Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: February 26th, 2019
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
It’s tempting to say that a Willard redux was a strange choice by a major studio in 2003: after all, Hollywood had yet to truly embark on the remake free-for-all that would largely define the decade, and it’s not like it was riding a wave of killer animal films, either. But the truth is, this would always be an odd proposition, no matter when it was released. Perhaps the only way to properly understand and contextualize it is to consider director Glen Morgan’s success on both the small screen and the big screen, where he scored hits with the likes of The X-Files and Final Destination. It must have been with that in mind that New Line apparently gave him and frequent co-conspirator James Wong carte blanche to do whatever their hearts desired with this, a surprising re-imagining of an obscure 70s film that had been mostly lost to time. While the original Willard was a hit upon release, missing film elements kept it trapped in the VHS era for nearly fifteen years after the remake hit theaters, so this was hardly the most exploitative venture.
Willard is, however, one of the more interesting cases from this trend: on the surface, it feels like it shouldn’t really be since it’s a fairly faithful re-telling of the original. Calling it a “beat for beat” remake might be overstating it, but it more or less follows the same trajectory of its predecessor. Once again, poor Willard Stiles (Crispin Glover) lives with an overbearing mother (Jackie Burroughs) and works for the tyrannical boss (R. Lee Ermey) who stole the company business from his late father (the likeness of Bruce Davison, in a nice nod to the original). Also, he has a huge rat problem on his hands, as an entire brood has infested the basement of his deteriorating family home.
Well, it’d be a problem for most other people, anyway; after the rodents foil Willard’s extermination attempt, this lonely, misunderstood weirdo decides to befriend the creatures instead. Before long, he even trains them to do his bidding, providing himself with the perfect opportunity to take revenge on those who have wronged him.
In hindsight, it is somewhat surprising that Willard is so reverent of its predecessor: compared to the number of reboots and remakes that amped up and pushed their predecessors to the extreme, this one is downright restrained. It’s quite easy to imagine an update that emphasizes over-the-top gore and mayhem as Crispin Glover plows through an unsuspecting cast, cackling maniacally the whole way. But it turns out this Willard is also a demented character study, just like the original: more heartbreaking than revolting (or even horrifying), it paints a sympathetic portrait of a man driven to madness by both mice and men. Scarce action beats—like Willard turning his rats loose on his boss’s extravagant car—occasionally punctuate a slow burn character drama that deliberately works itself up to its inevitable crescendo of violence.
What’s surprising about this is just how well it works. Making a movie about killer rats run-amok for the sake of sheer carnage is the easy way out; much more difficult is asking audiences to invest in the guy controlling the killer rats. Don’t even get me started on how Willard boasts convincing, intricate inter-species dynamics when a pair of rats (Socrates and Ben, as it was in ’71) emerge to compete for their master’s attention and approval. It’s a miracle anyone pulled this off once, let alone a second time 30 years later.
I might even argue that this take is an improvement upon the original. Morgan certainly helms it with a bit more of a confident, pronounced aesthetic. This Willard looks much more like an obvious horror movie: bathed in ominous shadows and unfolding in the midst of an appropriate decrepit production design, it’s an exquisitely creepy piece of work. Even more striking are the palpable layers of grit soaking nearly every frame of the film: Willard isn’t just weird or offbeat—it’s also exceptionally grimy and gross. Coatings of dirt and rust provide a lived-in feel that reflects the immense weight of Willard’s tumultuous, crumbling life, and, despite the obvious studio sheen, Morgan is keen on grotesque, disreputable flourishes. Willard just feels downright wrong at all times, and rightfully so.
It also boasts two of the best casting decisions of any remake, which is no small feat when you consider the original had Ernest Borgnine foiling Davison’s Willard. But if there were ever a duo that could step into those shoes, it’d be Ermey and Glover, respectively. Both feel like they were practically born for these roles: Ermey, of course, brings that trademark drill sergeant persona to Frank Martin, a contemptable asshole with no redeemable moments. The entire movie builds to the moment the beleaguered Willard dishes out his comeuppance, and Ermey more than earns the audience’s disdain. His Martin is a stark portrait of sneering entitlement who takes every opportunity to belittle and condescend to Willard, and Ermey spares no energy. Every line of dialogue might as well be projected through a bullhorn as he rampages through his screen time like a total lunatic.
Glover is a perfect complement to such hypermasculine madness. He, too, has cultivated a particular persona that’s perfectly suited for Willard, a nebbish, pitiful character who isn’t quite pathetic. It’s a fine line, but Glover nimbly walks it, inspiring just the right amount of pity without losing the audience. Just like his 1971 counterpart, this Willard also draws sympathy from a co-worker (Laura Harring) who recognizes him as a lost, lonely, and (supposedly) harmless soul. You don’t doubt for a moment that she’s genuine in her attempt to reach out, and her sincerity is crucial in confirming the audience’s sympathy. Of course, Glover does his part, too, often without even speaking: he just has a naturally downcast, haunted disposition that’s apt for this role. This proves to be disarming, too, as his unhinged outbursts are quite startling: as he works himself up into a fervor, Glover’s voice rises to an unnerving, desperate squeal. It’s weirdly off-putting and affecting all at once.
Just when moments like this threaten to push Willard to the edge of camp, Morgan reins it in and pulls it back from the brink. Legitimately poignant scenes—Willard watching his boss bludgeon Socrates to death, his pondering suicide after rummaging through his late father’s belongings, the strangely upsetting climax—are stark reminders that everyone involved is taking this completely seriously. Some wry black humor naturally is woven into the film (a scene where a cat desperately attempts to escape as Michael Jackson’s “Ben” plays in the background is fiendishly clever), but, ultimately, it’s just as earnest as the original in documenting the strange relationship between a man and his rats.
The final result is a strange case: conventional wisdom insists that remakes should markedly improve a rickety original or at least wildly diverge to leave their own impression. Willard really doesn’t do either by only marginally improving upon the ’71 film, all while largely following its footsteps. Usually, I don’t go for this sort of thing—it’s really just one of those remakes that mostly just splashes a fresh coat of paint upon its predecessor. The brushstrokes are quite inspired here, though, reminding us that solid craftsmanship can sometimes outrun redundancy.
When Scream Factory gained access to the Warner vaults, Willard obviously wasn’t the first New Line property that landed on my wish-list, but kudos to the label for not going directly to the obvious and instead shedding light on an underseen title. In fact, this one has flown under the radar for so long that this new edition actually marks its Blu-ray debut, and it’s a nice release. Not only does it boast a new 2K scan from the original film elements, but Scream has also put together a nice package of newly-produced and vintage supplements. In addition to the original commentary with Morgan, Wong, Ermey, and Glover, there’s a new track with the director and DP Robert McLachlan, plus another with Mark Harden and David Allsbery from Boone’s Animals for Hollywood.
Morgan also appears in “The Road To Willard,” an 80-minute interview that has the director recounting everything from his youth to his early stints in filmmaking (there’s an entire segment devoted to Trick or Treat!), all of it leading up to the production of Willard itself. He starts with the unintended studio bidding war (he always wanted to go with New Line out of loyalty to Bob Shaye but his agent had other ideas) and works through his inspiration (Willard rattled around in his brain for decades after seeing it in his hometown theater with this dad) and the production itself. Some of the turmoil surrounding the rating (it was cut down to a PG-13, much to his dismay) is also accounted for, but what’s most interesting here is how Morgan’s tight-knit group of friends essentially lived the dream they imagined for themselves as kids. You get a sense that he’s definitely one of us—just a huge genre fan that managed to sneak into Hollywood and smuggle out stuff like Willard.
“Destination Willard” is a 45-minute interview with DP McLachlan, who similarly reminisces about his career (much of it spent alongside Morgan) before focusing on Willard specifically. Some actual footage of the rat training appears in “The Rat Trainer’s Notebook,” which offers viewers a glimpse at the logistics of filming a movie so heavily dependent on rodents. In addition to all of this new material, Scream also ported over the old feature-length making-of documentary from the original DVD release, plus a slew of other extras: another look at animal trainers, deleted/extended scenes, behind-the-scenes EPK material, tv spots, a trailer, and, most importantly, the music video for Glover’s bizarre rendition of “Ben.” Willard fanatics—and they are surely out there—literally have hours and hours of material to sift through here, as this is one of the most comprehensive releases imaginable.
And, hey, who knows, maybe this release will rightfully give Willard a new lease on life: if nothing else, it should remind us that, between this and his Black Christmas redux, that Glen Morgan deserves a serious re-evaluation. It’s a damn shame those two remain his only feature film credits all these years later since they’re two of the better efforts to emerge from the remake frenzy. Maybe we spent so much time gnashing our teeth and/or agonizing over the franchise reboots that we slept on a pair of terrific revisits. Of course, we’ll need a Black Christmas Collector’s Edition to confirm this hypothesis.
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