1971’s “Willard” is a movie that definitely happened. It was shockingly influential and even spawned a loose sequel involving one of the film’s rat villains Ben, called “Ben.” It was also a movie, mostly known for the title song by Michael Jackson. I don’t blame the studios for wanting to remake “Willard,” as it’s definitely a great idea that had a less than entertaining end result. Sadly, much of Glen Morgan’s treatment feels like Tim Burton lite with a heavy reliance on the career revivals of R. Lee Ermey and Crispin Glover of the early aughts.
Willard (Crispin Glover) is a tightly wound man living in his childhood home, tasked with taking care of his ailing mother, Henrietta (Jackie Burroughs). The domestic duty and depression puts Willard at odds with his boss, Frank (R. Lee Ermey), who’s taken control of a family business that was once promised to Willard, who’s now at risk of losing his job. Offering comfort is a family of rats living in Willard’s basement, with one named Socrates, who is providing companionship while another, Ben, is oversized and vindictive. Realizing that he can communicate with the rodents, Willard uses his newfound powers to lead his rat army into acts of revenge, gradually losing touch with reality. All the while a compassionate temp, Cathryn (the beautiful Laura Elena Harring), tries to offer a semblance of kindness and sanity.
Glen Morgan’s treatment of “Willard” is about what’s to be expected, as he basically doesn’t re-think the premise of the original film. Save for a fleeting cameo by original star Bruce Davison, “Willard” opts for a darkly Gothic tone that feels like it’s aping Tim Burton. The tone would have worked wonders with a much more competently made and tense film. Sadly, Morgan really just seems to let Crispin Glover and R. Lee Ermey do what they’re famous for, and just rolls the camera. Ermey is given seeming carte blanche to be R. Lee Ermey, except as a horrible miser who makes Willard’s life abundantly miserable. Aside from the rats, Ermey’s character poses a huge threat his livelihood.
There isn’t an interesting dynamic with the rats here either, as Glover never seems to be eerily connected to them which would have injected a lot more macabre tension. Like Davison he seems to have a hard time building considerable tension. Even the better set pieces are botched, including Willard’s new cat being horribly maimed by his legion of rats. Meanwhile Laura Elena Harring’s role is pretty thankless, which is a shame as her role proves to be crucial. “Willard” is one of the many dull remakes from the early aughts, and doesn’t re-invent the original films, but instead recycles them in to forgettable genre entries.
The release from Shout! includes a commentary with writer/director Glenn Morgan and cinematographer Robert McLachlan, a second commentary with Boone’s Animals for Hollywood employees Mark Harden and David Allsberry, and a third commentary with Morgan, producer James Wong, and actors Crispin Glover and R. Lee Ermey. “The Road to ‘Willard'” is an exhaustive and comprehensive eighty minutes interview with Glenn Morgan who discusses his career in length. Among the topics are his early interest in drawing, which led him into movie appreciation, becoming creative partners with Wong, how they worked their way into Hollywood employment, and making a first impression with a script for “The Boys Next Door.” Morgan also talks about his time working on the cult classic “Trick or Treat,” moving to television, and joining the team at “21 Jump Street” before arriving on “The X-Files.”
He also goes over building a relationship with creator Chris Carter, making “Final Destination.” Morgan discusses “Willard” eventually including the bidding war behind it, his approach to the remake, and how folks like Joaquin Phoenix and Macaulay Culkin were up for the main role before Glover was secured. Morgan also talks the daily life with rats, emotional scenes, and the disastrous theatrical cut debacle, where he was forced by New Line to follow trends and turn his R-rated approach into a more commercial PG-13 film, et al. “Destination ‘Willard'” is a forty five minutes sit down with cinematographer McLachlan, who covers his early creative outlets, his building skills through industrial movies and commercials, and his ecological fight with Greenpeace before returning to entertainment. McLachlan also discusses his work on “Freddy vs. Jason,” “Black Christmas” (a picture he swears was butchered by the Weinsteins), et al.
“The Rat Trainer’s Notebook” is an eleven minutes showcase of work from Boone’s Animals for Hollywood, sharing rat rehearsal footage, where the animals were taught to navigate around objects and environments, and even “attack” actors. “The Year of the Rat” is yet another extensive BTS offering from Julie Ng, who was tasked by Morgan to cover the “Willard” production experience fully. Armed with a camera and access to anywhere she wanted to go, Ng is a fly-on-the-wall, viewing daily life, making time to interview production heads while capturing Morgan in action. She also catches pre and post-production, and the feature’s disastrous release. “Rat People: Friend and Foes” is more vintage mid-2000’s filler, at eighteen minutes. It offers a history of rats and their position as an enemy to some and friend to others.
Myths are challenged, and superfans are visited, including one female rat fan who wishes she could control her pet rats to help murder her enemies. “Ben” is a music video, with Crispin Glover covering a song once made famous by Michael Jackson. It includes optional commentary from Glover. There are twenty five minutes of Deleted Scenes with bits and pieces of character moments, including the original ending of the film. They can be viewed with or without commentary from Morgan, Wong, and stars Glover, and Ermey. Finally, there are ten original TV Spots for “Willard,” and the original theatrical trailer.