Make it a Double: RAMPAGE & WILLARD

The most beautiful movie about rats ever made.

Dwayne Johnson’s latest arrives this week; already being hated by many and furiously defended by a small vocal few. Rampage sees Johnson playing a primatologist (hmm…) whose skills are put to the test when the giant gorilla he has spent years bonding with becomes a monstrous force thanks to an experiment gone bad.

Apart from catering to an audience whose critical seal of approval towards a movie would be along the lines of: “That was sick,” Rampage’s hopes of being a new entry in the creature feature genre are front and center. Ginormous hit or colossal bomb, for me the movie has inspired a revisiting of 2003’s Willard; a creature feature which actually does add something to the genre and showcases the bond between human and animal in ways both terrifying and poetic.

Based on the 1971 film of the same name (which was itself an adaptation of the Stephen Gilbert novel), Crispin Glover plays the titular character; a timid introvert living with his bedridden, domineering mother (Jackie Burroughs) and being tormented by the man who took over his father’s company (R. Lee Emery), where Willard now works in a menial job. The one bright spot in his life is the new assistant Cathryn (Laura Elena Herring), who shows an interest in Willard, but whom he is too afraid to ask out on a date. One night, after his mother complains of rats in the cellar, Willard ventures down and immediately befriends a white rat he names Socrates, to whom he is able to bond with. Willard also encounters Ben; an insanely large rat whose very presence signifies malice. It isn’t long before Willard has made friends with Ben too, along with a slew of other rats who convene in the cellar, waiting for their new master to tell them what to do.

Willard was billed as a horror ride with its marketing promising a plethora of rodent-inspired carnage. Although it did deliver on that front, it surprised many when Willard actually emerged as a surprisingly touching art film. Willard makes for the most unorthodox of protagonists. He’s not vicious enough to be Hannibal Lecter, nor is he fascinating enough to be Edward Scissorhands. Instead, Willard is curiously near-invisible figure who exists in a society which, in a way, he was NEVER meant to exist in. He’s spent his life absorbing the verbal abuse from his mother, the near-sadistic bullying from his employer and the immediate dismissal from the rest of the world. The film’s first half is nearly devoid of any kind of horror action whatsoever in favor of following the title character as he bears the brunt of his doomed existence; existing perhaps because he’s far too afraid to do anything drastic. The sense of extreme sadness which radiates from Willard is almost as palpable as his growing rage towards the world around him and how powerless he is to fight against it. While 1971’s Willard had no qualms about testing the limits of campy horror, 2003’s Willard favors the psychology of the character, becoming a devastating portrait of isolation, loneliness, disenchantment in the process.

It’s only when the main character bonds with Socrates and Ben that Willard emerges as a horror film. In forming a kinship with the two alpha vermin and their many, MANY cohorts is Willard allowed to discover his voice and find his strength. With this revelation, years of torture, pain and resentment are unleashed onto the world, carried out by the dozens of furry little creatures trained by Willard to obey his orders of dark revenge. This leads to some entertaining sequences whereby those who have wronged Willard are now paying the price. The most show-stopping of these is the demise of Willard’s boss, which is played with a grand air of macabre darkness and glee. Watching as the rats literally tear Willard’s employer apart while an extremely maniacal look plants itself on our hero’s face is a kind of horror which cannot help but linger. Willard takes on a different level of horror when Ben, sensing Willard’s strained relationship with his mother, declares her an enemy and orders his fellow soldiers to do away with her, showing that Willard isn’t necessarily the only master in the house and becoming an unexpected power struggle that can only end with one side emerging victoriously.

Willard is the role Glover was meant to play. Not only does his pale skin tone and unique facial features give him a sort of rodent-like demeanor and persona, but the way he channels the character’s torment of having to exist alone in a society which either doesn’t accept him, or fails to acknowledge him altogether is brilliant. Glover plays it straight all the way through, never once letting Willard fall into the realm of parody, which it well could have. The level of power in the way he holds his facial muscles and fixes his stares give off a kind of intensity that’s uniquely Glover’s own. Burroughs, Herring and especially Emery all add color and flair to the proceedings, but Willard is Glover’s show through and through and he never once does he waste the opportunity to explore one of the richest characters he’s ever been given.

I’m sure New Line must have known that Willard was not destined to be a hit. The poignant story of a man using rats to exact revenge was not what horror audiences were seeking in the era of Final Destination and The Ring. It was because of this unavoidable fact that Willard flopped at the box office. The movie did enjoy some success thanks to the critics, who greeted the film with far stronger reviews than were given to the original.

While I’ve so far yet to comment on the visuals of the movie, let me just say that for a film dealing with killer rats and the slightly deranged human being at the center of it all, Willard is one of the most beautiful horror films in existence. The use of color, both garish brights and dark moody hues all succeed in imparting the sort of warped society that Willard has found himself trapped in all his life. Meanwhile the action sequences are aided by some prime editing, which greatly amplifies all the tension right up until the movie’s operatic finale. There’s no questioning that Willard has its admirers. At a retrospective Alamo Drafthouse screening in November 2016, the house was packed with an audience full of horror aficionados, all of whom cheered with enthusiasm at the film’s many memorable moments. Yet there was the impression that it wasn’t just the thrills the audience was applauding but rather Willard himself as well as the exorcising of the kind of loneliness and disaffection which has the ability to plague everyone.

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