By Clint Morris | September 21, 2003

A couple of years back you could count the number of horror remakes on one hand – two anyway. Not now. Seems remaking the old oogly booglies has become so much of a trend that the potential horror screenwriter queue has been indefinitely roped off.
For those that only know “Willard” because it’s based on an old movie that Michael Jackson sung a song for, here’s a quick history lesson. That song – ‘Ben’ – might hoodwink some to think that it was actually a cutesy little tale about a lad and his friendship with a rat. Bond between boy and rat? Sure. Cutesy? Hardly. In fact, the 1971 film was quite a nasty piece of work, telling of a man’s fascination with the rats that live in his house – ultimately using their chewing skills to help his cause.
This new “Willard” can either be seen as a remake, or a sequel. There are enough traits of the first film to consider it a rehash of the first, but there are also some elements of the film that might cause one to think it’s a follow-up, like the picture of the film’s original star, Bruce Dern, hanging up on the wall of Willard’s home. He’s obviously this new chap’s Dad.
And how better to bring to life one heck of an odd dude, but milky-skinned, lost-his-marbles-years-ago knockout Crispin Glover. Funnily enough, writer-director, Glen Morgan wanted relative unknown Doug Hutchison The Green Mile to play the lead, but thankfully he was unable to accept the role. With Glover in the driving seat, this baby really has a chance to prosper. Not to mention, disentangle as one appropriately peculiar horror piece. I mean, the hero’s surely as freaky looking as the giant rats he befriends in the film.
“Willard, there are rats in the basement”, screams the lead character’s frail mother. “I know they’re there. I can smell them. All my life I could smell mice…don’t you smell them?” And boy are there rats in the basement – to the tune of a couple of hundred or more. At first, the geekish reticent Willard plans to eliminate them with some bug squirt, but all too soon he becomes incongruously fascinated with the bunch – especially a white rat he nicknames Socrates.
Like as if he’s suddenly found a magical suit, the wimpish knockabout suddenly starts to gain confidence in himself, as if feeling his new friends will protect him at anytime, which is partly true, as we see when Willard decides he’s had enough of his snarling mean-spirited boss (R.Lee Ermey).
But Willard soon discovers his biggest threat might lie closer to home – and he’s called Ben, a big mother of a Rat that can’t take no for an answer, and has more than a vigorous appetite.
Many will be quite surprised to find the new “Willard” with a PG-13 Rating. It’s frankly rather squeamish, but obviously the MPAA doesn’t consider killing cats, squashing rats, or an abundance of blood and ick harmful to younger viewers – because it’s all here. Not that that’s a bad thing, in fact, the gore factor works a treat for the film. Coupled with Glover’s outstanding performance (the guy’s probably just playing himself), some stellar effects, excellent supporting cast (Laura Harring and Ermey are in top form), pulsating music score and effective cinematography – it’s a near perfect package. Which is even more saddening when you consider the film was a huge flop earlier this year. As you’ll learn on the DVD, the film was originally going to be a pretty hard-edged R Horror, but after test screenings reacted unfavorably to the film, it was trimmed to a PG-13, hence targeting the teenagers. Even after that, it did nothing when it was ultimately released.
A lot of the reasons why the film might not have been successful are discussed on the fantastic documentary called “The Year of the Rat”. A film student was asked to make a documentary based on the film’s pre, in and post production stages and does so admirably, capturing every bit of the process – from the trouble they had casting, to the test screenings and the eventual release, it’s all here. I don’t remember a more sincere, insightful documentary. How refreshing it is to hear people speaking honestly and not simply backslapping for a change.
The cast and creators are also on the equally entertaining commentary track, and once again – besides giving fantastic details about the production itself – talk unequivocally about the film’s potential and imminent failure.
Other extras on the disc include a selection of deleted scenes from the film, with optional commentary from Morgan. Most of these are scenes that had been taken out of the film so it could get the PG. There’s also an alternate ending on there.
In addition, there’s a fantastic new music video by Crispin Glover reworking the Jackson classic “Ben”, trailers, TV Spots and an interesting – but not as compelling as the first aforesaid featurette – feature on ‘Rat People’.
With both a widescreen version of the film (2:35.1), a fullscreen version of the film, 5.1 Dolby Digital EX 5.1 Surround Sound, and Stereo Surround Sound, “Willard” is a great DVD and hopefully it’ll have the life on DVD that it didn’t get theatrically.

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