Posted: 03/17/2003




by Coco Delgado

I know what you’re thinking. Yeah, it’s a remake. Yeah, the original was a cult classic that wasn’t all that great. But Willard is, surprisingly, quite good.

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It follows the original quite closely, but it’s more of an homage to it rather than an actual remake. The attention to detail is astounding: they made packaging up for props—labels and so forth—that are very witty and clever (a cannister of oats called “Amish Oats,” and a can of nuts with a happy, chops-licking smiley face and the name “Numm Nuts” on the label). When this film was made, the people involved had their tongues soldered firmly to their cheeks, and they had fun with it.

It makes the film, this almost psychological obsession with the little things 99% of your audience won’t notice. There’s a dial phone in the kitchen, and on the wall is a Martin and Stiles calendar, the company owned by Willard’s father and his partner. When Willard gets fired, the letter is on company letter with a logo and an address. Okay, it’s not a real address, but it’s an address…The fact that they created letterhead for one scene says a lot about the thought that went into the creation of this film.

But this pinnacle of this brilliance is displayed in the pictures of Willard’s late father that appear in several scenes. They are nothing less than inspired genius. I don’t think anyone at my showing got it, however.

There’s a wonderful sense of timelessness about Willard. The house he lives in looks as though it’s not been changed since the mid-50’s, and it enhances this feeling; yet there are cell phones, The Victor rat traps Willard uses have a website URL stamped on them, and, in the (dark) comic-relief “cat vs. rat” scene, the cat turns on the cable TV “radio” (which also gives us the chance to hear Michael Jackson sing “Ben,” the top-10 hit from the sequel of the same name. Be sure to check out the video for “Ben” as performed by Crispin Clover on the website, too). In a scene near the end, the girl who likes Willard drives a Volkswagen Beetle. An original, not a modern one. I believe the girl in the original also drove a Beetle; I was impressed that they didn’t update that part of the movie. I think a lot of this is due to the director, Glen Morgan, having been a writer first. He has written a few screenplays and several television episodes, including The X-Files, which also gets a sly tribute in one scene. Writers are the clever idea people, and this movie is filled with clever ideas.

Crispin Glover as Willard Stiles… Well, he’s excellent in the role. He does the barely controlled ineffectual rage thing brilliantly and like nobody else. But part of what made the original so creepy was that Bruce Davison, the original Willard, was this blond, curly-haired, cherubic-looking young man who seemed, on the surface, suffused with innocence. He was shy and introverted, but you didn’t get the idea he could be evil…so when he revealed his darker side, it was another little shock. Crispin Glover, now…you expect him to go berserk and train rats to kill people. But then again, we know what happens in this version—the movie knows we know it and doesn’t pretend otherwise—so maybe they don’t mind losing that little surprise.

The people involved also seem to be Hitchcock fans. The debt owed to The Birds is evident in the scene where Willard takes the rats to visit his boss. The rats, too, are good “actors.” Real rats, as well as animatronic rats, were used in the film, and the real rats were trained to do many of the tricks. Ben is played by a real rat, an African Gambian Rat, the largest species. According to the site: they’re about 5 times larger than the common Norwegian Rat. I thought perhaps he was some sort of possum or a mechanical rat, because he really is that huge.

The only bad part of the movie was that someone brought their 4 year old child to see it. This child would not shut up during the movie. “Why’s he doing that? Is that rat his friend? Is he crying? Who is that?” Apart from the whole “who-brings-a-little-kid-to-a-movie-like-Willard” thing which I don’t begin to understand, I can only imagine they thought it would be a cute little rodent movie, like Stuart Little or something. The mind reels.

Willard’s boss tells him, “Business is a rat race. You have to work to keep from being devoured by the other rats.” So, obviously, this remake isn’t trying to be serious…it’s trying to update and honor an old favorite, and make a few inside jokes to those of us who liked it, too.

Coco Delgado lives in Cambridge-Somerville and always sits in the front row. Her 2003 New Years resolution is to see more than the 66 movies she saw last year.

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