film review: Willard **

Willard is a film that shares numerous traits with its title character. Played by Crispin Glover (Back to the Future), Willard is a shy, nervous man whose entanglement in eccentricity pleads for sympathy and stirs curiosity. However, like the movie as a whole, Willard fails to invoke much reaction due to inane flaws in his character and actions.

Glover, who, judging by recent talk show appearances, is quite the outsider in real life, plays the lead brilliantly. His wide eyes and a freaky haircut give off sinister and meek vibes at the same time. Unfortunately, this very committed performance is wasted since the filmmakers choose to keep audience members at a distance, where they can be shocked by the horror but rarely disturbed by it.

James Wong and Glen Morgan, who also collaborated on “The X-Files,” Final Destination, and The One, decided to remake a sleeper hit from the ’70s – the rat horror/drama of the same name. Morgan gets writing and directing credit, with Wong listed as a producer, but it is nonetheless another joint effort.

Final Destination succeeded because it was simply cool – a Faces of Death guilty pleasure for our generation. The One, a costly Jet Li starrer, didn’t succeed because it, well, simply lacked cool, but the epic-scale sci-fi ambition was admirable. Why then, for their next film, would they choose Willard, an unfashionable throwback to old horror films that purposely lacks the modern coolness they’ve relied on?
In making Willard, they recruited the cast they needed to create an eerie success. Glover simply is Willard, and R. Lee Ermey (Seven, Full Metal Jacket) uses his famed drill sergeant background as the perfect outline for Willard’s evil boss. The story is cheesy yet satisfying – Willard gets mistreated by everyone, befriends a swarm of rats in his basement and trains them to follow his every command.

There’s adequate gore, as Willard orders his rats to commit various crimes, which help him get back at the people who’ve screwed up his life. The rats develop into more likeable characters than the people do. Willard’s best friend is Socrates, a friendly white rat who he eagerly proclaims the leader, but the real leader of the group is Ben, a monstrous squirrel-sized rat who craves power, seriously.

In the beginning, Ben is playful in his attempts to take over, but, as one would expect from rats, things soon turn violent. Willard gets addicted to the hubris, taking his relationship with the vermen for granted, and soon enough they turn on him in a series of “wacky” events straight out of Mouse Hunt.

Whatever the filmmakers intended Willard to be, it turned out uneven. Glover’s darkness leaves little room for character investment, and the inclusion of a female co-worker seems like an all-too-common attempt for unnecessary romance. Willard’s boss is the highlight, instilling hate all the way through, from his constant yelling at Willard to a pleasantly twisted scene near the end where he views pornography in his office.

The film has its moments, but overall is a quiet failure. If Hollywood continues to offer more weirdo roles for Glover, he’ll solidify his status as a actor to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, Wong and Morgan should stick to what they’re best at, and leave the rats in the basement.

Shawn Wines can be reached at