“Willard,” screeches an elderly female voice, “there are rats in the basement!” This opening sequence from the film Willard — a remake of the 1971 horror film, starring Crispin Glover in a marvelous performance as Willard Stiles — is a deliberate allusion to the rather unusual mother-son relationship in Psycho. (The ending is also reminiscent of that Hitchcock classic.) The mother, who looks like she starred in, and retained her original makeup job from, the original Night of the Living Dead, carefully monitors her son’s movements in the house. For his part, Willard makes frequent trips to her bedside, where they exchange occasional embraces that last just a little too long for viewer comfort. And this is all before Willard starts cavorting with rodents.
This is all very creepy of course and more than mildly perverse, but it’s pure camp. Certainly not a great movie, Willard is, nonetheless, a deliciously dark comedy. The only thing that would have made the film a more successful entry in the genre is a cameo by the increasingly creepy Michael Jackson to sing the film’s theme song, “Ben.” Glover plays his part with just the right doses of superficial formality, subdued emotion, and suppressed sexual rage. The only places where the film loses its touch are in the two or three scenes where Willard loses his cool and begins shouting at others. He’s much better at controlled, simmering rage — the heavy nasal breathing, the twitching facial muscles, and the flashes of shame and anger in the eyes.
There is a fairly obvious sort of Freudian symbolism running through the entire movie and not just in the suggestion of an Oedipal attraction of son toward mama. It also shows up in the multilevel house as symbolic of the Freudian psychic levels of super-ego, ego, and id. (In fact, the design of the house and the manner in which it’s filmed contribute much to the film’s successful communication of a mood of eerie dementia.) A cool decorum dominates the main and upper floor, which contain the living quarters and the parents’ bedroom, while a tumescent rat population dwells in the unkempt basement. Here Willard soothes his subterranean homesick blues by training the rats, running them through all sorts of drills.
But this is after he begins to identify with the existential situation of the rats. His first plan is to kill them. Humorous early scenes show a perfectly manicured Willard, dressed in suit and tie, shopping at a local hardware store for rat poison. After a number of failed attempts at eliminating the rodent infestation, he discovers a little white rat stuck to a pest strip. He takes the rat to the bathroom, locks the door, and applies oil in an attempt to free the creature; meanwhile, his mother pounds on the door demanding an explanation of what he’s doing locked in the bathroom. When she discovers the oil, she suspects the worst and urges him to find a girlfriend. But Willard has already found his true love, the cuddly, little white rodent, whom he names Socrates and to whom he proclaims his eternal devotion.
Dominated by his mother at home, Willard endures the taunts an oppressive boss at work. In an act of retribution, Willard turns his obedient rats on one of his boss’s prized possessions. The next day at work, Willard experiences one of his few moments of sociability, as he jokes affably with co-workers and takes secret delight in his boss’s frustration over the prank.
But there’s trouble in Willard’s paradisal animal kingdom. The demonic character in the film is Ben, an oversized rat with an attitude. When he first encounters Ben, Willard calls him “Big Ben” and, in another obvious allusion, this one to Casablanca, predicts, “Ben, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Ben is more nemesis than friend, however. He repeatedly tries to draw Willard’s attention away from Socrates and then eventually seeks revenge on Willard himself. The final battle is not so much man against beast as it is man-become-beast against beast.
As I already said, the film is quite entertaining, so long as the viewer is, as the kids say, into this sort of thing. I hasten to add that Willard is not for the squeamish or those with a particular affection for cats; in fact, PETA members will find much to protest, in the level of violence perpetrated by, and inflicted on, animals. For viewers untroubled by such matters, Glover’s performance is worth the price of admission.
— Thomas S. Hibbs, an NRO contributor, professor of philosophy at Boston College, is the author of Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld.