The first line of dialogue in “Willard” is spoken by the title character’s gnarled old mother, shouting from her bedroom: “Willard, there are rats in the basement!”
And indeed there are. The Stiles family’s old Brooklyn manor is home to a few rats, but under the care of Willard, their numbers grow to plague proportions. And Willard, through means not explained in the film — which is fine, considering no explanation would have made sense anyway — can command them.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Willard Stiles (Crispin Glover) is a nerdy, unsettlingly soft-spoken man in his 30s, an only child who lives with and cares for his aged, bedridden mother (Jackie Burroughs), a withered harpie who arbitrarily decides, one day, to start calling Willard by the more “manly” name of Clark.
Willard works, lackadaisically, in the office of Martin Stiles Manufacturing, a business begun by his late father and now run by the storming, angry Frank Martin (R. Lee Ermey). Martin won’t fire Willard out of loyalty to his old business partner, but he makes his life miserable. He will pay….
But I have gotten ahead of myself again. Crispin Glover, who himself is as creepy as a bag of rats, is the perfect choice to play the lead in this film (a remake of the 1971 Bruce Davison thriller). He has beady eyes and a long, rodentine nose. His voice is a whispery whine. He is eerily adept at being more offputting than likable, but still slightly likable.
The writer and director is Glen Morgan, who wrote many of the greatest “X-Files” episodes and is making his directorial debut here. Just like many of the best adventures of Mulder and Scully, “Willard” mixes horror elements with humor, self-awareness and irony. It does not strike me that he intends “Willard” to scare anyone — give us the willies, maybe, with many scenes of way too many rats swarming around, but never to terrify, shock or disturb us.
Surely Morgan finds humor in Willard himself, a bad person, bad son and bad employee who does bad things and eventually reaps the whirlwind. The manner in which Willard attaches himself to Socrates, the rat he adopts as his pet, is perversely amusing, and his love-hate relationship with Ben, the largest rat in the pack, is flat-out hilarious.
Morgan, who named a character “Hitchcock” in his screenplay for “Final Destination” (2000), demonstrates his devotion to the master of suspense even further here. Willard is clearly a Norman Bates figure, with his domineering mother and forbidding house furnished with stuffed birds. And speaking of our friends in the skies, “The Birds” is referenced a bit in the final act of the film, as doors are nailed shut to prevent rats from invading the house.
Inside jokes abound — watch for Bruce Davison in a cameo of sorts — and the film successfully achieves its twin goals of being entertaining and creepy. It expands on our pop-cultural knowledge of the original film, tweaks the formula a bit, and comes off as a goofy excursion into darkness and mania.
B (1 hr., 35 min.; )