Willard (2003)

C+ Written for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Office of Film and Broadcasting. SDG

The original 1971 Willard, a nasty B-grade horror flick about an oppressed misfit whose only friends are an ever-growing army of rats, was not a movie that cried out for a remake. Given the decision to make one, though, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting casting choice than Crispin Glover.

2003, New Line. Directed by Glen Morgan. Crispin Glover, R. Lee Ermey, Laura Elena Harring, Jackie Burroughs.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value

+1 / -2

Age Appropriateness


MPAA Rating


Caveat Spectator

Menacing scenes and some violence; some crass language and minor profanity; religious questioning.

Glover exudes an aura of eccentricity and underlying menace that gives the title character in the new Willard (New Line) credibility even as he goes over the top in grandly camp style. Equally florid performances from Jackie Burroughs as Willard’s decrepit harridan mother and R. Lee Ermey as his abusive boss complete the grotesque psychological scenario, with Laura Elena Harring providing the movie’s sole glimpse of humanity as a sympathetic coworker.

Stylish and self-aware, director Glen Morgan’s disturbing film combines Freudian symbolism and a frightful morality-play sensibility with cinematic references to Hitchcock, Tim Burton, and the original Willard. The end result is decidedly not for all tastes, nor is it without structural and psychological flaws. Yet Willard succeeds in effectively working on the audiences’ nerves, unlike so many horror films that deliver only gross-outs.

When we first meet Willard Stiles, he’s a pathetic figure bereft of dignity, purpose, companionship, almost of identity. Work and home are both a living hell in which he lives in the shadow of his dead father. The elder Stiles’s portrait (actually of actor Bruce Davison, the original Willard) and cremated remains loom over him in the parlor of their run-down, Gothic family home, and the old man’s name is on the masthead of the manufacturing company where Willard barely retains his menial job.

Willard’s galling exchanges with his monstrous mother are clearly meant to evoke the kind of relationship Norman Bates must have had with his mother while she was alive. Even more humiliating, if only because there are witnesses, are the daily harangues of his boss, who endures Willard’s chronic lateness and incompetence solely for the sake of his dead father and dying mother.

When Willard first becomes aware of the rats in the dark basement of their old house, he makes an effort to deal with the infestation, but is no more effectual here than in any other area of his life. Bewildered by the array of trap and poison options, dismayed at the pitiful sight of a rat partially immobilized by a glue trap, Willard winds up befriending the creatures. In fact, he seems to have an almost paranormal bond with the rats, suggesting a symbolic correspondence between the teeming denizens of his basement and the repressed emotions in his own subconscious mind.

The Freudian symbolism is heightened as two of the rats emerge as personalities. The first is Socrates, the small, sensitive white rat to whom Willard is particularly attached. The other is Big Ben, a grotesquely oversized, menacing creature who, like the others, seems willing to defer to Willard’s wishes, but whom Willard can never really control.

As Willard nurses his dark secret instead of battling it, the problem becomes harder to hide and confine, and begins to take over his life. The rats act as proxies of Willard’s own suppressed rage and hatred, first subconsciously but then consciously, till eventually the consequences of allowing aggression to fester can no longer be ignored.

One by one, the major characters each reap what they have sown. A cruel sequence involving a doomed cat provides a contrasting example of a victim whose fate is undeserved; this appalling scene underscores the horror of the out-of-control situation in which not only the guilty are at risk. (An earlier scene in which a dog gets off relatively unscathed reveals, perhaps, where the filmmakers’ sympathies lie.)

Although Willard’s persecutors are as utterly lacking in redeeming qualities as the nasty characters from a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, the film never forgets that Willard himself, though the main character, isn’t the hero. Willard is a story of revenge, but it’s not a revenge fantasy; despite some sympathy for the protagonist, he’s too alienating and obviously disturbed to identify with.

The film’s one point of emotional connection for the audience is Catherine (Harring), a compassionate, down-to-earth coworker who reaches out to Willard, sympathetically overlooking his evident foibles, unfazed even by the alarming condition of his house or the strange state of his bathroom. When she realizes the enormity of Willard’s pathology, Cat can only back away in horror and disgust. This is the only sane response to Willard, and the movie knows it.

Because of some grisly violence and menace, a depiction of a character viewing online pornography and an allusion to autoeroticism, some crude language, an instance of profanity, and an instance of rough language, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops classification is A-IV - adults, with reservations. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 - parents are strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

Comedy, Drama, Horror