Willard exists for a certain kind of audience, one that might too easily be pegged as "sci-fi/horror geeks," but would actually include anyone who is aware of irony and can see the humor in twisted scenarios. I'd like to think former X-Files writer, Glen Morgan (who produced Willard along with his X-Files writing-partner-in-crime, James Wong) understands this -- that this re-make of the 1971 horror movie about a misfit who controls an army of killer rats can't possibly be taken fully at face value, and that its target audience will be in on the joke. Some of the audience may shudder at prolonged shots of Ben, the largest killer rat, looking straight into the camera; but the target audience will see Ben, and chuckle -- because the idea of a giant rat staring you down through the eyes of jealousy is funny in a twisted way.
I feel like I'm trying to explain why a joke is funny, and I shouldn't be -- you'll either get it, or you won't. For those who appreciate dark fun with a slice of camp, a dose of B-movie sensibility, and a side of over-the-top performances, Willard offers a good time. Morgan adapted Gilbert Ralston's screenplay and directed this new version in a mostly straightforward way, so that it can work as a creepfest -- especially for anyone afraid of rats. But to remind us he knows who this movie really may be reaching, Morgan includes sly humor, references to Hitchcock, and, yes, a wicked scene set to Michael Jackson's "Ben," the theme song to the original Willard's 1972 sequel.
Morgan also unleashes Crispin Glover, who has essentially been entrusted with the keys to the movie. His job involves making the put-upon Willard sympathetic and psychotically unstable at the same time. It's normally something I'd imagine Glover being able to do in his sleep, but here he decides to hold nothing back. His Willard is George McFly to the nth degree -- super-twitchy, very shifty, ultra-emphatic body language, and lots and lots of screaming. It's as if Faye Dunaway's Joan Crawford possessed Norman Bates. And it's actually quite effective -- Glover's performance, bordering on camp as it is, contributes nicely to the movie's overall tongue-in-cheek feel. And yet, at the same time, his portrayal is strangely touching -- I admit I actually felt for the poor guy, especially when he would confide in his favorite rat, Socrates, or whenever his boss got on his case.
Speaking of the boss, he's played by R. Lee Ermey, who matches Glover with a performance equally extreme. His unredeemably evil villain contributes a lot to building even more viewer sympathy for Willard. How the viewers may involve themselves using that sympathy is arguable, though -- some may shed tears for Willard, but more will probably role-play by wondering what it'd be like to command a legion of vermin, thus being able to wreak vengeance on hated bullies through these rodents.
The movie runs smoothly for the most part, but misfires a bit with its ending, one that hinges on an underdeveloped sub-plot involving a woman named Cathryn (Laura Elena Harring). She's supposed to be Willard's choice for an alternative -- to have a human friend as opposed to a rodent one. But Harring isn't asked to do much with Cathryn other than show pity for Willard, and Willard doesn't respond strongly. It makes the impetus for the beginning of the final act feel unearned.
Willard works because it wants to be The Birds but feels more like Gremlins instead. Somehow, being in the middle of those two movies, it becomes a creature of its own -- not as serious as the Hitchcock film, not as overtly silly as the Dante film. If you tune into its wavelength, you may find yourself smirking as Willard learns to control his minions with the words "in," "out," and "tear it"; and you'll dig the scene where he emerges from a mountain of rats. Most of all, you may find youself in a twisted mood and actually care about Socrates while pondering how it would feel to have a friend like Ben.
P.S. Listen to the song over the credits, then check to see who sang it...
(Released by New Line Cinema and rated "PG-13" for terror/violence, some sexual content and language.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.