I loved Crispin Glover as Willard, but I had also loved the young Bruce Davidson in the role. Bruce played Willard as socially inept & lonely, but Crispin refashions the character as exaggeratedly neurotic & a speck less sympathetic.
Crispin is enough of a Goth in his actual life that playing Willard wasn't a big stretch. He out-did the original Willard for personal strangeness. For the few who may not have noticed, the original Willard, as played by Bruce Davison, appears in the oil painting & photographs of the remake as Willard's dad. That was a cute tip o' the hat to Bruce.
The films were based on the 1968 novel The rat Man's Notebook (reprinted as Willard after the 1971 film) by Stephen Gilbert. The new film gives credit mainly to the previous movie script version. Stephen Gilbert is the pen name of Gilbert Ralston, who wrote many teleplays in the 1950s & 1960s, & the Willard screenplay based on his own book, as well as the sequel Ben.
Many changes from the original film version, but the storeroom slaughter of innocent Socrates is unchanged, & very unpleasant for those of us who love rats. In the original film, when Willard went rabid, he killed many of the rats by drowning them. That scene is not repeated, & they also did not use the bigger budget to show more animal torture, it's brushed through -- really nearly every possibly disgusting moment of animal abuse in the film is underplayed, & only the death of Socrates is particularly graphic.
There is more open hostility between Ben & Willard than in the original, but as in the original, that things go badly is because Willard rather than Ben is finally crazy. Ben just wants to be loved, but if he won't be loved, then he'll at least for being in charge. There's a stronger element of "Frankenstein monster" in this version, because Ben is not a regular rat like in the original, but a giant pouch rat, easily twice the size of the biggest Norwegian rat you'll ever see.
The pouched rat who played Ben was not as friendly as the other 500 rat cast members, & it is funny to see how they keep Crispin from actually having to risk getting bitten while interacting with an only semi-tame big rodent. I'd lay odds the wranglers got bit. Though a well-raised pouched rat can be quite friendly, they never get over not wanting to be grabbed & hugged, so personal interaction & handling limitations made the original Ben a better star -- but physically the new Ben is damned amazing.
Glover's Willard doesn't ever treat Ben well though Ben is just trying to be loving & involved in everything, & does not want to be left out -- just as Victor Frankenstein rejected his creation & all its bad acts were the direct result of the monster's quest for a loving parent. Even at the end, the fact that Willard survives to live in the madhouse means the rats never stopped loving him, as they could have killed him easily after he turned against them, but all Ben did was bite Willard's nose, & still they all still spared Willard, because rats really are kind at heart, which 1972's original sequel Ben also understood, as Ben bonds with a clever child & the child tries to save Ben from the terrible road of destruction.
There's a final silhouetted image of horror in the remake of Willard which suggests Ben was finally killed, but it was just a silhouette, so we don't have to believe that, & the script definitely left open the option of doing a sequel if it seemed profitable, & that means Ben's alive, Willard's alive, & there certainly could be an actual Willard II rather than a remake of Ben devoid of Willard.
Willard's mom previously was Elsa "Bride of Frankenstein" Lancaster. Who could be a better actor than her? Well, I was surprised that Jackie Burroughs is vastly more disgusting, & more comical & pathetic, more captivating than was Lancaster.
If anyone thought they sort-of recognized Jackie Burroughs, well, you might've seen her in David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone. She brought such grace of movement to the disgusting Mrs. Stiles because her training is in jazz dance performance. I'm so amazed she was willing to be so disgusting because in reality she's an attractive old woman, but goes right over the top being ugly & repulsive in this.
The original Willard was about an outcast getting even with the world, then turning against even his friends, the rats. But the remake has much more of an element of the clash of wills between Willard & Ben ala Victor Frankenstein & his monster. Both versions center around a character study, of the personality of Willard himself, & both for the 1970s, & for today, horror stories that hinge on characterization are great rare joys.
But I must admit I wanted an entirely different ending. Willard has a wonderful speech near the end when he is whinging & tells Ben, "You can live anywhere, I have to stay here." It was really a very good point. Part of their falling out was that Willard had a very small heart, only enough love in him for one rat, not two, & he only loved Socrates. He admits he loved his mother, but not as much as he loved Socrates, & since Socrates' corpse went into his dad's ashes, he must've loved his dad too. But he only really loves Socrates. Not his parents, not the other rats, not even Ben. Just Socrates.
The death of Socrates, due to his own weakness really, was when Willard's attitude agianst Ben could've changed, but didn't. He could have shifted his love to Ben, who would always have protected him. There were strong intimations in the plot that Ben thought he should be in charge, not necessarily from alpha aggression but because Willard wasn't strong enough to make it all work out for everyone.
So here's my alternative ending to this emotional set-up: When Willard gives his speech about Ben's superiority -- Ben's ability to live anywhere, but Willard stuck in this world that had no place for him any more -- that's when Ben should've become the real "Boss," & use his enormous hole-chewing ability to chew for Willard one big-ass rat-hole so Willard could go with Ben & the army of rats into the sewers & the underworld.
The last imagine of Willard would then be not as a madman in an institution, but as a madman free & liberated by Ben, Ben's first-lieutenant in a dark underworld where Willard could be dementedly happy. Willard -- the biggest sewer rat of all time, led, protected & assisted by the smarter & ultimately saner Ben.
That ending could've been "sicker" funnier & more romantic, & less a reference to the endungeoned loony ending from Alfred Hitchock's Psycho. It would also have made the film really distinct from the original Willard rather than just a bigger budget remake.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl