Seemingly trapped, watching his nonexistent social life ebb further away, Willard Stiles (Glover) is either glued to his invalid, demanding mother's bedside, or stuck getting brow-beaten by his belligerent boss. All that changes once Willard discovers a legion of rats dwelling in his cellar who uncannily understand (and, more importantly, listen) to him. His newfound friends will do anything to please him, even if it means tearing something or someone to pieces.

To effectively convey such an icky display of pathos, the filmmakers entrusted the one and only Crispin Glover, who has made a singular career out of maniacal, zonked-out weirdos. As the craven Willard, Glover manages to deliver the right mix of contemptuous pity and endearing alienation that the original Willard (Bruce Davison, who is pictured here as Glover's dead father) only scratched at.

Merging Glover's proficient cinematic lunacy with an array of real, animatronic, and CGI rats, Glen Morgan and James Wong give Willard's vermin friends complexity and verve: Socrates and Ben, Willard's rodent stars, comically embody the superego/id dynamic. Willard dotes on Socrates, combing his white hair and letting the mouse sleep beside him, while looking down on the enormous, beastly Ben - setting up a sibling rivalry in an already problematic social arrangement.

Sleeping and conversing with rats may sound disturbing, but to Willard, it's better than listening to his bedridden mother constantly caterwauling his "horrible" name throughout their decrepit mansion. If not for director Morgan's conscious evocation of the overbearing mother-son dynamic made famous in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, the character would have been just as annoying to the audience. Morgan's Hitchcockian fetish

Writ. & dir. Glen Morgan; feat. Crispin Glover, R. Lee Ermey, Laura Elena Harring, Jackie Burroughs (PG-13)
does get a bit heavy-handed (as in The Birds, not much is explained about the rats or their abilities), but hearing (and seeing) the echoes of Norman and Mrs. Bates in Willard and his mother is hilarious. Morgan also pays homage to the original's exploitive sequel Ben by including Michael Jackson's song of the same name in a simultaneously humorous and horrifying sequence involving a cat. With Jacko's recent troubles, there are few things more unsettling than hearing the young king of pop croon over scenes of diabolical animal violence.

Unlike its like-rated cinematic brethren (the abysmal plot in Wes Craven Presents: They, and the Americanized jolts retreaded in The Ring, for instance) Willard compliments creepy shots of an enormous rat quietly giving orders to its fellow vermin from atop a bookshelf and a homicidal rodent disguised as a computer mouse with refreshing dollops of dark humor. Oddly, however, Willard's touching black heart and pathologically pathetic, yet affecting interactions between the protagonist and his sapient rat swarm end up being the film's most entertaining element. •


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