Though it's rats that eat up most of its screen time, writer-director Glen Morgan's "Willard" is strictly for the birds. Like the 1998 remake of "Psycho," this redo of Daniel Mann's 1971 hit, about the mother's boy with a burgeoning rodent fetish, is completely unnecessary, and won't scare up business in theaters or on video.
Though it’s rats that eat up most of its screen time, writer-director Glen Morgan’s “Willard” is strictly for the birds. Like the 1998 remake of “Psycho,” this redo of Daniel Mann’s 1971 hit, about the mother’s boy with a burgeoning rodent fetish, is completely unnecessary, and won’t scare up business in theaters or on video. Adapted from Stephen Gilbert’s 1968 novel “Ratman’s Notebooks,” the original “Willard” is a perversely entertaining “Psycho” homage, in which an introverted shipping clerk finds solace among a community of rats living in the drained swimming pool behind his family’s decaying home. The vermin become Willard’s only escape from his uncaring boss and dying, domineering mother, and eventually come to obey him as he seeks revenge on those he believes have wronged him — until one rat, Ben, doesn’t follow Willard’s orders, and a deadly power struggle ensues.
A young Bruce Davison (who has an amusing cameo in the remake) played Willard back then, with Ernest Borgnine as his boss, Sondra Locke as the kindly secretary who pities poor Willard, and Elsa Lanchester as a mommy perhaps only Norman Bates could love. The movie worked because of its understated manner; it was a Gothic horror done in strokes of broad daylight.
Conversely, though many of the original’s locations, costumes and hairstyles are faithfully rendered, the remake is overplayed in a Grand Guignol manner, dumbed down and sped up for the MTV generation. Right from the opening bars of Shirley Walker’s half-Astor Piazzola, half-Bernard Hermann score, “Willard” is hopping up and down, like an attention-deficient child, desperate to scare you; as a result, it never does.
In the roles originated by Davison, Borgnine, Locke and Lanchester, respectively, Crispin Glover, R. Lee Ermey, Laura Elena Harring and Jackie Burroughs are brilliantly well-cast. Glover, with his gangly physique and agile, rat-like movements is a particular coup for Willard; he seems to have an innate understanding of how someone who’s been kicked around by schoolyard bullies his entire life might move and speak. But in keeping with pic’s bigger-is-better aesthetic, Morgan encourages the actors to play to the rafters, and it leads to a series of over-the-top moments.
Glover starts out well, but before long he shoots off the charts with a series of increasingly eccentric tics and mannerisms that leave no question about his character’s sinister inclinations, eliminating the possibility we might ever find Willard tender or good-natured, or come to see things from his own twisted POV — all strengths of Davison’s original “Willard.” Meanwhile, Ermey’s Mr. Martin is nothing more than a fiery blowhard.
The remake’s set pieces don’t measure up to those in the original. Arguably the most lively sequence in this film, in which Willard’s rats deflate the tires of Mr. Martin’s car, is nothing compared with the havoc the rats wreaked back in 1971. Even the rodents themselves seem out to lunch. The original “Willard” made auds uneasy for days afterward at the sight of any creature with more than two legs; but the elaborate animatronic and CG effects (along with about 500 live specimens) that account for the remake’s rat army, aren’t at all unsettling.
Tech package is acceptable, if unspectacular, with pic carrying a vaguely cheap, shot-in-Canada vibe. Among many visual and textual references to original pic and its sequel (1972’s “Ben”), soundtrack contains two renditions of latter pic’s Oscar-nominated title tune, one of them performed by Glover himself.