I’ma so happy that I be a man,
Cause I got the whole world in my hands.
I got the whole world in my hands.
I’ma happy that I be a man.
— Crispin Hellion Glover, “Auto-Manipulator”
Devised by Glen Morgan and James Wong, the team responsible for (the good seasons of) The X-Files and Final Destination, the Willard remake is remarkably worthy. In fact, it has some decided advantages over the 1971 original, not least being that Crispin Glover not only plays the title character, but also sings the closing credits version of “Ben.” It’s hard to imagine a more sinister, more perfect interpretation of this most uncanny of tunes.
Glover has long been a culty favorite, notorious for his consistently startling turns in River’s Edge, Wild at Heart (Cousin Dell, meticulously placing roaches in his briefs), Like Mike (the dreadful orphanage manager) Charlie’s Angels (the Thin Man), and of course, the first Back to the Future‘s George McFly (who is especially startling if you consider that he somehow produced the relentlessly rational Marty). As well, back in 1989, Crispin Glover released a cd called The Big Problem [does not equal] The Solution. The Solution = Let It Be. The entire album is pretty near priceless, but it did boast peculiar highlights, including his cover of “These Boots Are Made for Walking” and his own concoction, “Auto-Manipulator.” Glover regularly stands apart from his fellow oddballs, even when surrounded by weirdos. No one can out-weird him.
As the titular lifelong loser in Willard, Glover takes up this mantle once again. As many have observed of the Bates house, he is the film’s best special effect. (Though, truth be told, he gets considerable help from the always courageous Jackie Burroughs, as Willard’s mother, Henrietta.) Frustrated by his lack of intercourse, Willard Stiles is moping about when the bedridden Henrietta announces that she’s heard rats in the basement of their operatically dilapidated home. Dutifully he heads downstairs, where, as he teeters on the wooden stairway, the fuse blows when he flips the light switch. Seeking luminescence, he comes on a flashlight, which he shines into the camera, filtered light-effect and high-beam right in your eyes. Hoorah, the film proclaims one of its several X-Files-ish references (another being a cat named Scully).
Willard’s first effort toward solving the problem is to head to the local mega-mart, so fluorescently and muzak-ically horrific that it seems a most fiendishly imagined circle of hell. Standing in the rat-poison aisle, he peruses the labels, landing on the one that looks most effective: Mouse Prufe II. When he goes to pick it off the shelf, however, he discovers that it is sold out. And so he returns home, a bag full of the inferior brand in tow. His defeat is redoubled when his efforts to kill the rats fail, miserably.
But if his efforts didn’t fail, he wouldn’t have the chance to meet the white rat he christens Socrates, who leads his fellows to do whatever Willard says (“Tear it up”), shares his bed (“I’ll never leave you, ever”), nibbles away at the Numm Nuts Willard offers, and tags along with him to work, where he waits quietly in the desk drawer until it’s time to trudge on home, metaphorical tail between his legs.
Work is, in a word, gruesome. At the grim offices of Martin-Stiles Manufacturing, where it’s not clear what they manufacture; it’s one of those Brazil-style workplaces, where the elevator cage is huge and rattly, the hallways are sickly green, and the desks are cluttered with papers, inboxes, and computer monitors. Willard’s boss, Frank Martin (R. Lee Ermey), is monstrous: sweaty-faced, loud, and determined to make Willard’s life unpleasant. The former partner of Willard’s dad (“remembered” here in portraits and photos of the original Willard, Bruce Davison), Martin spends most of his time harassing his employees and cruising the feeblest of internet porn sites. Willard has a special place in his hard heart, embodying whatever might be left of his guilt, for Mr. Stiles’ suicide and Mrs.’s terminal frailty.
Much as Ermey livens up the proceedings (and brings to bear his old drill sergeant affect on the cringing Willard), the film runs through its single idea (Willard loves his rats) pretty quickly. Though Willard shares a mutual, strange affection with Cathryn (Laura Elena Harring, whose experience on Mulholland Drive may have primed her to work with fellow Lynch veteran Glover), he probably believes, as he tells Socrates repeatedly, that he has nothing to live for beyond his new furry friend. And, as no intrahuman relationship develops beyond the fleeting, arresting moment — Cathryn’s hand caressing Willard’s face, his eyes red-brimming with tears — the film is rather stuck with its focus on Willard and the rats.
And there are lots of them — some 550 live rats, along with CGI and animatronic creatures. The most disquieting is Big Ben (about whom Michael Jackson is singing, as 1972’s Ben plays on television as melodically creepazoid counterpoint to an especially nasty rat-stalking and assaulting scene). This mammoth rat, brown and aggressive, nosy and abnormally expressive, is the opposite of the cutesy white-mousey Socrates. What’s more, Ben is increasingly jealous of Socrates’ special treatment, and begins to take matters into his own teeth.
At this point it’s clear that Willard is afraid of Ben’s strength, his relentlessness, his will to survive, and his seeming freedom of movement and appropriation: “You can go anywhere,” he wails. “I have nowhere.” Cowering in the kitchen corner, Willard suddenly sees himself another way: a poor white kid in a decrepit building, underprivileged, afraid, and hopeless.