A new breed of friendship
The shelf life of a true eccentric is not very long in Hollywood. Most times, in order to sustain viability in this business that demands conformity to certain focus group parameters, a gifted or unconventional individual must sell out, turning in their famed freak card for a more sedate, steady paycheck. Andy Kaufman is one clear example of financial security scaling back a truly disturbed comic mind. His standup act consisted of pushing the boundaries of what was funny. His television work was a pseudo surreal spin on the fake accent as humor. Christopher Walken is more than happy to exude perverse peculiarity for the sake of script choice and a name above the title, but you can tell that everyone who hires him is probably waiting for this thespian time bomb to explode. Then there is Michael Jackson, perhaps the biggest social phenomenon and human oddity ever to rule the airwaves and stain the planet at the same time. His shape-shifting vampire on pixie sticks strangeness never translates over into his music. His personal and professional patterns outside of the studio indicate a little anomalous boy lost in a rough and tumble world, internal voices so demanding that he created a Peter Pan Neverland fantasy kingdom of his own to quell them. If one does a really intricate job of perusing his oeuvre, you do stumble across a circumstance in which the creepy met the commercial for magical Mike. In Ben, the 1972 sequel to the immensely successful Willard, Mr. J crooned a loony love mantra to a movie monster mouse. Now in another strange bit of cinematic serendipity, Crispin Glover, a truly glorious odd duck, essays the title role in a 2003 retelling of the classic man meets ravenous rat story. In a move that out yikes Mike, Glover even croons a cover of Jacko's rodent roundelay.
Facts of the Case
Willard Styles lives with his aging, ill mother in an old house located near the gloomiest section of supposed New York City. He spends his nights caring for the needy, nauseating visage and his days in the service of Mr. Frank Martin, the unappreciative boss who now runs his late father's company. Both avenues are strict dead ends for Willard. His mother despises everything about him, including his name. And Martin is merely waiting for the old Styles crone to croak so he can void a term in his buyout of the business and fire the nepotism nuisance.
One night, Willard's mother complains that there are rats in the basement, and when he investigates, he learns that, indeed, there are swarms of the beasts living there. He tries killing them, but suddenly he takes a shining to a small, docile white rat that he calls Socrates. He and Socrates become very close and one night, while in the cellar, he discovers another, more vicious oversized rodent. He calls him Big Ben, or Ben for short. Soon, Willard is training the vermin to obey his commands, and they all do so. All except Ben. They even help Willard get some much-needed revenge on Martin's new Mercedes.
Things soon take a turn for the worse. Willard's mother passes away (the rats may have had something to do with it) and lawyers tell him he's broke. Martin uses the matron's passing to fire Willard. Then tragedy strikes Socrates. Friendless and at wit's end, Willard decides to have his rats kill for him. But after they've tasted blood, will they want to stop? Ben may have something to say about when the slaughter stops: the mega-mouse has more control over the thousands of hungry rodents infesting the home—much more than the meek, mentally unbalanced Willard.
Is there a more misunderstood, misused actor than poor Crispin "Hellion" Glover? From the moment he took the screen in Back to the Future, playing the ultimate social outcast George McFly, this lanky human walking stick with a stilted voice and unhinged persona became an ironic icon, a star wrapped in an insane, introverted skin. He then cemented his sensationalism with The River's Edge, playing the "dude"-spewing valley psycho Layne. By all accounts, it appeared Master Crispin was poised to become his generations' James Dean, a twisted mastermind so lost in his own world of performance that he couldn't help but be compelling onscreen. Instead, he just left the planet Earth altogether and vanished into his own Milky Way of the peculiar. Somewhere around the mid-'80s he seemed to become unstuck in the psyche, a deranged method thespian traveling the entertainment terrain, believing his own warped hype. Many can point to a seminal appearance on Late Night with David Letterman as the beginning of oblivion. In a fit of hyperactive showboating before an audience of millions, Glover placed a karate kick scant inches away from the formidable talk host's forehead. He was quickly shown the door. Though he turned up from time to time in minor, near cameo roles (Wild at Heart's "Jingle" Dell, The People vs. Larry Flint's lazy-eyed Arlo), the star promise he seemed to radiate was blackballed into submission, and then seclusion.
So it's strange that he has recently found a small amount of acceptance as a character bad guy, playing everything from a sword-wielding assassin in the Charlie's Angels movies to an orphanage director in Like Mike. He did take small roles here and there throughout the course of his latter career and even successfully sued to secure the rights to his image from Back to the Future. In the meanwhile, he recorded bleak and brazenly bizarre music (his album "The Big Problem =/= The Solution; the Solution = Let It Be" is a must own exploration of one man's misguided musical brain) and worked on literature as performance art (he has been known to take old Victorian tomes on such strange subjects as rat catching and retrofit them with new art, added text and various other artistic accents). But his true calling has and will always be as an actor, and now, thankfully, he has been given a chance to shine again. 2001 saw him star in Bartleby as the famously inert file clerk (from the short story by Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener). His performance was creepy (that's a given) and controlled (something people usually don't associate with Glover). And those villainous turns in the Angels films are pure action antagonist. But Crispin has not totally left lunacy behind him. Rumor has it that he is completing his own independent opus: a meandering movie featuring a cast made up solely of people with Down's Syndrome entitled What is it? Seems our cracked actor can never forget his true nature, which makes his appearance in the 2003 remake of Willard so karmic.
Willard is a darkly comic tour de force for its strange star. A cool, complex combination of classic horror film and deliriously campy craziness, it eschews standard monster movie moves for a more robust and black-hearted take on loneliness and friendship. This is not a film about killer rats as much as it is a tale of male empowerment via vermin. Indeed, the story is called Willard for good reason: the pests are secondary here. The real world surrounding our title character is far more chilling and evil. The original 1971 Willard, starring Bruce Davidson and Ernest Borgnine (and taken from Stephen Gilbert's novel The Ratman's Notebook) was a similar saga of a lonely young man against an antagonistic set of circumstances. But while Davidson's troubled soul seemed the direct result of the social stigmas and battles he faced, Glover as Willard is a revelation of repression, a man whose mind has turned inside out from isolation and loss. Yet this new version is not some depressing look at mental torment and torture. Instead, it's a gleeful expression of revenge as the ultimate put-down, of saying with slaughter what you can't with words. Glover makes the movie a constant source of cinematic joy, lending his expressive face and awkward angular frame and grin to grimace line-readings that explode across the screen in delirious, gothic goofiness. The fact that this film is also about a rogue rat with a sinister mind of his own and a few mouse enhanced murders is merely ancillary icing on Glover's acting cake. If you want a movie that will scare the droppings out of you, stick with the '70s version. If you want to see what makes a mental case tick like a tripwire, check out Glover's groove.
Both movies are reflections of when they were made. The original Willard tapped into a generation gap protest ideal of revolution against the all powerful establishment patriarchy. Borgnine, the boorish businessman out to destroy Willard and his family one member at a time, is given his comeuppance as a metaphor for questioning and toppling corrupt authority. This new version taps into current philosophies, specifically the advent of the modern male, a socially mandated sensitive sod. Willard here is an emasculated weenie afraid of his own shadow and inner lack of outstanding virility. Challenged for living at home and still being single but also asked to perform the duties of "man about the house" (financially and emotionally), he is torn between the image society craves and the role liberation has chosen for him. Both movies are more character studies than horror films, with a strong premise of disaffection and retribution running through them. But while Davidson's Willard seemed determined to rid his immediate life of the obstacles and awfulness surrounding it, Glover is out to destroy the entire world, one asshole at a time. Davidson's ratboy is reactionary, anger channeled through his pet horde of pests. Glover, on the other hand, is so passive aggressive that the moments when he explodes are shockingly volcanic, you feel the years of pain and anguish rushing out in burst of hot air and Munch's Scream shrillness. Davidson may have essayed a perfect horror hybrid, a killer as misguided manchild, but Glover now owns the role of Willard. His ability to expose and exploit ennui as a means of menace and mercy is uncanny. Besides, we understand Glover's love of his rats. There is a kinship between them, a give and take (which is manhandled and ultimately bungled by the original) that centers and streamlines the 2003 version. These mice aren't just his unholy army; they are his true friends.
If one is looking for still deeper meaning to Willard, then it can be argued that our title hero is the ultimate victim, a desperate human null set put upon by every aspect of society. On the outside, Willard is a model of attention and dedication; he keeps his dead father's memory preserved and present; he cares for his moldering corpse of a mother, a person so old and diseased that she seems made up mostly of tumors and infection; he's committed to his home and its upkeep, even if its decaying façade has become more than he really can handle. He tries his best to be a model employee, a vital part in the dying machine his late father created for him. But buried beneath his bland façade is a seething core of rage so dark and black that demons avoid his glare. It's an anger fed by years of disrespect and non-existent self-esteem. It's a fury fueled with untold failures and faults. It's a wrath wrapped tightly, like a coiled snake, waiting to spring. But it is also a passion born out of pain, a serial killer cravenness locked in without an outlet. That Willard would resort to violence is not unexpected; the fact that he would let others, including tiny rodents, do his dirty work indicates just how detached he has become. Willard can no longer function in the world. He is at wit's end with every aspect of it. The mouse brigade is just his way of meting out a small amount of payback. He never sees how it dooms his security and his sanctuary. He merely needs the release. Little does he know how painful the resulting responsibility will be. Loneliness will seem like a dream.
This makes Glover's glower and the 2003 Willard seem like a somber shock to the psychotic system, which it surely is not. Indeed, this is a fun, frantic film: a screaming yellow zonkers high time at the movies. Willard is a return to the days when fright could be mixed with the funny and the freakish to create a unique approach to terror. Anyone looking to be spooked by sinister cheese eaters would perhaps have more horror luck at their local video store. This movie is more of a camp festival of excesses, where tone and temperament are identified and altered to confuse and bemuse the audience. It's an off-putting experience that demands that you pay attention and enjoy the small and sometimes disproportionate pleasures. Everything about this version of Willard screams borrowed originality, from its baroque gothic haunted house sets that look like Hammer by way of Bo Welch and Tim Burton to the workplace as prison that recalls movies as diverse as Joe vs. the Volcano and The Hudsucker Proxy. Willard himself is Cesar from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari melded with Buster Keaton and a dysfunctional scarecrow, and the camera angles recall German expressionism in their precision and occasional self-consciousness. Indeed, Willard is a live action rendition of Worker and Parasite, the Eastern bloc cartoon Krusty the Clown must use when Itchy and Scratchy switch over to The Gabbo Show. It is obtuse, disturbing, and funny in a frightening and original manner.
In the end, Willard is all about the raving insane ingenuity of its star. Glover is a savant of strangeness, an absolutely out of control living piece of performance art channeled inside a modernized meshing of Ichabod Crane and Charles Manson. The magical sprites that speak strange mysteries into his mid-brain are given vocal victory with every stammer and stutter in his innocent idiot performance inventory. He turns Willard into a part silent movie, part over-the-top pantomime ballet of body movements and position. If for no other reason, he is the reason to watch this movie. But he is also surrounded by a wickedly clever cast and visually inspired director who challenge him at ever level. As the biggest bastard of a boss ever to steal a corporation from its heir, R. Lee Ermey forgets his Full Metal Jacket mannerisms and offers up a fully rounded reader of the riot act. As the zombified mother from hell, Jackie Burroughs is the most heinous vision of terminal illness every captured on screen, her make-up job as uncomfortable to look at as chewing razorblades. Glen Morgan, who along with partner/producer Wong worked on The X-Files and created Millennium and the Final Destination series, decide to amp up the arch qualities, turning Willard's domain in to a doomed dimension of exaggeration and empathy. Thanks for their efforts, and the brilliant work of Glover, Willard becomes a rare example of cult classic as actual work of artistic integrity.
New Line packs Willard 2003, the DVD, with more gouda and cheddar goodness than most digital offerings of unsuccessful films deserve (and Willard was no box office hit). Some of this bonus bloat does make for image issues, however. Indeed, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image has some slight pixelation problems. This movie spends a lot of time in the shadows of night and deep corners of basements, and the telltale boxes appear at the edges of blackness every once in a while. (Other reviews mention a full screen version as part of a possible flip-disc presentation of the title, but this was unavailable to this reviewer.) Sonically, one can choose between an eerie atmospheric 5.1 EX track that brings the menace of swarming rats to creepy, multi-channel life or a standard Dolby Digital Surround that doesn't add much ambiance. Include the standard selection of trailers and TV spots, and you've just barely scratched the surface of what this disc has to offer.
One of the best added features is a full length commentary featuring Glen Morgan, James Wong, Crispin Glover, and R. Lee Ermey. Fans of the foul-mouthed ex-drill sergeant need to listen quickly. Ermey makes a brief, non-group appearance at the beginning (he was recorded separately, one supposes) and then disappears for the rest of the disc. Too bad, as it would have been nice to hear him comment on his final onscreen moments with Glover and the rats. Still, the rest of the narrative is excellent. Glover wants recognition for his acting (including the production of real tears) and he repeats this mantra constantly, yet his good-natured nudging never grows tiresome. Wong and Morgan wonder aloud about other performances, aspects of the production that screenings and New Line demanded be changed, and the importance of the original film in their early lives. They also discuss the many inside allusions that they infer are tributes to the events of 9/11(?) but couched within such an insane film, this revelation really seems out of place. There are a few onset anecdotes and effects tricks revealed. In essence, the bonus audio track is a chance for three of the film's most important participants to revisit a favorite experience in their professional careers.
Next up are a collection of deleted scenes and outtakes that really should be watched after the film and the commentary track. Many of the things that Wong and Morgan discuss in the screen-specific narrative are hear for the viewing. To watch them without knowing exactly where they go in the film would be foolish. Also here is the alternative ending where Willard meets Ben in a final man-to-rat fracas. The fact that it was changed is okay, since it keeps something truly magnificent in the film around after the confrontation, but some of the other material should have been included. It helps to round out the characters and re-tool the menace in the movie, especially the more gory bits (see The Rebuttal Witnesses). There is commentary here too, but it is rather redundant, retelling tales already available elsewhere. Also available is Crispin Glover's video for "Ben," which he both performs and directs. It's a truly surreal hoot, a Cabaret style take-off of pre-World War Berlin that features R. Lee in many cartoonish roles and Glover crooning like an about-to-collapse cadaver. As warped as this rather straight reading of the song is, Glover's individual commentary is a stream of consciousness work of genius. He prepares notes telling every aspect of the video shooting and cast and then speed-reads it over the course of the two minute and thirty second playing time. It is priceless.
Finally, there are two documentaries on the disc and one of them is definitely a must own, if only for potential filmmakers to witness the emasculation and downward spiral of a director's personal vision on a film. In The Year of the Rat, young Julie Ng had access to the production and its creators from the initial moments of preparation and delays to the disastrous screening and opening. This is one wonderful, wounded walk through the labor of love and tireless effort that goes into a film. Glen Morgan is the hapless victim of the video camera's eavesdropping eyes. He discusses in great candor the casting qualms and eventual relief when Glover turned out to be an intelligent, capable actor. He laments the loss of certain pieces of the movie under New Line's mandate to make it more audience (read PG-13) friendly. And you witness the egotistical deflation as the testing and opening of the film pile pain and failure on top of what Morgan et.al., felt was a fine, friendly shoot. This is real insider stuff, material not only about the making, but the unmaking of a movie as well. At nearly 74 minutes, it's like a complete video comment on the creation of this film and it is astonishing. The additional 18-minute look at people who love (pet owners) or hate (health officials and exterminators) rats is hilarious, if not a little disturbing. Anyone who would keep 250 of these gnawing, pooping machines as part of their personal menagerie is about as unhinged as our title character himself.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Suits are never right. When they interfere with a film, it is usually for the worse. New Line could take a hint from the horrible way they handled Willard and learn that the screening process and audience input from said are a guide, not a guarantee of success. When the R-rated Willard tanked, shouldn't the two worse previews of the PG-13 version tell you something? Apparently in the annoying world of advanced marketing and pinpoint demographical techniques, the answer is "huh?" Willard is not a movie for children or pre-teens, so why try to turn it into such? What 12-year-old would understand Willard's situation and sympathize with him? What 10-year-old knows the history of the first film and wants to experience an artistically challenging remake? This movie should have been a hard R and stayed that way for its entire run. Adults and teens would have made this movie work. Glover can have that kind of mind control over an audience. Properly pushed and championed as Crispin's return to craziness, this could have been turned into a bloody, gory, celebrated dark comedy. Instead, the dummies reading response cards balked at the low numbers and thought, "If the rats are so cute, maybe the kiddies will like it?" Well, nothing can be further from the truth. Fans of Crispin Glover are old enough to understand why he is a demented genius. Admirers of the first film are in their late 30s or early 40s. Does either of these groups want to see a toothless, tame movie about marauding mice? The answer is no.
Eccentricity apparently doesn't play very well in the long term. What seems exotic and captivating turns twisted and weird over time. Yma Sumac can record strange Mayan bop music and in 1950 she is the ultimate Aztec opera artist. By the early '70s though, she is a forgotten farce, her American heritage discovered and disgracing her. Tiny Tim is another example of the odd becoming old as the years moved on. Many people loved his childlike falsetto reading of old vaudeville and minstrel show songs. By the '80s, he was an obsessive-compulsive has-been reduced to discussing his preference of adult diapers on The Howard Stern Show. Fame can be cyclical though. Sumac made a comeback of sorts in the '90s, her tormented take on jungle music fitting right in with the Esquivel retro idealism. Tim died before he could be rediscovered, still reduced to playing bit parts in paltry B-movies. Thankfully, Crispin Glover has avoided that portion of celebrity hell. When his inherent peculiarities rendered him persona non grata in Hollywood, he simply stepped back, indulged in his hobbies, and waited for the worm to turn. But it wasn't some slim vermicelli that created his ultimate comeback, but a retake on a terror tale about killer rats. Willard is a film that didn't deserve the commercial drubbing it took. Thankfully, the world of DVD will guarantee a long life this unjustly jilted gem. And here's hoping that Glover prospers and is not forced to seek solace in exile again. He is too brilliant to be cast aside.
Willard is found not guilty and is free to go. Crispin Glover is declared an unqualified genius by this court and is commended for his bravery and lack of social conformity in the pursuit of his career. New Line is also found not guilty for its release of this DVD and its wealth of extras, but the Court issues a reprimand to make sure next time the extras don't mess with the visual presentation.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Screen Specific Audio Commentary with Director Glen Morgan, Producer James Wong, and Actors Crispin Glover and R. Lee Ermey
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