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Some people fear rats. Others think they're cute. And occasionally, some people turn to rats as substitutes for human companionship because life has beaten them down to the point that they can barely function in society.

Such is the case with Willard, a slightly creepy character study masquerading as a horror film. You might say this is the way they used to make 'em, quite literally, as this movie serves to update a 1971 original. While it keeps the spirit intact, Willard mostly goes to show there really wasn't much there in the first place.

Willard Stiles (Crispin Glover) slowly suffocates in his world. Even before we see him, we hear the airless cry of his dessicated mother (Jackie Burroughs), nagging him that there are rats in the basement. Both the mother and the house they live in might as well be dead, for both have the look of faded parchment. But Willard doesn't have the strength to tear through.

His days don't go much better, as he works for the man who bought out his father's company and quite possibly drove Willard's father to suicide. Frank Martin (R. Lee Ermey) proves as much a nightmare as Willard's mother; both characters have a slight sense of rotting meat about them.

But then, rats like meat, don't they?

For indeed, the basement has been invaded by them. After setting traps, Willard suffers a fit of remorse and rescues his first capture, a white rat that he names Socrates. Soon their friendship blossoms into commanding an army of rats. Socrates passes Willard's orders on to the troops, and only one, a gargantuan black rat Willard dubs Big Ben, has problems with the hierarchy.

Of course, when you have an army of trained rats, you really have to do something with them. In due time, Willard's thoughts turn to revenge, but perhaps not swiftly enough for most audiences.

Despite the exploitative thrill of the rats, and the CGI that allows them to swarm with great skill, Willard really doesn't seem all that interested in them. It's about Glover and his quirks, which are fascinating, but not the stuff of big box office.

And Glover gives his all in the role of a lifetime. (Not that he hasn't had them before -- River's Edge and Back To The Future, of course, have showcased his unique talents very well.) Wisely, he pulls back on being particularly freaky. In an ironic move, he plays Willard almost like a normal person. When he finally lets out some of his anguish, it goes over the top, but in a real way. (Glover is not afraid to show his snot on camera.)

It's an uphill battle for the screen persona that Glover has. As a result, we never quite feel the sympathy for him that we might (and did for Bruce Davison in the original), because we keep waiting for him to snap, and not in a healthy way.

All the actors, in fact, though good, are cast in a shortcut way. Rather than being allowed to craft performances, who they are and what they look like is supposed to tell the whole story. Unfortunately, this leaves an actress like Laura Haring out in the cold. As Willard's potential love interest, she is as drab as most of the scenery - and if you've seen Mulholland Drive, you know that's a crime.

They're not helped by the self-referential directing by Glen Morgan. With his partner James Wong, Morgan helped define the hipness that made The X-Files, and their work always carries a pop sensibility. Though lighter than usual in Willard, this trait still overwhelms the movie.

It starts by including Davison's image as Willard's father. A nice nod to the original without really dragging the actor in for an awkward cameo (it's only in a painting and a couple of photographs), it would have been enough.

Still, it's tolerable and still smile-inducing that Morgan stages many scenes in similar tones to the original. He goes so far as to make Ermey wear the same suit and hairstyle as Ernest Borgnine did in the first, even though it looks really out of date.

But as the rats corner a cat named Scully in Willard's living room, the cat accidentally turns on the satellite T.V., to the easy listening audio channel. What's playing? Michael Jackson's song "Ben," the theme to the original's sequel.

Never mind that the near destitute and clearly isolated Stiles family would probably not have a satellite dish. What's meant to be an ironic wink to the audience ends up taking us right out of the scene. That song isn't playing on the soundtrack - it's in the scene. So this is a world where Michael Jackson still sang about a rat named Ben, as a rat named Ben leads a cat slaughter.

Many of the scenes also have the feel of Hitchcock homage. To be fair, so did the original. It's hard to have small animals line up with suspenseful menace without calling to mind The Birds.

**possible spoiler warning**
However, the tacked-on ending that smacks of trying to satisfy a test screening audience steals directly from the ending of Psycho. It doesn't fit. It's desperate, and it's a shame that a talented guy like Morgan had to lift it so baldly. Or maybe I'm confusing clever with talented.
**end of possible spoiler**

As a critic, I hate to harp on the theme of "the original was better." This re-make does have some charms that will probably elude the mainstream. But it's true: the original was better (there. I've said it.), and if you're interested in seeing Willard, it will be better worth your time to seek out the video.

What's It Worth? $4

However, the video of Crispin Glover singing "Ben" is worth more -- seriously great fun -- check it out here.


Derek McCaw

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