Stars: ** 1/2
Rating: PG-13 for violence and bloodshed
Run Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
What I knew going in to “Willard”: Crispin Glover is a flat-out freak (think razor sharp Thin Man in “Charlie’s Angels”), rats are fiendishly unappetizing creatures, and I’m a reluctant fan of the 1971 horror classic of the same name.
Coming out of “Willard”, little has changed. Crispin Glover is still a first-rate weirdo, and the primary reason that this rat-packed schlock fest works as well as it does. The film remains relatively faithful to its thirty-year-old predecessor, complete with a supplement of winks and nods to the original Willard himself, Bruce Davison.
The “plot” is a simple twist on a stereotypical formula. Willard (Glover) lives in a rambling, unkempt mansion with an overbearing, verbally abusive mother who maintains a stronghold on her son’s psyche (a la “Psycho”). Lonely and borderline psychotic, Willard befriends a seemingly intelligent white rat who lives in his spooky old basement. Willard’s new pet (aptly named Socrates) is smothered with attention, much to the jealous consternation of the biggest and baddest rat, Ben.
A series of straightforward commands are all it takes to train a pseudo rat army (who materialize from every nook and cranny) to do Willard’s bidding. From persistently nagging Mom (Jackie Burroughs) to Willard’s sadistic boss (a delightfully over-the-top R. Lee Ermey), no one is safe from the wrath of these vicious, furry parasites.
Cheap thrills come easy. “Willard” is less horror film than campy fun, with exaggerated shading reminiscent of Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice”. Cockeyed bird’s eye angles establish a subtle Hitchcockian tension that keeps the energy level in moderate gear while the killer rats dance their rodent cha-cha-cha over hill and dale.
Glover’s highly expressive visage reflects a lifetime of torment and humiliation, and the full extent of his savagely suppressed rage. Ben himself looks something like a pot-bellied pig, but his beady little eyes generate genuine sparks of malice.
Rats are still fiendishly unappetizing, and I’m still a fan of the original. Kudos to New Line for renovating “Willard” for a hipper, more demanding generation.