Rats run in the family.
At least they do in Willard, a slavish, if not entirely faithful, remake of the 1971 horror-thriller that starred Bruce Davison as a shy, tormented momma's boy whose best friends went by the Latin name Rattus norvegicus and Ernest Borgnine as the evil boss who learns there's nothing cute about a pack of ravenous rats with really sharp teeth. Thirty-two years later, this pretty pointless remake (this time around, it's the Davison character's son who's hanging out with rodents) scores points for casting but is seriously lacking in the originality and ingenuity departments.
The profoundly odd Crispin Glover, who was nothing if not born to play this sort of role, is this year's Willard, living in a big old house with his decrepit mother (Jackie Burroughs, in a role originally played to far better effect by Elsa Lanchester), and working at an uninspiring office job of indeterminate purpose, where the only thing he can count on is being harassed by his obnoxious blowhard of a boss (R. Lee Ermey, matching Borgnine bluster for bluster).
Friendless and rudderless, Willard finds an unexpected companion when he's called upon to exterminate the rats scurrying about his basement. An attack of pity prevents him from carrying through with the deed; instead, he rescues a white rat, names him Socrates (for a rat, he's pretty intelligent) and starts allying himself with the resident rodent population. Soon, Willard has them doing whatever he asks - except, that is, for an oversize rat he names Ben. Alone among the rats, Ben has a mind of his own, and does not like being messed with.
Meanwhile, back at the office, things are getting progressively worse. Unable to ever arrive on time, Willard is continually subjected to the wrath of his boss. The poor boy would be out on the street except that it was his father who started the company, and it was sold only on condition that Willard remain employed there so long as his mother lives.
But when the boss pushes too hard, something snaps inside Willard. The time has come, he decides, for a little revenge.
Anyone who's seen the original Willard knows what happens next and can rest assured that it happens in almost exactly the same way. In fact, about the only original aspects to the film are some shuffling of the rodent deck - the first Ben was more of a friend betrayed than a coup waiting to happen - and some clever cinematic nods to such horror classics as The Birds (in a scene where the rats start gathering in the boss' office) and Halloween (in the opening shots of Willard's house). Oh yeah, and you keep hearing Three Blind Mice playing in the background.
Glover, however, makes for a perfect Willard, and an interesting counterpoint to Davison, whose character was far more sympathetic and conflicted. Willard 2003 is a weird bomb just waiting to blow. And there's a wry black humor to the film that was almost entirely missing from the earlier version; this Willard doesn't elicit our sympathy so much as our understanding - of course this guy's going to do what he does, what did you expect?
But simply twiddling with the fine-tuning on the central character is not enough to warrant remaking a film. Both Glover and Willard deserve better.
Starring Crispin Glover, R. Lee Ermey
Written and directed by Glen Morgan
Released by New Line Cinema
Rated PG-13 (Language, hungry rats)
Time 95 minutes
Sun Score **1/2