The remake of Willard is weird. It starts weird, with dark, morbid funhousey opening credits a montage of images to come in the film and ends weird, with Crispin Glover singing the movie's love theme, the Jackson 5 hit "Ben." If you are not a rat-o-phobe and end up seeing this movie, I hope you stay for the closing credits to hear Glover's bizarre, almost pretty take on the song, but like many in the audience the night I saw the film, you may pack up and leave before it's over, never mind the credits.
Comparisons to Norman Bates are inevitable. Willard is a thin, awkwardly handsome young man living in a strange, huge Gothic old house with his strange, Gothic old mother. Mother is the scariest thing in the movie and solicited the most gasps when she was onscreen. She is the embodiment of our fear of age: sick, weak, thin, frail, senile, ugly. She looks to be somewhere between 70 and 1,000, so it is difficult to know exactly how old Willard is, because at 38, Glover is chronologically ambiguous forever Back to the Future's George McFly. He could be 25; he could be 45.
When Mother hears rats in the basement, Willard slavishly investigates. Sure enough, there are holes eaten out of everything. Conventional mousetraps don't work. The rats are smart enough to eat the cheese and spring the trap without becoming prisoners. Glue traps catch a singular white rat. Willard becomes instantly fascinated and cannot bring himself to kill it. Tenderly, he frees the rat and names it Socrates for being so smart. Socrates does nothing particularly smart in the movie, though, and eventually finds himself in unalterable trouble, so it is puzzling that Willard perceives particular intelligence in this rat.
The smart rat of the film is Ben (named after Big Ben the clock, because this rat is huge a one-footer) who snorts and oinks and makes tiny pounding sounds when he walks to let us know that he is a big rat. Ben is jealous of Willard's love for Socrates, and while an uneasy truce is declared between them, it is only a matter of time before Willard's rejection of Ben in favor of Socrates gets the better of all. Willard loves Socrates, and there is a fine line between friendship and romantic love, since they sleep together and Willard is in a constant state of caressing, kissing, and holding Socrates. As my dear friend Cliff would discreetly suggest, "Those two don't walk like buddies."
Willard, by the way, is a loser at work. He is meek, a tad sniveling, and shows up late every day. There is a romantic interest for Willard in the office (Mulholland Drive's fragrant Laura Harring), who persistently tries to care for Willard but is persistently turned down in favor of his rodential yearnings. His boss, Mr. Martin (Full Metal Jacket's R. Lee Ermey) is a drill-sergeanty bastard who has always wanted to get rid of Willard, but since Willard's father helped found the company, Martin has been contractually obligated to keep Willard around. This doesn't prevent constant, public beratements and insults, however. Soon, Willard discovers that his rapport with rats is useful in revenge, and his plots quickly move from mischief to menace as Martin's injuries against him multiply.
I thought, not liking rats, that I would be a basket case during the screening of Willard. Not so. Like I said, there is nothing in the film as frightening as Mother, and when the film focuses away from her at the halfway point, there is nothing more to fear. Being a movie about rats, I expected more grossness more poop, more gnawing, more filth. These are clean rats and very purposeful, as Willard (or Ben, once he seizes control) always has a job for them. And since this is kind of a horror movie, I expected more gore. The body count is low, and the camp is high save for Glover's play-it-straight performance. His dedicated stare alone may make up for whatever heebie-jeebies are otherwise lacking. Fans of high terror may want to seek it elsewhere, but aficionados of rat-flavored fun will feel right at home.