The unwritten rule of remakes has always been "is there a reason for this film to be done again." In this case, it was a coin toss. The original, a 1971 creepy little item about a young misfit named Willard (Bruce Davison) who somehow gains control over the hordes of rats living in his cellar, was fun at the time but is now only memorable for one line of dialogue -- "tear 'im up" -- said by Willard to his minions upon deciding to kill his nasty boss (Ernest Borgnine).
The rest of the film was kind of slow, a character study of this poor guy who has no friends, has to put up with his overbearing mother and is constantly browbeaten by that boss. Willard's only salvation was his best-friend relationship with Socrates, the white rat living in his basement, and his slightly shaky relationship with Ben, a much larger dark rat with a mind of his own.
All of these characters and animals and situations are in this updated version of the story, the difference -- for the better -- being that it's hipper, funnier (in a dark way), more over the top in its garishness and has Crispin Glover in the lead role.
Forever playing some sort of outsider, Glover, with a face made up of amazing angles that the camera explores in extreme close-up, presents a Willard who lets you feel as well as see all of his pent-up anxieties. His father, who ran a manufacturing company, died years ago, leaving his mother more than slightly addled and leaving the conniving Mr. Martin (R. Lee Ermey) in charge of the company. In a nice touch that will go over the heads of most viewers, there's a painting and some photos of Willard's father around the house -- and they're of Bruce Davison.
Forever lonely, and either bossed around or ignored by everyone, Willard heeds his mother's shriek that serves as the film's opening line: "Willard, there are rats in the basement!" There sure are, and he goes after them wielding anti-rat products. But since a film like this needs neither rhyme nor reason, instead of killing them, he gets to like them, in particular the one he names Socrates. By the time he meets up with big Ben -- really, this is one huge rat! -- Willard is training the suddenly teeming rodent population in the basement to do little tricks, to obey his every word, to come scurrying into valises and suitcases so he can transport them around.
Ah, poor Willard. His thoughts are that if people treat him badly, then his rats can treat those people even worse. Living the solitary life with crazy, crazy Mom in a big old dusty Victorian house (a remarkable piece of set design) and reporting late to work every day, only to get chewed out by the boss has finally gotten to him. He's now sweating and clenching his fists much more than he ever did.
Willard makes for an interesting character because folks watching this will react to him differently. There are some who will loathe him; there are some who will sympathize with him. He's a total loser, but there's still a remnant of a human side, though he wants only Socrates as a friend. A problem with the original film was the inclusion of a young woman coworker (Sondra Locke) who took a liking to Willard. But the part felt tacked on, and her actions didn't make any sense. The same thing happens here, when Laura Elena Harring (Mullholland Drive) takes on the role. She's nice to look at, but the character adds nothing to the story, and she shows up at the oddest of times.
But both Glover and Ermey do it up just right. You can't really tell what's going on behind Glover's eyes, especially when they widen and his face begins to quiver, but you know the thoughts are bad ones. And Ermey, while still playing variations of his role in Full Metal Jacket, has learned the art of making the villain so bad that he's quite funny.
Visual effects, even beyond the set design, are excellent. There's only one shot of the rat hordes that has "computer" written all over it. That's the one outrageous look at Willard standing in an elevator packed to the ceiling with his little friends. Everything else appears to be like real rats... everywhere.
Because this is a "pop tragedy," all must go wrong for everyone. Poor misguided Willard isn't quite the same at the end.