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Willard Reviews

Production-designed within an inch of its life, this remake's best conceit is the casting of Crispin Glover as its socially maladroit rat fancier. Glover's offbeat real-life pursuits include cut-and-paste reinterpretations of 19th-century books, notably a 1896 guide called Rat-Catching — clearly, he was born to be Willard, and brings a clammy brio to the role that's always entertaining, if not especially subtle. Shy, repressed Willard Stiles lives in a decrepit house dominated by his ailing mother (Jackie Burroughs) and memories of his late father; the film's most successful in-joke — there are many — is that the face in the photos and portraits belongs to Bruce Davison, star of 1971's WILLARD. (The second best is a camp nod to the syrupy Michael Jackson ballad "Ben," written for the 1972 sequel of the same name.) Willard's working life at what was once the Stiles family business is equally oppressive; his sadistic boss (R. Lee Ermey) routinely belittles and humiliates him. Though hounded by his mother to rid the house of the rodents in the basement, Willard kind-heartedly rescues a squealing white rat stuck to a glue trap. His new friend, whom he names Socrates, helps him befriend all the cellar rats, including pushy, oversized Ben. But only Socrates is allowed to leave the basement, setting up a dangerous Cain-and-Abel-style rat rivalry. With Socrates' help, Willard trains his newfound pals to attack on command, and once they get "Tear it up!" down, things can only end badly. The film occasionally strikes a pitch-perfect note of gallows humor — the scene in which less-favored Ben broods and plots as slender Socrates gets all the sugar deploys Kuleshovian editing principles to such flawless effect that it should be added immediately to film school syllabi — and X-Files-alumnus Glen Morgan has clearly been boning up on his Hitchcock. He sprinkles the film with homages to PSYCHO (1960) and THE BIRDS (1963) and does a striking job of suggesting that Mrs. Stiles might be a Mrs. Bates-like phantom before revealing that, yes, she's really there and she's really old and gross. And there's the trouble — Morgan can't leave subtle enough alone. Uncertain that an old woman's selfish manipulation of her timid son will say "monster" with sufficient clarity, he hammers home the point with a grotesque close-up of her gnarly toenails. The can labeled "Numm Nuts" is just juvenile.