|Written by Mel Odom|
|Wednesday, 06 October 2004|
"Willard" stands as an artistic success as a remake of the 1971 horror film, but fails to deliver much of the drama and action inherent in the storyline that would play for today's audience. Director Glen Morgan obviously fell in love with the original movie and worked hard to bring his vision to the screen. Morgan, along with partner James Wong, both worked on "X-Files" episodes during the heyday of that successful series. Those particular episodes always exuded fantastical atmospheric presence. The skills Morgan honed in series work gleams in this movie.
Morgan's vision is at its best when it comes to location and emotional impact in "Willard." The house that Willard Stiles grew up in comes across as macabre and devoid of warmth as a lunar landscape. Large and rambling, the house appears to be huge, but the audience feels claustrophobic, like a rat trapped in a very large maze. No doubt that this was exactly the response Morgan hoped to elicit when he conceived of the set.
However, the shortcomings of the film leave a definite mark as well. The pacing for the original movie is mirrored the times, moving at a slower pace and not providing the over-the-top chills and thrills expected in the present market. Today's audience, the filmgoers who have seen the original "Willard" as well as the new viewers who have not seen the original, expect more violence, less set-up and frantic pacing. After all, this is a movie about a man who can control vast numbers of rats and make those creatures do his bidding as he takes revenge on the man who's out to destroy him. Most horror fans will probably feel that more of that action was needed.
In Chapter 1, as in the menu screen, the creepy organ music sets the viewer's nerves on edge, preparing us for an out-of-control sled ride into psychological horror. Rat squeaking fills the surround sound system, moving from the left speaker to the right speaker and back again, complementing the frightening imagery of the knife flicking and the clock ticking.
The story begins innocently enough but the audience knows the rats are coming. Portrayed so well by Crispin Glover, Hollywood's best actor to date to embody creepiness and hovering-on-the-edge-of-madness, Willard Stiles comes across as a very lonely and pathetic young man who just really never had a chance in life. After his father's suicide, Willard stayed in the house where he was born to nurse his invalid mother (Jackie Burroughs). Willard dotes on his mother's every need, but he does so grudgingly because the effort he expends is obviously wearing away at his soul. The viewer doesn't know if Willard had any friends before his father's suicide and his mother's mental and physical breakdown, but he definitely does not have them now. His mother lies awake in her bedroom and calls for help all the time, but still finds time to micromanage Willard's life. On the night the movie opens, Mrs. Stiles hears rats in the basement and orders Willard to go check.
In Chapter 2, Willard goes to the basement and turns on the light. An overloaded fuse blows and sends a streaking spark shooting across the screen from right to left and the arc of motion is mirrored by the popping and crackling noise that issues from the right front speaker, through the center speaker(s), and dead ends in the left front speaker. Obeying his mother's orders, Willard leaves the house the next morning to get pest control materials. The camera sweeps across the wind-swept manor to reveal how large and desolate the house looks. The squeaking gate grates through the surround sound system. After making his selection from what Willard believes to be truly horrible deaths, unable to choose the method that leaves no rat bodies behind because the store is sold out of that particular brand, Willard returns home and tries to set the traps, but can't. The snapping of the wire bar obviously is too grim, too final. Willard returns to bed without setting any of the traps.
Although Willard insists in Chapter 3 that there are no rats in the basement, his mother insists that there are. He returns to the basement and sets the traps. While lying in bed that night, Willard hears the rattraps going off and quick machine gun-like succession. The metallic popping noises come across as sharp reports, and they flicker through the left front speaker, the right front speaker, the center speaker(s), and echo in the back speakers, surrounding the viewer by the sound just as Willard feels surrounded.
Chapter 4 introduces the viewer to Willard's boss, Mr. Martin (R. Lee Ermey), who helped start the company where Willard works. Willard's father initially founded the company, then joined forces with Martin. Although the movie never quite explains what happened between Willard's father and Martin, enough is implied to make us sympathize with Willard, who believes that Martin stole the company and is out to get him. As usual, Willard arrives 20 minutes late for work, with the excuse that caring for his mother has caused him to run late. The viewer never gets to see if Willard's habitual tardiness is due to his mother or his own inability to get somewhere on time. Martin takes Willard to task and the viewer can't help but feel sorry for the young man. Nearly everyone has had a Mr. Martin for a boss. Martin even suggests that Willard place his mother in a rest care facility. Willard, of course, can't do this and refuses.
Again returning to the heavy pressure of the atmospheric environment in the house in Chapter 5, the "whumph" of the furnace taking off makes us jump. As Willard and his mother lie in their separate beds, fearful squeaking comes from the basement. Mrs. Stiles insists that she hears something and demands that Willard go investigate. Downstairs in the basement, Willard makes a discovery that will forever change his life. A small, frightened white rat crawls painfully across the basement floor while dragging its hind legs, which are stuck to the glue traps Willard set so he wouldn't hear the snapping. At first, Willard intends to brain the trapped creature, but instead identifies with the rodent. Both of them are trapped. Willard carefully picks up the rat and uses cooking oil to free it from the glue trap. His mother bangs on the door and demands to know what he is doing. The comment she makes about the smell of cooking oil on him is hilarious, yet at the same time drives deeply into the sad life of Willard Stiles.
The wheeze and clank of the elevator in Chapter 7 heralds the disintegrating control Willard has over his future. The sounds from the elevator echo through the surround sound system, coming across as mechanical and maniacal, further establishing the inexorable abuse Martin delivers to Willard. The comment regarding Willard's wearing of his dead father's cheap suits again inclines the audience to hope the best for Willard. But the viewer knows that Willard has been pushed too far.
At home in Chapter 8, Willard begins practicing with the rats he has been feeding in his basement. They move when he tells him to and they look like a carpet of living fur scurrying across the basement floor. Socrates, the white rat Willard has saved, somehow bands all of the rats together. But another rat has also manifested into the mix. Ben is the largest rat among those that have taken up living in Willard's basement. Ben is jealous of Socrates. The triangle, Willard and Socrates and Ben, is firmly set into place in this chapter.
In Chapter 9, Willard arrives by subway at Martin's home. He releases the rats into Martin's garage where Martin has stored the new luxury car that gives him such pride of ownership. Willard also discovers that Ben has come along, even though he was ordered to stay at home. For the first time, the viewer is treated to the sound of organized chaos carried out by the rats at Willard's command. They scurry from right to left, and the sounds of movement are mirrored in the right front speaker and left front speaker. The rats gnaw through the garage door and attack Martin's car. At first, Ben is unable to go into the garage. Willard makes fun of the big rat, sounding much like Martin does when terrifying Willard himself. However, Ben chews into the garage and helps with the destruction. Martin comes out and almost catches Willard.
On his way home, a small dog that yaps incessantly confronts Willard. Willard tries to chase the dog off, but fails. In the end, he gives into the dark rage and anger that has started to become so much a part of him. He picks up the dog and puts the small animal into the bag with the rats, waits until the dog is properly terrified, and releases it.
Tension mounts on all fronts in Chapter 11. Martin goes ballistic at work, taking out his aggressions on Willard, and Ben gets increasingly jealous of the relationship between Willard and Socrates. Chapter 12 focuses on a major turning point of the plot that seals the fates of all concerned.
Trapped, Willard has no choice but to pursue the course he is on. His enmity with both Martin and Ben builds, while he gets closer to Socrates. Morgan shares a tip of the hat and a wink with the audience in Chapter 14 when he introduces a cat named Scully who meets an untimely end. Of course, this is an acknowledgment to his work on "X-Files." Chapter 19 offers another droll bit of humor when Martin scans Internet porn using a mouse. Later, not paying attention to what he is doing, Martin puts his hand on the back of a full-grown rat instead of the computer mouse.
Chapter 20 really stands out with intense moments of eeriness as Willard goes willingly to the dark side. The scenes are filled with running rat shadows that loom larger-than-life, the scurrying sound of rat claws and piercing rat squeaks. Ben becomes a grotesque caricature of evil, although he doesn't do much direct action. Willard's face shows the madness he has steeped himself in. Pale sweat covers his features and his eyes gleam much too brightly.
One of the most neglected aspects of the story is Willard's potential girlfriend. Cathryn (Laura Harring) could have carried, and probably should have carried, more weight in the overall movie. One of the deleted scenes included on the DVD shows the potential for the relationship between the two as a pair of star-crossed lovers. Of course, spinning the plot out that way would have necessitated changes in the story and altered the focus on Willard and his relationship to the rats. Still, the most intense relationship onscreen is the one between Ben and Willard, the dynamic of which is never fully explained.
"Willard" the DVD has tons of extras. The commentaries that include director Morgan, producer Wong, and actors Glover and Ermey are interesting to listen to, although not as light and humorous as some commentaries are. Still, the viewer can hear how much passion and belief these people put into their production. The documentary "The Year of the Rat" runs well over an hour and provides tons of insights of how scenes were shot in the creepy horror brought to life. Especially of interest are the sections revealing the secrets of the computer-generated images and sequencing. The featurette "Rat People, Friends or Foes?" is a true documentary that will repulse or stun many viewers as it reveals numerous groups in the world that are dedicated to making pets of mice and rats. In addition, the deleted scenes offer a little more information regarding the nature the relationships between Socrates and Willard and Ben.
The style and atmosphere of "Willard" succeeds marvelously. A viewer will be hard-pressed to find a horror movie more unrelenting in the sheer promotional pressure created by sets, actors, situations and organ music. However, where "Willard" falls short is in the areas of action, violence and pacing. Thirty years ago, when the original "Willard" debuted, audiences were more in awe of the potential for horror then the actual delivery of that horror. Today's audiences demand the more visceral experience. "Willard" the remake sails along nicely with a PG-13 rating, but should have perhaps gone more for the jugular and won over the young audience that relishes fear and gore. Viewers wanting a bit of fright, a bit of anticipation, a vacation from reality, and Glover doing what he does best will enjoy a night with this new "Willard." Conventional horror fans wanting more blood and gore might be disappointed, but if that audience wants to see how atmosphere and setting can be used to evoke fear without ever pouring blood all over the screen, "Willard" is an excellent example. This DVD is well worth the price of rental.