Stephen Gilbert’s novel Ratman’s Notebook inspired the relatively successful 1971 film Willard, the story of an introverted dweeb played by Bruce Davison who befriends a horde of rats and commands them to do his bidding. The film was shortly followed by its sequel, Ben, which featured the Oscar-nominated Don Black and Walter Scharf song of the same name that was made popular by the Jackson 5 and referenced some 25 years later by Pearl Jam in their song “Rats.” Gilbert (alias Gil Ralston) made quite a name for himself writing for television shows like “I Spy” and the ‘80s installment of “Alfred Hitchock Presents.” These seemingly trivial details simultaneously highlight and burden 2003’s Willard, which stars Crispin Glover as the titular weirdo who summons the rats living inside his basement to kill his boss.
Director Glen Morgan’s update of the 1971 screenplay deliriously references everything from Psycho and The Birds to Black and Scharf’s classic song and the original version of the film (Davison appears in photographs as Glover’s deceased father). These allusions work for the most part but Willard often plays out like a lame impersonation of a Tim Burton film. Morgan’s gothic sensibility is perhaps informed by his years working on shows like “The X-Files” and “Millennium” but if you close your eyes you’ll swear that composer Shirley Walker was under duress to produce a Danny Elfman score. For all its aesthetic cribbing, the film is still a marvel to behold. Indeed, the film’s rigorous compositions have a way of exaggerating the claustrophobic death-grips many of the film’s characters have over Willard.
Willard is nowhere near as quirky as it thinks it is, mostly because Morgan never truly finds an even balance between the film’s humor and its horror. (Then again, Willard is infinitely more even paced than the atrocious Bartleby, which also starred Glover as a passive aggressive office employee at odds with his boss.) The relationships between the film’s human characters are dimension-less, with the possible exception of the strange dynamic shared by Glover’s Willard and his sickly mother (played by a brilliant Jackie Burroughs). Their scenes together contemplate the kind of relationship Norman Bates and his mother probably had before Norman had her stuffed. Morgan seems to toy with the idea that Willard’s mother might not even exist; that he sustains this possibility for so long is arguably the film’s finest achievement.
Then there are the rats. Willard is unlikely to win them any fans but their relationship to Willard is both frightening and strangely endearing, not unlike Glover’s performance. The lonely Willard learns to control his pesky friends but incurs the wrath of the grotesquely overgrown Big Ben when he focuses all his attention on the lily-white Socrates. Morgan subtly compares Big Ben’s dilemma to that of a jealous lover but more impressive is how this dilemma comes to mirror Glover’s own problems with the world. Glover’s Willard revolts against his boss’s “prudent aggression” and disturbingly rids himself of his rodent disciples once his thirst for revenge has been quenched. In turn, he perpetuates the very cycle of contempt he seeks to destroy and ultimately learns that the only thing worse than a man or woman scorned is a rat spurned.