It's no mystery to figure out why New Line Cinema decided to remake Willard. Just follow the money. The unconventional horror film was a sleeper hit in 1971, so it goes to figure that a new generation of teens should make like lemmings to an updated version stocked with slicker special effects, some tongue in cheek spoofing, and quirky lead actor Crispin Glover (best known for his George McFly role in Back to the Future). To appeal to the older set (like me) the promotional trailers and buzz hinted at Hitchcockian homages to Psycho and The Birds while reprising a low budget past favorite. Whether this strategy works at the box office remains to be seen, but the technically "improved" version just doesn't have the same heart of the original. But what can you expect from a committee project, created by a few of the same people that brought us Final Destination?
As Willard Stiles, Glover often hits his Anthony Perkins impersonation well—he's literally trapped by circumstances, which include his reclusive invalid mother (Jackie Burroughs), a dreary office job at the family business, and the gothic family house complete with iron bars guarding the windows. Willard lives out life's "rat race" like a hamster on an exercise wheel with no life of his own, lending a smidgen of credibility to his befriending of the bright ruby eyed white rat he dubs Socrates. This leads to accepting the immediate family, but then the cousins and extended family arrive for supper, including a monster Norwegian sewer rat the size of a Volkswagen. Like the original, Willard names this scary guy, Ben, and the big guy's aggressiveness and jealousy dominates the plot.
The camera isolates Glover with frequent close-ups, taking advantage of his dark shifty eyes and general nebbishness, but the stereotypical script doesn't allow his character to gain our sympathies like his predecessor, Bruce Davidson (who gets his own homage as Willard's deceased father, shown in a prominent portrait and numerous photographs). The script covers the obvious motivations, but glosses over the subtleties that made Davidson's character endearing. Here, the overprotective mother and tyrannical boss, effectively played by R. Lee Ermey in a reprise of his definitive drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, both play out their melodramatic parts on cue. It's almost a relief when Willard's mother dies—not only do they cover her with better makeup, but we don't have to hear her demand to examine her son's bowel movements any longer. Ermey's trademark insults are one of the film's highlights, but his eventual fate is well known even to viewers that never saw the original.
Few horror movies actually terrify, and Willard plays to the current formula by not attempting to play for this angle. Modern Cineplex audiences forgive non-scary films of the genre as long as they contain a few bloody scenes and don't take themselves seriously. Compelled to play as a bi-polar lunatic, Glover alternates between a self-loathing wimp and vicious avenger persona that contrast to the same degree as his love for Socrates and hatred for Ben. He also goes from remorseful grief to raving madness in another over the top funeral home scene, but films from the genre aren't noted for subtlety. A few comic touches are clever—like the pet cat that ventures into the den of rats and finds itself looking for rat hole escape, inadvertently turning on a humorously appropriate "easy listening" song—only to fall flat by the end. Some are far too predictable, like the obvious computer mouse joke.
Glen Morgan competently directs the project, but Willard's new digs just don't work as well as the original because the film just doesn't have the same emotional resonance. I found myself wondering how they achieved the special effects with the mice and where the hell they got that monstrous Ben from more than being concerned about the characters—this was no low budget effort using a smaller number of rats and peanut butter. Flash-forward another thirty years, and few modern audience members will remember this version with the same fondness many have for Davidson's vehicle. Perhaps the sleeker enhanced model will work with the younger set and make enough money to inspire studios to continue the formulaic cranking out of old scripts, but I wish the studios would invest the money to bring a few of these oldies back in DVD format instead.