Willard (2003) Revisited – Horror Movie Review

The Black Sheep series looks back at a box office disappointment from the early 2000s remake boom, the 2003 version of Willard

The hit and miss nature of both early 2000s horror and the premise are quite obvious in today’s selection. While the original Willard and its sequel Ben are known entities, it’s not like they are the heaviest of hitters in terms of horror property. In fact, Willard is EXACTLY the type of property that I will always argue needs a remake. Well, needs is a strong word, but it lends itself better to a remake than something as perfect as the first Halloween or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Willard is a solid movie but underseen by today’s audience and would have maybe been more attractive to the audiences of 21 years ago who maybe grew up with the original. Sadly, that didn’t happen as it was arguably one of 2003’s biggest flops and that’s a huge bummer because not only is the movie fun with great, mostly practical effects, but it is a great performance by one of cinema’s most strange performers. Crispin Glover as an outcast and kind of a weirdo who is difficult to work with but may snap at any moment is perfect casting and is one of the many reasons why Willard (watch it HERE) is a black sheep of the highest order.

Let’s go back and look at the genesis of this project. It started as a short novel called Ratman’s Notebook, written by Stephen Gilbert, in 1968. This was scooped up Bing Crosby Productions and churned into a movie that came out in 1971. That movie stars a young Bruce Davison as Willard and Ernest Borgnine in the role of his oppressive boss and the former business partner of his father. The movie did well enough that it got a sequel called Ben in 1972 which was not nearly as successful. Fast forward to 2003 and we got one of the most unlikely remakes in the beginning of the heavy remake era. The remake was produced by James Wong and Glen Morgan who have done quite a lot in the world of horror. They helped write and produce a ton of X-Files and Millennium episodes but also were behind the Final Destination series. Morgan chose to write and direct this one himself and the only other time that combination happened from him was with the 2006 Black Christmas remake, another favorite of ours here at the channel.

The cast is a fun one. Crispin Glover plays the titular rat whisperer, and it could not be better. He has a certain weirdness to him the entire movie, but he also has some growth and a bit of an arc too. He has some great subtlety like when we first see him in the house, and he doesn’t even speak for longer than the main character of a movie should. When he does talk, it’s as unhinged as you might expect what with knowing what we know about Glover the person. While there were reports of him laughing behind the scenes when R Lee Ermey was doing his yelling, it sounds like it wasn’t that weird otherwise. He wasn’t even originally going to play the part or at the very least he wasn’t the first choice. Machuly Culkin and Joaquin Phoenix both turned down the role but even before that it was written, on the set of Jet Li vehicle The One, for Doug Hutchison. That name probably doesn’t jump out as quickly but he’s the awful Percy from The Green Mile as well as Eugene Toombs from The X-Files which is one of the more memorable monster of the week villains.

Glover getting the role is a wonder but works perfectly and his own book about rats can be seen in the opening credits which is just a fun touch. Willard takes care of his old and sick mother while working at the company his father co-owned with Frank Martin. Martin had an agreement with Willards dad that he would keep him there as long as his mother was still alive. We never see his father, even in flashbacks, but he does show up in a painting in the house and its clearly Bruce Davison which is another brilliant nod. It shows the cleverness we had come to expect from Glen Morgan the writer. He takes care of his mother even though she doesn’t think very highly of him, even saying he should change his name and even calling him by this new name that he never agreed to. At work he is a pariah and even the boss, who is the only one that will talk to him, dresses him down every chance he gets. That boss, Frank Martin, is played by the legendary R. Lee Ermey.

Willard 2003 Black Sheep

Ermey had a heck of a career with well over 100 roles that he fit in over 30 years. Obviously his most famous role, one that he himself poked fun at in multiple other roles, was that of the colorful and overzealous Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. His other horror output would be in the likes of The Terror Within 2, the Body Snatchers remake from the 90s, an episode of Tales from the Crypt, The Frighteners, Seven, and the Texas Chainsaw remake from the same year as Willard among others. He dabbled in all genres and was worthy in them all including video games. While I’m here and since I never get to mention it, he also plays Bruce Campbell’s father in Brisco County. Go watch Brisco County. Willard sets rat traps in his basement to rid the house of the vermin problem but ends up helping the very first one that gets caught, a white rat that he names Socrates due to the intelligence of the creature. He finally has a real friend and also learns that he has a modicum of control over Socrates and the other rats. He continues to be late to work and berated and a new temp at work takes pity on Willard but also seems to genuinely like him.

That woman is Catherine, and she is played by Mulholland Drive’s Laura Herring. In what could have been a throwaway role, certainly since she is overshadowed by both Ermey and Glover. It’s the role of the one decent person out of the human characters and it’s definitely not as fun as the other ones. After getting pushed just a little too far this time, Willard stews in the basement and figures out that the rats will not only listen to him but can be used as weapons too. He loads them up and it’s here that we get the first look at Ben who is thicc with two c’s and is actually played by a real rat. It’s a Gambian Pouch rat and boy, are those guys not known to be small. Something to call out is that while there is some CGI throughout the movie, a lot of the stuff was done practically and looks great. Willard takes his rat army to Frank’s house and they chew into his garage and destroy the wheels on his car which makes him late to work for a change.

His mom dies and that starts the final spiral of destruction for Willard. He’s the main character we follow, sure, but I struggle to call him the protagonist or antagonist. Ben is probably the closest thing we have to a main villain in the movie besides Martin. With the death of his mother, Martin sees the opportunity to finally release Willard of his services. At this point Willard has started to take Socrates everywhere with him, including work, and at the same time that Willard has his employment ended, so too does Socrates have his little rat life snuffed out. He is found in the stockroom by one of the employees and Martin is able to corner and stab him to death. Ben silently blames Willard for it and Willard still treats Ben like a failure instead of the new leader after the death of his friend.

Willard takes the whole crew to the office after hours and Frank is cornered by Willard and his army of rats. They overpower him in a pretty cool scene and the revenge is complete. Unlike in the original movie where Willard is disgusted by the death and his power, this new Willard is compelled by his fear of getting caught and decides to kill the rest of the rats. The movie only has 2 deaths in the entire runtime but makes good use of them for both emotional punch with his mother and story progression and horror with Martin. The movie was actually intended to be an R rated affair, but the studio asked for the blood, violence, and language to be toned down in order to hit that PG-13 mark that had begun to be popular. Even with things toned down though, it all works. One of my favorite parts that uses that limitation to its benefit is when Willard find the envelope of what happened to his father. Without explicit explanation, we are shown a blood rusted pocketknife that tells us everything we need to know followed by a hell of an emotional haymaker when Willard starts to get emotional and push the thing against his own wrist. It’s a great scene and a part of a great performance that includes the deepest sadness here all the way to an almost orgasmic release of laughter when his boss is made a fool of.

Willard 2003 Black Sheep

Willard thinks he is free of the rats but finds that not only is Ben alive but has brought more with him. The police come to question him, and Cathryn comes to warn and comfort him, but the house is locked down and the police bail when they see the rats. Ben now leads the rats, and the final battle ensues with Willard coming out victorious but with nowhere to go but the asylum. He befriends another white rat, but the movie ends and we would get no sequel. Not with how badly the movie underperformed at the box office and with critics. We got a special edition DVD and Blu-ray with deleted scenes and alternate endings. While these add extra blood, they don’t make or break. The movie does just fine with its rating and content. The biggest change in the alternative scenes has the movie ending like the original did with Ben being victorious over Willard and, sequel baiting aside, I’m glad the final product was changed.

Even with its failing both critically and commercially, it is nonetheless a good viewing experience over 20 years after its release. It’s a wonderful performance from one of our most misunderstood stars and is a fun, under the radar remake that does exactly what it sets out to do. The preview alone is what seals the deal for me with the best and most obvious use of Smashing Pumpkins “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” The world may not be a vampire but lets make sure the rat doesn’t stay in its cage.

A couple of the previous episodes of The Black Sheep can be seen at the bottom of this article. To see more, head over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

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