A moderately creepy little film, "Willard" didn't gain much of an audience when it opened early this year, likely because it's more of an October picture than a March one. A remake of a 1971 picture that few have probably ever heard of, the film stars the genuinely weird Crispin Glover as the title character, a loner who is picked on by his mother, his boss (R. Lee Ermey) and just about everyone else who crosses his path in life.
One day, his mother complains of a rat infestation in the basement, sending her son down to lay some traps. Soon enough, he finds that the rats aren't really the enemy - they're actually his allies, and he find that the has the ability to communicate with them. It may sound too goofy, even for a horror movie, but director Glen Morgan's picture does manage a Burton-esque sense of the creeps that makes it at least moderately involving for the running time.
After befriending a little white rodent he dubs Socrates, he finds that seemingly hundreds of little rat buddies are lining up to do Willard's bidding, which includes revenge on those who have wronged him. However, there's some debate within the ranks - one of the older and bigger rats, Ben, resents Socrates and his role as Willard's second-in-command.
While the production design, atmosphere, Crispin Glover and his rodent co-stars (a pretty seamless mixture of real rats and CGI ones) are clearly quite good, there's a lot to "Willard" that comes up lacking. The screenplay never manages much in the way of character development, only briefly going into Willard's backstory, as well as those of the other characters. The plot is a simple, spooky revenge tale, which seems a little long at 100 minutes, especially in the mid-section, which becomes a bit dull as it starts to seem aimless. The film also doesn't exactly find a tone, as while some of the dark humor works (Willard's unexpected new kitty guest finds that it's not exactly alone in the house), the rest of it seems somewhat out-of-place in a movie that's otherwise moody and gothic.
Overall, "Willard" was a decent picture - a mildly interesting character study/horror picture that offers a good set of performances and solid amtosphere, but there's just a few too many stretches of it that are rather uneventful. Probably destined for cult film status.
VIDEO: "Willard" is presented by New Line in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 pan & scan. The disc is dual-sided, with the anamorphic widescreen presentation taking up a dual-layered side, while the pan & scan presentation is housed on a single-layer one. This is another superb offering from the studio, right up with their usual high standards. Sharpness and detail are excellent and definition remains consistently strong. Even though the film is often either dark or low-lit, a solid amount of visual information is still present.
The picture does show a tiny bit of edge enhancement at times, but other than that, it remains free of concerns. No print flaws were spotted, nor were any compression artifacts. The film's dark, muted color palette looked accurately rendered, with no concerns.
SOUND: "Willard" is presented by New Line in Dolby Digital 5.1-EX. Although a good portion of the movie remains rather dialogue-driven, there are several scenes where the noise of the rats scurrying around makes it into the rear speakers (and the rear back surround, for those who use one), with decidedly spooky results. The rear speakers also get put into use for the film's score and some very cool sound effects.
Year of the Rat: Although the commentary is the main supplement listed, this 73-minute documentary by production assistant Julie Ng is certainly the highlight of the DVD. The documentary follows the production for months, going along for everything from production meetings to "rat boot camp", where we watch as 550 rats are trained (and who were trained for months) to perform different tasks in the movie. One can see the kind of problems that can occur on a film set fairly early on in the documentary, when the production reaches a point where it's ready, a cast has not been chosen and yet, money still has to be spent on a daily basis. Much of the middle of the documentary follows the cast around as they chat about their characters and how the movie is proceeding. We also get to watch scenes being filmed, things not working or working and problems being worked out. Despite the lack of conflict (literally brought up in the documentary), this is still a very interesting behind-the-scenes effort that's worth a viewing.
Commentary: This is a commentary from writer/director Glen Morgan, producer James Wong, star Crispin Glover and star R. Lee Ermey. Glover, Wong and Morgan appear to have been recorded together, while Ermey's comments have been edited in. The commentary is a little on the subdued side, but Morgan does offer an enjoyable discussion of his experiences on "Willard" and inspirations/concepts for the picture. He does most of the talking, offering a fine overview of the production. Wong and Glover only occasionally chat, adding some information about the production or, in the case of Glover, how he shaped his performance. Ermey only chats briefly about his experiences on-set.
Also: An 18-minute documentary about real "rat people" who are fans of the rodents (such as the "Rat and Mouse Club of America"), 12 deleted scenes with optional commentary (including a longer version of the new ending that was in the picture, as well as the film's original ending); the film's trailer, TV ads and the "Ben" music video featuring Crispin Glover.
Final Thoughts: "Willard" gets the atmosphere right and offers a strong performance by Crispin Glover, but I didn't find the story terribly involving, with some noticably slow stretches. Those interested should try a rental. New Line's DVD is excellent though, with great supplements and presentation quality.