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Glover's weird in remake of 'Willard'

Friday, March 14, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Crispin Glover can chew the scenery like a rat gnawing his way through a tub of popcorn. And Glover does, in one particular "Willard" scene, when he becomes hysterical at the prospect that he could lose his family home.


RATING: PG-13 for terror/violence, some sexual content and language

STARRING: Crispin Glover, R. Lee Ermey

DIRECTOR: Glen Morgan

WEB SITE: www.willardmovie.com


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Casting Glover in an update of "Willard" was a stroke of genius. No one does bizarro better, and he's working on full weirdness tilt here -- with dark hair unfashionably parted in the middle, clad in an old, dark suit and wandering around with rats in his briefcase or pocket or bed. Well, technically, his favorite white rat, named Socrates, is allowed, but fat interloper Ben is booted.

Willard Stiles is a 30-year-old misfit who works as a clerk at the company once run by his late father. He lives in an old house with his sickly mother (Jackie Burroughs), who treats him like a child, and works for a condescending tyrant named Frank Martin (R. Lee Ermey), who delights in denigrating Willard.

Just like an imprisoned animal -- a theme underscored by an elevator cage, barred windows and images framed by rat holes -- Willard is trapped in a life he despises but feels powerless to change. When he befriends the rats who live in his spooky cellar and realizes he can train them, he gains a measure of perverted power.

After Willard decides to unleash his army, one of the rats decides to flex his miniature muscles. Like a sitcom father who unexpectedly walks in on a beer blast, Willard bellows "Ben!" when he finds rats running amok in his home. Ben, the fat dark rat who symbolizes the worst in Willard, is taking over.

To appreciate some of the small touches in "Willard," it helps to have seen the original. Willard's late father, for instance, is represented in a portrait that hangs in the family home. Lo and behold, it's a gray-haired Bruce Davison, the original Willard. And both Willards have a penchant for adjusting timepieces.

"Willard," from director Glen Morgan (whose producing credits include "The X-Files"), almost cries out for more camp or a higher horror quotient. Morgan rescreened "Psycho" and "The Birds" before shooting, and elements of both are apparent. When, one by one, the rats pop up on a couch in a darkened room, it's like watching the birds alight on telephone wires in "The Birds." The Norman Bates connection is pretty transparent, although Willard isn't donning dresses.

Glover is, by nature, weirder than Davison was, and Ermey is a blowtorch of cruelty. As the office temp, Laura Elena Harring from "Mulholland Drive" is all sympathetic glances and gestures, but she's wasted in this small role.

In a movie about rats, you're waiting for "money shots" with hundreds and hundreds of rats, and "Willard" obliges, with real and computer-generated rodents. It also has two renditions of the song "Ben" and an ending that could open the door to a sequel.

The movie gives a nod to a new generation of pest-control products, plus a computer accessory called "a mouse," but it doesn't update the story as much as you might expect. The original "Willard" holds up quite well, in retrospect, and the new one is occasionally fun to watch, mainly because Glover is so freaky and the rats are well-trained.

Despite all the movie mumbo-jumbo about the rats representing Willard's fomenting anger, it's still a 1970s-style movie with better special effects -- and an even bigger, badder Ben.

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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