Willard (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

In the past, I have nattered on interminably about actors who were "born" or "destined" to play certain roles. Greg Kinnear, "the hardest-smirking man in show business," played his spiritual ancestor, the paterfamilias of the smirking clan, Bob Crane. On a more serious note, the classic example involves Katharine Hepburn playing Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter. Eleanor had two completely separate families, having once borne two daughters as Louis VII's queen in France, then eight more children as Henry II's queen in England. Astoundingly, Hepburn had ancestors in Eleanor's lines from both sides of the Channel. Furthermore, when the famous stage play was finally made into a movie, Ms. Hepburn was exactly the same age that Eleanor was supposed to be. The voice of fate doesn't get any more specific than that ...

... except for Matthew Lillard playing Shaggy. But that's a story for a different day. Or no day at all.

Fate's voice has just called another to the list. Crispin Hellion Glover, the oddest character actor in Hollywood, was born to play Willard, a socially awkward and mentally unstable man who has a special relationship with rats. "OK," you are thinking, "the socially awkward portion is obvious, but what about the rat obsession?" Glover has it covered. In 1989, the eccentric actor recorded an album called "The Big Problem?" which could have been the work of the character Willard himself. According to Pat Reeder, the supreme expert on eccentric albums, "Large portions consist of Glover reading excerpts from Rat Catching, a dreary 19th century book he republished after altering passages at random and adding his own bizarre illustrations of dead rats." Mind you, this was an album Glover released in 1989, more than a decade before he was cast as rat-obsessed Willard.

What about the mental instability? Let's face it, Glover's personality has more irregularities than Dick Cheney's EKG. In addition to weird CD's and books, Glover now makes his own weird films as well. "What Is It?" stars, and was written, produced, and directed by Mr. Glover, and is enigmatically described by Glover himself as "being the adventure of a young man whose principal interests are snails, salt, a pipe, and how to get home...as told through the eye of an hubristic, racist, monarchy..." Whatever that means. As Pat Reeder wrote in Hollywood Hi-Fi, "If there is a thin line between brilliance and insanity, Crispin Glover completely erases it." Sanity may be defined in many different ways, but if one equates insanity with "being completely out of touch with reality", Glover is the poster boy. How out of touch is he? Time Magazine reported, "His immersion in character, he says, explains his reclusiveness on the Willard set, his darkened trailer and the way that before his first rat scene, after much discussion with his director on how to handle it, he screamed, 'I didn't expect there to be any rats!'" Yup. There's your major clue that Glover may not quite live in the same reality as the rest of us. He took the lead in Willard, but he didn't expect there would be any rats.

You think DeNiro researched his role in Raging Bull? Glover has been researching this role all of his life.

Credit fledgling director Glen Morgan for perhaps the best stroke of casting genius since Sir Tony Hopkins was hired to play Hannibal Lecter. Morgan actively pursued Crispin Glover against the advice of some Hollywood insiders, and their partnership could not have worked out better. After you see Glover in the part, you'll swear he wasn't acting at all. As for Glover's reputedly difficult personality, Morgan says that could not have been farther from the truth:

Crispin was wonderful to work with. I had been subjected to all the rumors before shooting. High powered people told me we would never get the movie done because he's so crazy. He is … different … but I like him a great deal. He certainly knows his cinema. It's a good thing I am versed in Kubrick and foreign films or he would have run circles around me. Yes, I had heard his CD. His cover of "Those Boots are Made for Walking" is a work of genius. He sings "Ben" over the end credits of "Willard." And he directed the music video that can be found on the willardmovie.com site.

Aside from the universally acknowledged offbeat genius of Glover, opinions about this movie were strongly polarized.

  • About 60% of the reviews were positive, Film Threat gave it a rare 5/5, and the film is rated a solid, near-classic 6.8 at IMDb. That's near the IMDb ceiling because dark genre films, and this is one of the darkest, don't get up too much higher than that.
  • On the other hand, the box office was limp, and the CinemaScore exit interviews were poor. (F's from people under 21 and over 34).

Why were the audience "exit scores" so unfavorable? CinemaScore measures the reactions of people relative to their expectations. If you go to Willard expecting a tone like "Scream", you will be in for a grave disappointment. Expect a tone more like the last two thirds of "Blue Velvet", an unremittingly ominous atmosphere dripping with malice. Expect to see an old woman deformed by age and decrepitude, a cat beset by an army of rats, Glover's nose dripping with snot when he cries. Don't expect any light moments, hope, or redemption.

The set design reinforces the ugliness of the tone. Willard's world looks like what the world might actualy look like today if Charles Dickens had been sane. Think about the world of The City of Lost Children or Tim Burton's films. Willard works in a decrepit, old-fashioned Dickensian nightmare of an office with rusting, creaking cage-style elevators. Willard's boss is an overbearing ogre who manages his charges as a drill sergeant manages a platoon at basic training, by berating Willard and everyone else publicly. (Not coincidentally, the role is played by the guy who played the vicious drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket). Willard's office is no worse than his macabre and rat-infested home - a paneled, cobwebbed, underlit Edwardian that might have scared Charles Addams. With the requisite squeaky iron gates and barred windows, the decaying mansion is presided over by a mother who seems to have lived 120 years, during the last 100 of which she has gone unbathed. Those two locations represent the entire Willard universe. To borrow a term, there is no clean, well-lighted place where Willard or the audience can go for sanctuary.

So is the film any good? Yes, I'd say so. This is actually quite a good movie if you view it objectively. Willard is clever, consistent in tone, dripping with atmosphere, and totally creepy. It has a great opening credit sequence. It is unrelentingly intense, sometimes disgusting, and sometimes blackly funny. (Products seen on screen included Tora Bora Rat Poison, Numm Nuts, and Amish Oats). I left the film feeling creeped-out and a bit nauseated, and I didn't want to walk down any dark, empty corridors. That indicates that the film was quite effective, assuming that is exactly the effect that the director intended to produce. The director succeeded; he delivered what he wanted. Critics respected that.

Audiences are another story. They don't care much about the genius of filmmaking. They only care about their visceral response to the final product. Many people did love the film, but it is obviously a niche film, and its bleak vision simply didn't appeal to a large enough niche to amass a significant box office. Simple as that.



I think I may be related to Laura Harring, the dark-haired beauty from Mulholland Drive, who was also in this film as Willard's co-worker and would-be love interest.

Establishing my kinship to Laura requires a long and convoluted story. When I lived in Norway I was fascinated by the Norwegian obsession with herring. I mean they eat it for breakfast the way Americans eat eggs. They eat it in vinegar, in mustard, in tomato sauce, in curry, in so many different forms that it seems to be ubiquitous, like their version of peanut butter. I think each Norwegian carries a stash of herring around in his ryggsekk. When they go to the ol' ballpark to watch their favorite soccer team, Norwegians don't buy French fries. Instead they just quietly reach into their backpacks for some cheese, some knekkebrød (those extra dry and crispy crackers), some herring, and maybe a depressing book. Anyway, I made so many herring jokes that the locals crowned me Sildekongen, the "king of herring," after a character in a Scandinavian fairy tale.

What does that have to do with Laura? I've pointed it out before, but in case you missed it, Laura Harring's birth name is Laura Herring. She was once married to Count von Bismarck. That makes her the Countess von Bismarck Herring. The Countess of Herring, the King of Herring ... can it just be a coincidence?

Actually, she may be from a different royal family of food fish. She is the Countess of Bismarck Herring, and I think I am actually the King of Maatjes Herring.


DVD info from Amazon

tremendous DVD

  • nearly a half hour of deleted footage

  • two versions of the film, full screen and widescreen anamorphic (about 2.35:1)

  • a 73 minute movie about the making of Willard

  • full-length commentary from Glover, the director and others

  • music video

  • 18 minute documentary




The Critics Vote

  • General USA consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 2.5/4, Berardinelli 2/4, Entertainment Weekly B. Note: Film Threat gave it a rare 5/5!

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. It was budgeted at $20 million for production, and the distribution/advertising costs are estimated around $15 million. It opened in 8th place, then dropped to 12th in its second weekend. This is the route to Palookaville, and it finished with $6.6 million.
  • Exit interviews: Cinema Score. The exit interviews were grim. People under 21 and over 34 scored it an F - males and females alike. People 21-34 were split by gender, males scoring it a solid B-, but females a D+.
Special Scoopy awards for excellence in criticism go to:

Order of merit in audacious thinking: Film Threat, "I know I’m going out on a limb with the five star rating for a horror flick released in the low tide of spring movies. And if you think that rating above is a bit outrageous, here’s another bombshell: I think Crispin Glover should be nominated for an Oscar for his work in Willard.”

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this film is a C. Solid genre film, but be prepared for a macabre vision, not a light-hearted spoof.

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