I was once awakened from a sound sleep, told there was a mouse in the kitchen and asked what should be done. “Name it Julius,” I helpfully suggested and went back to sleep.
I relate this anecdote solely to illustrate that in general, I am not alarmed by rodentia. Over the years, I have even had a few pet mice, along with the odd hamster and even a couple of gerbils (don’t even think it), but I will admit that I’ve never had a pet rat. After seeing first-time director Glen Morgan’s remake of Willard, the rather tame 1971 thriller of the same name, I am not inclined to rectify this oversight in my pet menagerie.
Whatever the new Willard is or isn’t, I will openly admit that its rats are genuinely creepy — and in a way that the ones in the original film never got near. Just as creepy — and maybe even more so — is Crispin Glover in the title role he inherited from Bruce Davison (seen in the new film in a portrait and snapshots as the current Willard’s father). In fact, Glover may just be too creepy.
I’ll overlook the fact that I can’t buy the nearly 40-year-old Glover as the supposedly 29-year-old Willard. I’ll overlook, too, that having Willard be 29 makes an already hard-to-swallow story even more so. I don’t even think that it’s necessary for a remake to be especially faithful to its source (though in many ways, this Willard follows its model pretty accurately). But rethinking the character as a kind of incipient Norman Bates goes a little too far with Glover in the role (the young Anthony Perkins could have pulled it off). The role requires a mix of creepiness and the quality of seeming sympathetic; Glover only has the former.
The whole thing is reminiscent of director Rouben Mamoulian nixing Paramount’s request that he cast Irving Pichel in the starring role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on the strength of the idea that Pichel could only play Hyde. Unfortunately, this reservation didn’t occur to Glen Morgan, who seems to have been preoccupied with delivering an unrelentingly stylish but somewhat-too-smart-assed horror flick that can’t make up its mind as to whether wants to be serious, or to be a black comedy. That’s too bad, because when Willard is good, it’s very good. And when it’s not so good, it’s oddly unsettling — and not in a good way.
Apart from making the lead character older than in the original — and pouring a lot more money into sets and effects — the setup is almost identical. Willard is an awkward young man living with his domineering horror of a mother (Jackie Burroughs, A Guy Thing) in a spooky old house with a burgeoning rat problem. He’s also the much-put-upon and unwanted employee of Frank Martin (R. Lee Ermey at his Full-Metal Jacket best, even with PG-13 language restrictions). Since part of the agreement in Martin’s purchase of Willard’s father’s company included keeping Willard on, Martin can’t fire him, and so he spends all the time he can spare from sexually harassing the women employees by making Willard’s life a living hell in hopes that he’ll quit.
Told by his mother to do something about the rats in the basement, Willard gamely sets out to exterminate the offending trespassers — only to first find them cleverer than he anticipated and then oddly endearing. He’s especially taken with a gentle white rat he names Socrates — and he’s strangely antagonistic toward a huge gray one he names Ben (after his Big Ben alarm clock). It’s only after Willard finds he can train the little fellows that he hits upon using the rats as an instrument of revenge against Martin.
This starts out in a relatively small way — having the rodents flatten the tires on Martin’s pride-and-joy $90,000 car — but events cause the plan to escalate. Of course, this is the pay-off that we’ve been waiting for; the trailer (just as it did with the original) has geared us up for this very thing: Martin’s comeuppance. And a good one it is, too. It’s unfortunate that the trailer insisted on showing the scene where Willard is revealed under a virtual flood of rats as the freight-elevator doors open, because it would otherwise have been an almost Kubrickian moment (a la the blood-gushing elevator in The Shining), had it occurred unexpectedly. It’s still a startling image. The problem — or one of them — is that there’s really nothing to top it.
Worse still, Morgan is too concerned with being “smart” and too unconcerned about narrative coherence. Take the wholly arbitrary and unpleasant scene with a cat named Scully (yes, the man’s an X Files alumnus). The scene is simply wedged into the movie without concern for narrative flow. It could be removed and the film would benefit, but then Morgan wouldn’t get to show off his use of the syrupy horror that is Michael Jackson’s recording of “Ben” (a strange pop hit “love” song about the murderous lead rat from Ben, the sequel to the first Willard). And Morgan clearly is more in love with his own cleverness than he is with the movie he’s making — and that is never a good thing.
The time might have been more profitably spent exploring just why Willard hates Ben — something that is never made clear. Ben obviously strives for Willard’s approval and only becomes malevolent when that’s denied him. In essence, Willard treats Ben in much the same way that others have treated him, but the film makes nothing of this point.
Morgan also falls prey to an increasingly common flaw made by comedy directors: creating an unsympathetic caricature of a key player and then trying to make the viewer feel sorry for that character. It’s interesting that Willard is being cited in some quarters as being a film that Tim Burton should have made — and there’s sense to that argument, what with the movie’s outsider theme and its Danny Elfman-influenced score (by Shirley Walker, who conducted Elfman’s scores for Batman and Edward Scissorhands).
Burton would have undoubtedly made a very different Willard, however — one where it was possible to care about the character. And that’s the main thing Morgan didn’t get right in this uneven attempt.