After watching the remake of Willard, I was struck not only by how many problems it had, but by how much worse it was than my memory of the original.
Not wanting to be one of those uptight losers who thinks the original is always better, I immediately pulled out my dusty copy of the 1971 Willard and watched it in its entirety, and was pleased to realize that it, too, sucked.
Pleased, because I hate to think that everything has gotten worse since we stopped electing our presidents.
Anyway, Willard and Willard suck in entirely different, even diametrically opposed ways. Willard, for example, is poorly edited and poorly shot, with a bizarre lack of attention to matching cuts. Willard, on the other hand, is one of those technically perfect films that the studios have been churning out for years now, but the story of the misfit who gains power is entirely muted by the unfortunately inhuman performance of Crispin Glover, who sucks all the life out of this movie like a Republican sucks money out of the budget.
The original Willard starred Bruce Davison as Willard. Davison's a talented and versatile actor who nearly won an Academy Award in the year when Whoopi Goldberg won hers, meaning that it was a really good year for the Academy. His Willard is approaching 30 years of age and is a life-long loser who works for Al Martin, the man who stole his father's business. Constantly berated and belittled (and bedeviled and beset) by Mr. Martin, Willard's self-esteem is severely damaged in a manner that used to call for therapy and now calls for therapy and a series of lawsuits and a made-for-TV movie.
Luckily, young Willard finds a friend in the form a bunch of killer rats who want nothing more to than to do his bidding and advance the plot of the movie. As they literally and figuratively gnaw their way into his life, he transforms from a helpless loser into a guy with an army of rats--still sort of loser-y, but not quite so helpless, with the rats and all.
In the remake of Willard, Crispin Glover takes on the Willard role. (That's the titular role, for those of you out there who titter every time the word "titular" is used.) Glover has never been nominated for any awards at all, although What Is It?, the film he wrote and directed, should have been nominated for "Coolest Thing Ever Made By Someone Who Might Be Human." It would obviously lose to the Sistine Chapel and/or Gummi Worms, but still, it would be right up there.
The story in Willard is the same as that of Willard, even retaining some of the original dialogue, but Glover has a completely different interpretation of the character, one that could be said, if I may use the technical language of the film critic's trade, to "blow" and "ruin the movie." See, in the first Willard (by which I mean Willard), Willard starts off normal if a bit nebbishy and then goes all bat-crap in the head with his evil plans and love of rat-based violence and the gnawing and the biting and horrible swarms of icky, icky rodents. Crispin Glover's Willard, though (the one in Willard, not the one from Willard) starts off seeming like he has a few dismembered nurse bodies in the basement. He's just too out there to be sympathetic, so there's no pathos in the movie. It's hard to care about Willard's life when he doesn't register in any of the human ranges.
On the other hand, the new Willard has some positive differences from the old Willard. For example, technical prowess and special effects and movie budgets have all gotten a lot better since the '70s. In Willard of yore, somebody just sort of throws rats onto the actors in the rat-attack sequence. In Willard of today, on the other hand, perfect computer-animated rats mix with well-trained hordes of real rats to produce what is easily the best rat-eating-a-human sequence in cinema history, unless you count that scene in Prince of Tides where Barbra Streisand sucks face with Nick Nolte, but really that's too horrible to even mention.
Also, Glover is close to 40, and there's something a bit more desperate about this. When someone tells him that he can just quit his job and make a new beginning, he says "I can't make a new beginning! I'm almost at the end!" This was one of the few moments that really seemed to give Willard (i.e. the character, not Willard, the movie) some humanity.
Also, Willard's love interest in the Nixon-era Willard was played by Sondra Locke, or Sondra Sucks, but in Cheney-era Willard, she's played by Laura Elena Haring, who, like Glover, is approaching 40 and, unlike Glover, turns in a good performance--not as good as her work in Mulholland Drive, but then she doesn't exactly have the best material to work with here.
For fans of the historical Willard, there are some nice references to it in our modern-day Willard. Willard's dead father, for example is represented by paintings and photographs of Bruce Davison, the original Willard (from the movie Willard, remember?) The song Ben, from Ben, the sequel to the golden-age Willard, is featured in the 21st-century Willard in a clever way. A sign on the desk of Willard's boss in Willard (that Willard, not the other one) is amusingly sent up in a sign behind the boss's back in Willard (the other Willard, not that one.) And, in deference to the original Willard, the new movie is called Willard.
There's definitely some camp enjoyment to be had in Willard (and, indeed, in Willard), and the special effects in Willard (though not, obviously, in Willard) are amazing. It would have been nice to have a bit of humanity to go with the technology, but that's a lot to ask for in this modern age when alarm clocks are made of super-intelligent gaseous beings and our skies are filled with flying canoes and robot-based love-slaves. If you long for the simple, person-centered times before the invention of mud, you'll probably prefer Willard to Willard, but if you're a special effects junkie and fan of over-the-top acting, you might just enjoy Willard. Either way, God bless you, really.