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American Cinematographer Magazine

Willard (2003)
2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced and Full Frame)
Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0
New Line Home Entertainment, $27.95

Socially maladroit and unfortunately named, Willard Stiles (Crispin Glover) grimly skulks from his creaky Tudor home to his demeaning, dead-end job each day. Dressed like a preppie mortician, Willard toils at the company once owned by his father in the hope that he can save it from his scabrous boss, Frank Martin (R. Lee Ermey). Martin likes to humiliate Willard, particularly in front of Cathryn (Laura Elena Harring), his new, pretty co-worker. At home, Willard's grotesque, invalid mother berates him and complains that she can "smell the rats" nesting in the basement. After he makes several unsuccessful attempts to exterminate the rodents in the cavernous basement, Willard begins to make pets out of the more brazen ones. Soon, hundreds of rats befriend Willard, who, thankful for the attention, feeds them generously. When Willard's pressure-cooker life begins collapsing around him, scores of his new friends seek bloody revenge on his oppressors. Eventually, not even Willard can stop the gnawing, squeaking army of rats.

New Line recently unleashed Willard, its largely faithful remake of the 1971 cult hit that

starred Bruce Davison, on DVD. Directed by Glen Morgan (Final Destination) and photographed by four-time ASC Award nominee Robert McLachlan, ASC, CSC (Final Destination, The One, Millennium), Willard walks a dangerous line between lurid horror tale and miserable psychodrama; like its predecessor, it succeeds primarily as a macabre curiosity rather than as a horrific melodrama. What separates this Willard from the original film is how unusually well mounted it is. While credit is due to Morgan's solid screen direction, Glover's remarkable performance, Mark Freeborn's fine production design, and Shirley Walker's inspired score, it is McLachlan's inventive visuals that separate Willard from the glut of recent genre outings. Shot in the 2.35:1 anamorphic Clairmont-scope process, the film features multi-shadowed interiors and dank, rainy exteriors. McLachlan's grim lighting scheme and clever camerawork (which relies extensively on wide-angle lenses in close-ups) give Willard a memorable quality.

Part of New Line's Platinum Series, this DVD is exemplary, and its horde of supplemental materials arguably goes a bit beyond what this particular film might deserve. The picture transfer expertly captures McLachlan's dark vision. The color reproductions are accurate and the multi-layered blacks are faithfully represented, revealing numerous levels of shadow with virtually no distortion. The disc's soundtrack is also commendable, offering powerful bass and a full range of directional effects, including dozens of busy rodents that inhabit the surround channels in both 5.1 and standard Dolby surround modes.

Among the supplements is a making-of documentary, The Year of the Rat, which, at 74 minutes, is almost as long as the feature itself. In addition to covering the project's history, the doc gives some key members of the creative team plenty of time to discuss craft. Standouts are composer Walker's points about the "nerdy sound of accordions" used to score the film, and McLachlan's discussion of how the paintings of "magic realist" Ivan Albright influenced his lighting choices. Also, the cinematographer confesses that without the many layers of shadows he employed, the rats were "just too darn cute." For those curious about the rats themselves, there are presentations from the live rat wranglers, animatronic rat operators, and CG rat designers.

The DVD also offers a chatty, anecdote-filled audio commentary shared by Morgan, Glover, Ermey and producer James Wong, as well as a laughable "rat menace" documentary Rat People: Friend or Foe. Also included are deleted and extended scenes, trailers and a music video for Glover's grating cover of "Ben," The Jackson Five's hit tune from the original Willard's 1972 sequel Ben. Finally, the DVD-ROM features include a script-to-screen analysis and a trivia game!

Morgan attests that Willard never found an audience during its brief theatrical run last year in part because of its ambivalent tone, which resulted from arguments about releasing a safer PG-13 cut instead of a more lurid R-rated version. Though Willard may never be a classic, those who dismissed it sight unseen will probably find it to be much more interesting than its marketing suggested. Perhaps this DVD will give this well-produced film a wider audience. It's hard to imagine any viewer not getting a ghoulish thrill from a wild-eyed Glover hissing to his rodent army as they cover his horrified nemesis, "Tear him up!"

- Kenneth Sweeney


What's Up, Doc? was filmed in the standard 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This information was incorrect in the technical specs for our November '03 review of the DVD. AC regrets the error.

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.