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  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan

from Film Forum, 03/20/03

Willard (New Line) is Glen Morgan's remake of a 1971 horror movie. Bruce Davison, the first Willard, played an oppressed employee who used his unique connection with rats to lash out at his abusive employer. Davison appears in the 2003 version too, but only as a smiling portrait in a frame, suggesting that he is the father of the new Willard, played by Crispin Glover.

Willard is a grown man who still lives like an abused child at home, plagued by an ailing mother who constantly assails him with critical remarks and oppressive worrying. A social outcast, haunted, hunched, and harried, Willard takes comfort in the company of the only creature who will take notice of him … a white rat named Socrates. This emotional friendship leads Willard into favor with the rest of the rats, a nasty hoard of filthy monsters. Soon, they become his servants. Given such a remarkable resource, what does Willard do? He determines to get even with the world, starting with his abusive employer (R. Lee Ermey).

Glover is one the big screen's most memorably peculiar actors. Who can forget his stammering, insecure performance as George McFly in Back to the Future? Even his smaller appearances were unconventional enough to steal scenes from the lead actors in Wild at Heart, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and Dead Man. But Willard gives Glover an excuse to unleash all of his comical and creepy behaviors. Like Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, Glover's Willard is one of those rare roles in which the actor seems to have been born for the part.

And he's not the only thing the film has going for it. As a horror film, Willard avoids indulgent gore and restrains scenes of violence, focusing instead on Willard's state of mind. Morgan's direction is stylish, and the cinematography effectively gloomy and gothic. The supporting actors turn in strong work. And while the story is told in bold strokes, there is plenty of subtle humor on the edges, like the ice cream truck in the distance that always plays "Three Blind Mice."

Willard gains our sympathy because we feel sorry for him in his persecuted state. We understand his frustrations with others. And it is easy to understand why he has grown up uncomfortable around women, even the one who seems interested in connecting with him (Laura Elena Harring).

And yet, the damage Willard has suffered has made him dangerous and demented. Instead of looking for a way out of his distress or noticing the chances for grace and companionship offered to him, he focuses on vicious revenge. As his violence-by-rodent escalates into personal assaults, the movie refuses to glorify his rage, leading us to respond to the attacks with increasing dismay. (There is uncomfortable laughter too; Morgan's tone remains tongue-in-cheek.) The rats are clearly a symbol of Willard's low self-image and baser tendencies. We come to hope that he will refrain from abusing his gift for communicating with animals, but as his anger gets the better of him, the film is honest enough to show that such behavior leads only to further chaos. (I imagine this is a theme that audiences will revisit soon when another uniquely gifted individual comes under the influence of reckless anger in The Hulk.)

Thus, Willard ends up as a cautionary fairy tale. I wouldn't recommend you take the family, as the film is dark and troubling. But if you want a lesson in eccentric acting, or if you are interested in a nightmarish story well told, Willard is a noteworthy effort, a fully realized vision in a season of mediocrity.

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) was not so impressed, but he does give the film a qualified pass. He says the movie is "decidedly not for all tastes," but that it "effectively works on the audiences' nerves where so many horror films deliver only gross-outs." Greydanus concludes, "The original … was not a movie that cried out for a remake. Given the decision to make one, though, it's hard to imagine a more fitting casting choice than Crispin Glover."

Other religious critics are quite dissatisfied with the affair. Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "[Willard] is a creepy cross between George McFly and Norman Bates which … makes it hard to root for him for long. The film, like Glover's performance, starts out intriguingly quirky, then unravels into a pitiful, manic mess. Of all the reasons for teens to avoid Willard, that may be reason enough."

I didn't feel the film is urging us to root for Willard. I had the distinct feeling that while we're initially excited that Willard stands up for himself, the filmmakers lead us to be horrified by the consequences of such actions. If you see Willard, let me know what you think. Is this a dark fable about the wages of sin, or merely an indulgent tale of revenge?

(For an array of mainstream press reviews of Willard, click here.)