Originally created 03/14/03

At the Movies: 'Willard'



Thirty-two years after rival rats Ben and Socrates first swarmed over the silver screen, they and their nasty little friends are back, infesting homes and devouring humans in a creepy remake of the horror flick "Willard."

"Tear 'em up!" a twitching, sweating Crispin Glover cries, echoing the theme of the original movie in his role as a repressed, psychotic loner who turns to a rat for companionship.

(Remember the theme song to the original's sequel? "Ben, the two of us need look no more ... You've got a friend in me ... ")

Yes, there's nothing like a rat feeding frenzy to bring out the zemmiphobia in all of us. Technically, though, that's the fear of the great mole rat, while most of the 550 live rats in "Willard" were of the Norwegian variety. And a few - the domineering Ben, for example - were African Gambian rats, pumped-up monsters who look like they could drag off small children with ease.

Some were even elaborate fake rat puppets, for shots when the furry incarnations of evil need to stand still and be menacing. Others were computer-animated - as if another 50 writhing rodents are really going to make or break the movie.

Glover, who first gained attention as the pathetic father in 1985's "Back to the Future" and as a creepy teenager in 1986's "River's Edge," is inspired casting as Willard. After this kinetic performance, Glover probably has first dibs on emotionally unstable psycho killer roles for the next millennium.

Still, the movie has a simple-minded - one might say boring - plot: social misfit gets mad, gets rats, gets even.

While we cheer Willard on against his oppressors, time drags as we wait longingly for the next "tear 'em up" scene.

The lonely Willard favors the petite, sweet Socrates over the malevolent Ben, but Ben is determined to be the Alpha rat. In desperation, Willard turns to the big gun: Tora Bora rat poison - named after the Afghan region where Osama bin Laden allegedly holed up for weeks in mountain caves.

Of course, Willard's efforts to exterminate the rats in his dark, dank Victorian home are about as successful as the effort so far to capture bin Laden. Rats of all kinds are managing to escape.

Willard's mean-spirited, revolting mother (Jackie Burroughs) manages to give the rats a run for their money as she proves there's nothing scarier than growing old. Groans emerge from the audience at her sunken cheeks, deformed nails and ghastly skin. They grow even louder at the oedipal undercurrents that hint at sexual abuse.

Let the grown man go to the bathroom by himself, for goodness sake!

With such a heavy focus on the rats, writer-director Glen Morgan didn't have to waste time developing any characters - everyone is typecast in their first 30 seconds.

R. Lee Ermey dives into the one-note task of playing Mr. Martin, Willard's sadistic, money-grubbing boss, while Laura Elena Harring is the kind co-worker. Subtle acting this is not.

Morgan's camera work is more sure-footed than his screenplay. The concept of prison and cages echoes visually throughout "Willard," from open iron-mesh elevators to rusted gates, grates and window bars.

Many scenes are shot from a rat's point of view - on the floor, where you do not want to be when that hungry herd comes thundering around the corner. Cat-lovers and the claustrophobic need to brace themselves, especially for the rotting cellar scenes.

The musical score ranges from classic horror riffs - dun-dun, dun-dun-dunnnnnnnnnh - to sly renditions of "Three Blind Mice" to Michael Jackson's sappy love ballad to the nasty rat, "Ben."

At this point, THAT's scary, too.

"Willard," released by New Line Cinema, is rated PG-13 for terror, violence some sexuality and language. Running time: 100 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.