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WILLARD (2003) Review

About a week ago, I had a screening here in Austin for WILLARD, that remake with Crispin Glover by that wily Morgan & Wong pair. Why was I having a screening of WILLARD?

Well, it was Dorothy Parker’s 30th Birthday on this particular day, and I had been trying to think of something fun to do for her for, well, what can sometimes be a tragic messed up age change. I had seen her flip out for WILLARD based on the trailer, which I loved, with the exception of the SMASHING PUMPKINS’ song over it, which completely did not fit. So I wondered if I could get New Line to set up an early screening of the film on her b-day. When I called New Line they asked me if I wanted Crispin Glover at the screening, and I knew there was only one possible answer to that question. ABSOLUTELY.

I’d set up the screening to be a benefit for the Cinemaker’s Co-Op here in Austin. They’re a really great film group that does amazing experimental and fun 8mm film things, and work with low-budget filmmakers here in Austin to develop and encourage. I figure, there’s nothing better than getting a studio to help benefit future filmmakers working on the fringe. The experimentals of the world, so rarely get support, this’d be a good thing!

Now, I have to say I was nervous about the WILLARD screening because the second I heard that Crispin Glover was cast as WILLARD, I went nuts. He was genetically engineered to play the part. Hell, he wrote a book called RATCATCHING for Christ’s sakes… He’s got that look about him that would make you think that perhaps, it could be possible, that his only friends would be cheese-eaters.

HOWEVER, the fear lay with Morgan & Wong, who have had a very spotty film output. I loved the trailers for THE ONE, but came out of the movie so angry that I was spitting nails. How a film with such dynamic HOLY SHIT moments like the motorcycle slap, or the Jet vs. Jet showdown, could then be scored with completely inappropriate METAL soundtracks, thus killing all mood, atmosphere and tension… Instead replacing it with aggravation, annoyance and frustration. Sigh… Then FINAL DESTINATION was completely lost on me. Sure the deaths were kinda cool, but essentially it felt like a movie where I would want chapter stops on the DVD to just go to the death scenes, because I didn’t really care for any of the characters. This wasn’t boding well for WILLARD.

WILLARD isn’t really a HORROR movie, it is supposed to be one of those quirky weird tales about a lonely abused boy that loves a rat, and many other rats love that rat and listen to him. But then there’s another rat that is jealous and wants Willard to care for him too… and things go wrong, as often they do in complicated love triangles.

WILLARD is the sort of movie you could imagine someone like Tim Burton directing. Someone with a light touch, that understood that the movie had to be quiet, not noisy and POP. This should be an elegant story that unfolds. The creeps should come from the atmosphere, the spine-tingles from the delicious wrongness of moments, not from atonal sub-bass trembles and high-treble chalk-board fingernail scrapes.

When I got to the Drafthouse a week ago and saw the line of anxious attendees, I knew… this was the perfect audience for the movie I hoped to be seeing. The theme song or anthem to the audience that showed up for this movie would be The Doors’ “PEOPLE ARE STRANGE”. They all had that sort of vibe, plus we had one girl in a full body Rat costume, and by the way, this was her regular attire, I’ve seen her around Austin for years. This was the perfect audience for a Crispin Glover movie. Folks that are fans of keen behavior, observers of the unusual, fetishists of fetishists. If only the film will deliver.

Before the film, I met Morgan & Wong and Crispin. They all looked a tad nervous, but excited. Turns out this was the first time they were to see the final print with an Audience. I wouldn’t say Morgan or Wong were particularly comfortable. My gut was telling me that they didn’t know if this night was going to be a good night for them or not. This made me more nervous. Talking to Crispin a bit about silent movies and the Drafthouse put me more at ease though. I could tell, Crispin belonged in this theater where interests in the unusual is paramount. And I don’t mean “the unusual” in the “strange” way, but simply… this is a theater that is about experimentation and experience. When I told Crispin about the alternative bands that do live scores for Silent Films here, he got quite excited, then when I mentioned they sometimes do live sound-effects and dialogue to vintage erotica, he nearly flipped a lid. Crispin was home. Hehehehe.

They sat down three people down from me on the other side of my oldest best friend. Tim League came out and told us that he was going to be playing 3 special trailers before the presentation, to sort of kick the audience’s mood and vibe into overdrive.

Trailer #1: FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER – At this point I notice Crispin leans forward to put his chin very near to the table in front of him with a huge smile on his face. When in the trailer we see a pre-BACK TO THE FUTURE Crispin Glover ask loudly, “Where the hell is the corkscrew?” the audience just exploded with applause, and Crispin’s teeth began to show in his smile.

Trailer #2: TRICK OR TREAT – As this crazy cool mid-Eighties trailer appeared… I swear Glen Morgan and James Wong nearly fell out of their seats in laughter. As various dialogue hit the screen, Wong was playfully jabbing Morgan, and I knew things were going well. Btw, if you’ve never seen the trailer for TRICK OR TREAT, it actually plays like the greatest trash horror trailer ever. I mean, Gene Simmons… Ozzy Osbourne… What the hell do ya want? Hehehe…

Trailer #3: the original WILLARD trailer – This one made me a bit nervous. The original film was never one of my favorites… But these moments… Watching Bruce Davison, Ernest Borgnine and Sondra Locke and Elsa Lanchester in the trailer, I just thought… Damn, these people define these characters for me. The mood in the room became quite serious at this point. The thought… Did Tim just Cock Block the Remake crossed my mind.

The screen goes black for about a minute. I look back and through the projection window I see Tim League busily switching over to the other projector, and the film comes on.

This new WILLARD is absolutely perfect. It isn’t Space Mountain, it’s the Haunted Mansion. It is a film of atmosphere, character, emotions, weirdness, sweetness and a bit of haunted melancholy. It is a quiet film, an infested film and one of the best outsider movies I’ve seen in quite a long time. It is also a tour de force for Crispin Glover. If the audience finds the film, which isn’t necessarily guaranteed from the trailers, it could make him a star, which would be quite interesting, because he is, almost by definition a quirky character actor. One of those secret joys you see rarely in cinema.

The film begins with a stop motion animated opening title sequence that … sigh… bliss. When a rat skeleton began to come to life, I nearly started doing a drooling giggle. I love stop motion dearly, and watching that skeletal, that dirty musky skeletal rat move a bit… well it just reminded me of those 1920’s Russian Animated masterpieces I have on tape somewhere here at the house. They’re a fave of mine.

The remake of WILLARD is one of those rare perfect remakes. This isn’t about CGI, in fact the two or three big CG moments in the film, are my least favorite moments of the movie. What I love is how much realness is here. The house they’re shooting in is a co-star. The lighting on this movie was breathtaking. You could nearly smell the dust in this house. It felt like a dying residence.

The mother played by Jackie Burroughs was sheer and complete perfection. The second I saw her, I flashed to her as Christopher Walken’s mother in THE DEAD ZONE. There was an eeriness to her in that film, but here… a full 20 years later, her cheeks have sunk in, the wrinkles… what glorious wrinkles. She’s a living work of sadness and decay in the film. From the cadaverous bottoms of her feet and those hook toenails that curve like rotten claws, to her crazed moments of perverted cruel tenderness with her son… that instantly tells you why he’s not like others. He’s kept.

Actually, that’s the key to Willard Stiles. He’s a kept man. A lonely boy that exists solely because of his parents’ accomplishments, by the cruel generosity of R. Lee Ermey’s Frank Martin. He’s a lost boy in a man’s body. When he discovers there are rats in the basement, he goes to the grocery store to get something to get rid of the rats. The Grocery store is such an incredible kaleidoscope of color, yet Crispin is still muted, like he’s still in the shadows of his dying home. He’s confused by all the choices. Paralyzed by his inexperience.

I could write a few thousand words about the Character of Willard and his relationship with Socrates, the white rat. It is… I have to say, the most tender relationship I’ve ever seen on screen between an actor and an animal. Yes, I would put that right up there with Old Yeller, National Velvet and the best… SNOOPY COME HOME. But this is definitely the most complex. Complex because of the projection of intelligence, wisdom and endearment that Crispin imbues upon this rat. He gives the rat sentient wisdom beyond anything he’s ever known. I mean, he projects his father’s soul, the intelligence of everything he’s ever learned and the love he’s never had. It is so sold in the film. So tender and real. So delicate. In fact, Crispin looks almost like a porcelain doll as fragile as a Faberge Easter Egg.

Then there is BEN. Ben… Ben is. Well, he’s the biggest fucking rat that the eyes of man has ever beheld. He’s the size of a cat. Not a small cat. Ben is the reason I’m glad movies exist. I can see Ben on this screen ok? There he is. He’s alive, he’s real, he isn’t a computer effect, when Crispin picks him up by his tail, you see his arm strain. He’s heavy. And I’m so glad he’s on the screen and not in the theater with me. Not in my bedroom right now. Not about to bite me, scratch me, tear out my eyes, rip off my ears, burrow into my body and live feasting upon me for a week or two. Only to grow bigger, larger, until one day he’s knocking buildings down and holding in his mighty left paw the Statue of Liberty. Ben is amazing.

I’m going to wrap this up. I’m scared if I type too much more, I might give things away, that I don’t want to give away.

I want to repeat, this isn’t a movie about scares or horror necessarily. It has its moments. This is a beautiful quiet melancholic film about love, unrequited love, exclusion, inclusion and sadness. The film has more in common with EDWARD SCISSORHANDS in terms of tone and tenderness and the strange.

The audience I saw it with was cheering and applauding throughout, because they wanted to show Crispin how much they were loving his performance. I fear that the mainstream will not get this film, but at the very least. This will be a movie that lives forever in the homes of those that find it.

The beauty of the production design of Mark S. Freeborn, the score by Shirley Walker and the lush and beautiful cinematography by Robert McLachlan… well it really comes to life. If you want the rollercoaster, don’t go. This is a different ride, a quieter more atmospheric ride. Not even a ride, more like a midnight walk through a cemetery. Yeah, that’s it, the film feels exactly like that. The chills you get, the delicious smile as you see that graveyard mist pushed away from your feet as you walk, that feeling as you feel the cold of the marble tombstones. That sadness you have as you come across a child’s grave lit by the moonlight. That is this movie. A beautiful perversity. I hope you will appreciate and love the film as much as I did and the people I know.

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