- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

"Willard" approaches stylistic perfection in its humorously knowing and macabre way. Its 1971 prototype was a freak horror hit that starred Bruce Davison as the title character, a timid young psychopath who used pet rats to wreak vengeance on his tormentors. This remake, a no-contest improvement, realizes its entertaining potential in casting Crispin Glover, the freakiest actor of his generation, as poor vindictive Willard.
It's a role he was meant to embody. The horror genre has been enriched with a new camp classic, thanks largely to the resourceful and astute writer-director Glen Morgan. Mr. Morgan has crafted "Willard" for aficionados rather than clods. Indeed, the scarcity of moronic or gory touches may leave "Willard" looking too clever for instant mass consumption.
The movie's indispensable ingredients are Mr. Glover, an array of real and simulated rodents and a deathtrap domicile a crumbling Victorian residence somewhere in New York City.
For the most part, the film gets by with two sets, the ramshackle home and the office where Willard Stiles is bullied repeatedly by his volcanic and insulting boss, Mr. Martin (R. Lee Ermey), a manufacturer who was the business partner of the hero's late father. That beloved figure is illustrated by pictures of Mr. Davison as he currently looks.
A brilliant title sequence singles out portentous details while rummaging in the Stiles basement. Designed for richly derelict and sinister impressions by Mark Freeborn, the forlorn house is shared by Willard and his widowed mother, a living cadaver played by Jackie Burroughs. At first she is just a disembodied voice, and you suspect that mother may remain off-screen until the finale, like Mrs. Bates in "Psycho."
Her opening salvo is a pip: "Willard! There are rats in the basement."
Are there ever.
Setting traps leads to the capture of a diminutive white rat, which Willard spares and names Socrates. He gets so fond of the creature that Socrates becomes a bedmate, privy to Willard's lonely pillow talk.
Far from exterminating the other vermin that have the run of the basement, Willard begins to scatter treats around. Noticing Socrates' fondness for tearing paper, Willard encourages a taste for rubber and ultimately the rending of flesh, reserved especially for the tyrannical Martin.
Willard, however, also starts to fear his weapons, especially a large and hard-to-govern critter he calls Ben. Ben seems to have his own agenda. Willard also imagines that he might alienate the affections of Socrates.
The movie abounds with allusions to Alfred Hitchcock films, notably "Psycho" and "The Birds." Mr. Davison's performance had borrowed from Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in "Psycho." One of the wittiest rat compositions in the new "Willard," which teems with them and orchestrates an especially effective cycle of overhead shots that emphasize swarming at ground level, is contrived to echo a specific image of crows gathering ominously on a jungle gym in "The Birds." In this case, Willard has maneuvered his rats into an attack posture, silhouetted along the top of a couch in Mr. Martin's shadowy office.
Mr. Glover's oddness first imposed itself when he played Michael J. Fox's geeky dad in "Back to the Future." Mr. Morgan and his collaborators create a framework in which the oddness can blossom into madness, showcasing the comic-berserk potential in the actor's sharply chiseled profile, flaring eyes, clenched teeth, malicious smirk and shrill, hilarious rants.
A cartoonish and outmoded aspect has always existed in Mr. Glover's appearance. Now it's easier to place the associations and savor them, from Conrad Veidt as the killer somnambulist in "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" to the menaces drawn by Chester Gould to threaten Dick Tracy in the comics.
This is the first movie that makes irrefutable sense of Mr. Glover as a weird adornment to the screen. It's also a remarkably skillful picture in terms of widescreen imagery and trick photography. Just as a work of artifice, it demonstrates a professionalism that outclasses most of the scare movies in recent memory.
A large portion of trickery involves blending authentic trained rats with animatronic models and computer-generated figures. The blend looks expert to me. Even if it isn't, the fear inherent in images of rat swarms probably is sufficient to camouflage any shortcomings.
Mr. Morgan and producer James Wong were involved in "The X-Files" TV series for a couple of seasons. Their previous theatrical features, "Final Destination" and "The One," both directed by Mr. Wong, created few expectations. Now they can be dismissed politely as false starts. Mr. Glover as Willard sounded like a brainstorm of some magnitude. Now it's not only a palpable hoot but also one with stylish and accomplished trappings.


***
TITLE: "Willard"
RATING: PG-13 (Sustained ominous atmosphere; occasional violence with gruesome illustrative details; fleeting profanity and sexual allusions)
CREDITS: Directed by Glen Morgan. Screenplay by Mr. Morgan, based on Gilbert Ralston's screenplay for the 1971 movie of the same name.
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

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