Although they come from the same species line and often generate similar shrieks or other reactions of disgust, rats and mice aren't treated the same. Despite their equal propensity for causing property damage and spreading disease, mice are sometimes viewed as cute annoyances while rats are usually associated with biblical plagues.
The same holds true in entertainment. Mice come in the form of Mickey Mouse, Jerry from "Tom and Jerry," Stuart Little or little prison friends such as in "The Green Mile" and "Escape From Alcatraz." Rats, on the other hand, are usually utilized for shock value such as suddenly spotting one in a sewer or steam tunnel. They rarely get the starring roles.
The exception to that rule (and notwithstanding 1986's hybrid "Ratboy") was with 1971's "Willard" which was followed a year later by "Ben." Noted only for featuring Ernest Borgnine meeting his demise and Michael Jackson's title song respectively (as well as lots of rats), the films came and went without a lot of fanfare and aren't much more than small cult favorites nowadays.
All of which makes one wonder why writer/director Glen Morgan (a writer/producer making his directorial debut) opted to remake the original film (which was scripted by Gilbert Ralston from his own book). It's not exactly as if the lack of realistic, computer-generated effects was what kept the first one from being a classic. Who know, maybe viewers have been clamoring for a good rat thriller for decades.
If that's the case, they're only going to be partially satisfied by this offering. Part black comedy, part horror thriller, the film succeeds more at the former than the latter, even if there isn't enough material or momentum to sustain even that.
Things start off on a good foot with a fun opening credits sequence that's done in a macabre funhouse sort of way, apparently inspired by the combo work of director Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman.
The shrill "Willard, there are rats in the basement" then opens the film and we see the title character heading off to look for them. As played by Crispin Glover ("Like Mike," "Charlie's Angels") in full twitchy, wired and intense mode, the film scores points for the casting coup.
It's also likely to remind viewers of Hitchcock's "Psycho" since we initially only hear but don't see the protagonist's apparent harpy of a mother. Accordingly, our minds instantly start wondering whether she's a mummified rocker and/or if Willard not only imagines her, but also the pending rats and their lethal ways.
Alas, none of that's the case. Instead, we finally see Jackie Burroughs ("A Guy Thing," "A Winter Tan") as the frail mother and the film then proceeds into the standard, berated loner gets revenge plot. Having already played the similarly beaten-down George McFly in the "Back to the Future" films, Glover has no problem slipping into this character. Substituting for Biff Tannen, however, is R. Lee Ermey ("Switchback," "Full Metal Jacket") as his overbearing and demeaning boss.
Like Burroughs and Glover, Ermey goes so far over the top with his performance that he falls over the side and hits rock bottom in the caricature department. The exaggeration, though, is apparently purposeful and presumably done to stay in line with the black comedy cum dark comic book aura that the film oozes.
Some of the latter is fun to behold, and the filmmakers get in some good bits of macabre humor as well as insider jokes and references to other works, including the original film. For a while, that keeps this one entertaining in an offbeat sort of way. Unfortunately, that runs out of steam and then mostly dries up in the third act when the film tries to segue into standard horror and suspense.
Perhaps it's because rats and their like don't have that sort of effect on me, but I found little of the film to be spooky, let alone frightening. The mixture of computer-generated and/or enhanced rats and the real thing, however, is seamless and believable.
It's too bad the same doesn't hold true for the sudden revelation regarding the protagonist controlling his growing army of rats with verbal commands (in English). There's no attempt to explain that and even the character isn't surprised by his sudden Dr. Dolittle abilities. That's when I began expecting and/or hoping for the mental break from reality angle to kick in, but it never does.
Instead, we just wait for the mean boss to get his comeuppance as well as how the leadership strife between the good white rat (Socrates) and the bad black one (Ben) will play out. Alas, neither is terribly satisfying, which also holds true for the awkward friendship between Willard and a new woman at the office played by Laura Elena Harring ("John Q," "Mulholland Drive").
In the end, that pretty much sums up the film as a whole. Although it features a perfectly cast performer in the lead and starts off in a fun and somewhat campy fashion, the picture simply fails to maintain that in favor of trying to turn itself into a thriller. After watching the effort, all I could think was, "Rats, that could have been a good film." "Willard" rates as a 4 out of 10.