a handful of rats (two of which actually become characters themselves that happen to be animals). WILLARD is one of the most underappreciated and underrated horror films of the new millennium.

Grade: A

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