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Rats! 'Willard' is not scary

March 19, 2003

By Eric Schaefer

Horror fans deserve better from the makers of Willard. This remake of the 1971 B-movie of the same name offers a psychotic loner, his corpse-like mother, their creepy old mansion, talented actors and lots and lots of rats. Despite the bizarre storyline and talent associated with this film, it offers few moments of terror and little creativity.

Willard Stiles (Crispin Glover) is left to care for his ailing mother (Jackie Burroughs) in their spooky house upon the death of his father. His dead-end job at the manufacturing company his father co-founded is in jeopardy. His boss is the evil Mr, Martin, played by the always interesting R. Lee Ermey who was the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. Martin despises Willard's lack of ambition and resents being unable to fire him due to an agreement made with his father.

The Stiles begin having rodent problems in their basement, and Willard soon learns that he is able to communicate with the rats and even train them. Willard develops a disturbing best-friend relationship with a white rat he names Socrates. Socrates is given leadership and special privileges by Willard. This does not sit well with an oversized black rat named Ben that becomes jealous. As Martin becomes more and more offensive and malicious, Willard realizes how his little army with sharp teeth can be used to retaliate.

Glover is at home in offbeat roles, but his Willard is a mixed bag. At times he powerfully expresses the rage bottled up in the tortured soul who feels powerless over his dire circumstances. Willard, however, is neither satisfactorily played as a sympathetic loser nor as vengeful maniac. When mild-mannered, he only wants to play a practical joke on his boss by having the rats shred the tires on Mr. Martin's fancy new car. Later, however, as greedy Mr. Martin seeks to force Willard out of his beloved home, Willard ups the payback by making a Christmas Eve visit with his rats.

Laura Elena Harring plays Willard's sympathetic co-worker Cathryn. Harring's talents are underused, however, as her character is allowed minimal dialogue with Willard. The movie intentionally echoes Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Willard could have been a similarly interesting case study of a repressed man. The relationships he has with his mother and Cathryn should have been further developed. Instead, Willard's transformation from wounded soul into destroyer is unconvincing.

Willard fails to live up to its horror potential in addition to its story potential. The gothic look given to Glover and the mansion are the highlights. The rats seem to be computer generated in most shots. Though they look real enough, they are so clean and docile-looking that even those most squeamish about rats should have little trouble watching the movie without any discomfort. Cheap horror movies can be forgiven of weak plots but not a lack of imagination or suspense. Grade: C-