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Return of the rat pack

How quaint the tension feels in Willard, a remake of a 1971 sleeper hit that barely feels as scary as the original. Times and terror have changed over 32 years, and director Glen Morgan doesn't have the strong heart to change with them.

The new, somewhat improved Willard still operates on the creep-out principle rather than gore. The rats are more plentiful because of computer tricks, but the nervy touch added by Morgan is casting Crispin Glover, the weirdest actor in Hollywood, in the title role, a supremely neurotic nerd whose only friends are those rodents in the cellar. Even if you already have a rat phobia, Glover elevates the uneasiness to a fascinating degree.

Glover plays psychos as easily as John Wayne played cowboys, not a bad talent except his carrying over the act to real life nearly ruined his career. He is just plain weird, talking in singsong circles and brooding to a maddening degree. But it works for the role of Willard Stiles, although he tips his hand faster than Bruce Davison did in the original. There isn't an arc of insanity in the new Willard, just a crackpot ready to boil over.

But you get the feeling that Morgan isn't interested in scaring anyone. He just wants to pay homage to a favorite childhood thriller. It shows in the small touches that today's teenagers won't understand, such as casting Davison's likeness in a portrait of Willard's dead father. Today's audiences will watch a cat-and-rats showdown with Michael Jackson singing Ben (the sequel's theme song) in the background and call it stupid. Fans of the first film will smile at the reference and wonder if it isn't a bit forced.

The new Willard is an exercise in parallels, not an extension of terror for a new generation. Let's be honest: Nibbling rats don't thrill anymore after the carnage we've seen onscreen. Morgan knows it, and he wisely avoids the temptation to turn the remake into the bloodfest the original couldn't be in 1971. But he can't decide whether to wink at moviegoers or goose them with his limited horror resource. Neither tactic works to an impressionable degree.

The story is the same. Willard is an emotional captive of his dying mother (Jackie Burroughs) and a whipping boy for his boss, Mr. Martin (R. Lee Ermey, taking over for Ernest Borgnine). Martin can't fire Willard because of a friend's promise, but he makes his life miserable. Willard doesn't help matters with his tardiness and moping. A lovely temp worker (Laura Elena Harring, Mulholland Dr.) offers sympathy, but Willard is too antisocial to respond.

Willard does have one close friend, a white rat named Socrates he doesn't have the heart to exterminate. A mysterious bond forms between the man and Socrates' rat pack, with the rodents obeying Willard's commands. It isn't long before Willard decides to use his friends to get back at his enemy, Mr. Martin. A vandalistic prank escalates into murder as Socrates' rival, a large brown rat named Ben, plots a revolt against his human master.

Willard is a decent nostalgia trip for baby boomers, and except for a couple of profanities, it's the kind of horror film that younger moviegoers may have their own fond memories of in the future. The key is one's tolerance for Glover's spasms of hysteria and pregnant line deliveries that might make Christopher Walken flinch. You never know what he'll do, how far he'll go or if he'll come back to Earth. Glover gives one of the most magnetically bad performances you'll see, and you'll love him for it.

REVIEW

Willard

Grade: C+

Director: Glen Morgan

Cast: Crispin Glover, R. Lee Ermey, Laura Elena Harring, Jackie Burroughs

Screenplay: Glen Morgan, based on a screenplay by Gilbert Ralston

Rating: PG-13; violence, profanity

Running time: 100 min.

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