Rats everywhere! After 15 years, we take a look back at Willard (2003), from director Glen Morgan. Willard is based on the 1969 novel Ratman’s Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert and the 1971 film, also titled Willard, starring Bruce Davison. The film’s dark demeanor and sad titular character balance out the creepiness of the army of rats that do his bidding.
Welcome to Willard
Willard is a quiet man, verbally abused by his mother (played by Jackie Burroughs) at home, and verbally abused by his boss (played by R. Lee Ermey) at work. Willard‘s mother, Henrietta, insists that there are rats in the old house’s cellar. We spend the first fifteen minutes or so of the film watching Willard travel back and fort to the store, trying to find the best way to rid the old home of its rodents. However, when a white rat becomes stuck to one of the glue traps, Willard‘s sweet nature causes him to pity the creature. He cleans him up and gives him the name Socrates. Willard finally feels he has a friend in his rodent companion.
Willard soon realizes he has a connection with the inhabitants of his basement and can command them to do his will. Unfortunately, the largest rat, whom Willard names Big Ben, seems to be jealous of the attention Socrates receives from Willard and begins to go rogue. Willard struggles to make it to work on time, and is very behind on his work. As the company used to be owned by his late father, the current owner, Frank Martin, allows Willard to work there, however he berates him daily in front of the other employees. The only other employee that seems to sympathize with Willard is Cathryn, his sweet and caring co-worker played by the lovely Laura Elena Harring.
Willard soon grows tired of being treated so poorly by his boss and orders his rats to chew through the tires on Mr. Martin’s new car. After Willard‘s mother dies, and Socrates meets his untimely death at the hands of Mr. Martin, the rats begin to take over the house. As things get worse and worse for Willard, he decides to use his rodent army to take down the oppressive Frank Martin. In the end, we find our main character hidden away in a mental institution with another white rat, reminiscent of Socrates, waiting for their time to come.
“Willard is a tragically tormented character..”
Box Office and Reception
Willard opened in theaters on March 14, 2003 and earned roughly $7 million. The film had a budget of $20 million. Unfortunately, March of 2003 featured two other horror-esque film releases. The Day the Earth Stood Still, the remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic, starring Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly opened on March 4, 2003. March 21, 2003 brought another sci-fi/horror film adaptation in the form of Dreamcatcher, the film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name. While Willard saw more success than The Day the Earth Stood Still, Dreamcatcher raked in nearly $34 million domestically and $75 million worldwide.
Roger Ebert gave Willard 2.5 stars and while he didn’t seem to love the film, he did believe that “the best thing in the movie [was] Crispin Glover’s performance. He affects dark, sunken eyes, and a slight stoop, and is very pale, and has one of those haircuts that shouts out: Look how gothic and miserable I am”. That seems like a pretty great desccription to me.
Let’s Talk About Crispin Glover
For a story like this, you need an actor who can capture the sadness of Willard as well as his deep anger he cannot properly express. On top of that, you need an actor who won’t loose their mind being surronded by hundreds of rats. Enter the amazing Crispin Glover. Crispin Glover’s portrayal of Willard is a wonderfully emotional performance. It is a role that shows just how wide a range of emotion Glover is able to portray. Glover’s choice of characters over the years has always been interesting, and the role of Willard is no exception.
Over the years, critics and fans have called Glover odd and weird. Unable to fully understand this man, the entertanment industry often doen’t know quite what to do with Glover. The actor is a true original. In an interview in 2003 with AV Club, Glover described his approach to playing Willard:
I aspire toward getting real thoughts and emotions, and there are a lot of emotional themes in the film. I had to concentrate a lot to get to those points, so you have to stay in a certain frame of mind.
You find yourself wanting to cry with him in one scene, and then in the next you’re terrified of the crazed look in his eyes. Willard is a tragically tormented character. At the beginning of the film, Glover exudes the sympathetically tragic innocence of Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates when we first meet him in Psycho. But by the end of the film you are not sure where he falls on the ‘ole good vs. evil spectrum.
While the film is not gory or full of scares, it is an eerily creepy tale of revenge. The gore is left to the imagination, and audiences are left with the swarming of rats to leave them squirming in their seats. Beyond all the rats, the film is shot beautifully with some very interesting camera shots.
The first of the scenes is in the store when we see Willard looking at the various modes of pest control. The camera quickly shifts fom his expession to whatever he is looking at. We go from item to item, as if we the camera is from Willard‘s perspective. It makes for an interesting perspective early in the film. We also get some amazing close-up shots of Crispin Glover’s face coming right at the camera. These shots really emphasize the character’s mood as it is so often clearly displayed on his face.
It is worthy to note that in 2004, Robert McLachlan took home the CSC Award at the Canadian Society of Cinematographers Awards for Best Cinematography in Theatrical Feature for this film. An award rightfully earned if I say so myself.
Overall, Willard is a unique and unsettling film. While the overall tone of the film is dreary and quiet, you find solace in the sweet bond between Willard and Socrates. This makes the film an interesting emotional journey.
Now, it’s time to go get yourself a pet rat and stay creepy fiends.