If the Glover Fits...
Willard Stiles (Crispin Glover) is a lonely, thirtysomething-year-old man. Were he part of the cast of Chicago, this guy would be the one singing “Mr. Cellophane.” He lives with his sickly mother (Jackie Burroughs, relishing every minute playing this character), an old crone who never leaves him alone. Willard’s boss, Mr. Martin (R. Lee Ermey), has done just about everything he can to make Willard’s life a living nightmare at the workplace.
Our “hero” lives a sad, empty life, until he befriends one of the rats he laid traps for in the basement. Naming the little white creature Socrates, Willard finds himself at last with a friend…who is soon joined by a vast number of other rats, filling up the basement and eating everything in sight. Willard discovers he can communicate with his new buddies and command them to do his bidding. But when the horrible people in Willard’s life start to push one button too many, this introvert decides to use his newfound talents to get revenge, unaware that his rat friends are slipping out of his control, thanks to a huge new arrival named Ben.
Complaints abound about remakes. Some people contend they’re never as good as the original and have no business being made in the first place (like the ill-received “Psycho”). Willard defies this negativity. It's not only an all-around improvement on the original feature, but also a stand-alone picture, an offbeat delight of the horror genre. This isn’t a horror movie in the usual sense, however. Whereas in a lesser picture, Willard Stiles would be a soulless maniac telling his rat hordes to tear up the guy who shortchanged him at Taco Bell, writer/director Glen Morgan takes the time to establish Willard, the living center of the film, as a tormented soul with a bundle of confused emotions boiling inside him.
Without Crispin Glover (Back to the Future) in the lead role, I don't believe Willard would be as effective as it is. He incorporates his own eccentric personality into this eccentric screen character. I think he was born to play Willard. Glover projects the sadness of a man who finds solace in communicating with his rat friends, only to discover that he has ignored the friendship of a temp worker (played by Laura Elena Harring). In top form, Glover gives a completely convincing, alternately sympathetic and chilling performance. He expresses suppressed rage in a mere second and turns on a dime to show the audience the sad, scarred being his character is inside. Willard is a more complex being than one might think, and Glover knows this, using his lanky build and quiet, yet unpredictable demeanor to practically become the character.
Morgan's solid screenplay and eerie direction add to the quality of Willard. This filmmaker, who wrote Final Destination and The One with co-collaborator James Wong, never goes for the usual, cheap thrills one usually finds in a horror film. When Willard goes into that dark basement, you're aware he's down there for a purpose -- and not just so the crew can throw rats out on the floor. Willard isn't as much a horror picture as it is a suspenseful character study, and while some may contend that the film isn't scary enough or doesn't have enough blood and gore, I appreciate the care Morgan took in developing its main character, his relationship with the rats, and the power struggle between the peace-keeping Socrates and the violent enforcer Ben.
Still, Morgan throws in a few shocking sequences. There's dark hilarity in a scene showing Willard's rats pursuing a cat while Michael Jackson's rendition of "Ben," the title song to the original Willard's sequel, plays in the background. (Glover sings his own version while the end credits roll.) And, of course, most viewers will be on their toes waiting for that inevitable scene where Willard and his friends pay Mr. Martin (played with evil glee by Ermey) a visit we all know won't end nicely. The final scenes, pitting Willard against an invading rat horde, set the perfect tone for our protagonist, who finally realizes how much control the rats have gained.
Ominously-directed, sharply-written, and, for the most, performed brilliantly, Willard emerges as smart and suspenseful, although a tad slow at times, but never boring. It's always creepy -- and deeper than you'd think.
MY RATING: *** 1/2 (out of ****)
(Released by New Line Cinema and rated "PG-13" for terror/violence, some sexual content and language.)
Review also posted at www.ajhakari.com.