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Rat man turns on love light

In 'Willard' remake, a rodent menagerie makes for some excellent therapy

It's the role Crispin Glover was born to play. With his ghostly countenance, crazed eyes and slicked-down hair, Glover is a perfect fit as freaky rat-lover Willard Stiles, the titular hero of 'Willard.' In other words, the guy's a major weirdo.

Not exactly your matinee-idol type, Glover's managed to avoid even character-actor stardom since his breakout performance as George McFly in 'Back to the Future' Ñ possibly because the real-life Glover is reportedly every bit as bizarre as the characters he's played onscreen. But in this remake of the 1971 schlock classic, he sinks his teeth into the role of a lifetime, and watching him tear up the screen is a delight.

Brought back from the dead by the 'X-Files' team of Glen Morgan and James Wong, 'Willard' is a carnival of film references. Director Morgan borrows liberally from Hitchcock, David Lynch and Tim Burton (composer Shirley Walker's score even sounds like some of Danny Elfman's scores for Burton's films) and makes some highly entertaining casting choices. R. Lee Ermey (the sadistic drill instructor in 'Full Metal Jacket') plays Willard's overbearing boss, Laura Harring of 'Mulholland Drive' is Willard's kindly co-worker and Bruce Davison, star of the original film, makes an appearance in photographs as Willard's deceased father.

Suffering through a home life that would make Norman Bates seem well adjusted, Willard cares for his sickly, screeching mother (Jackie Burroughs) and cringes through his days as an underling at a company once owned by his dead dad. Glover's take on the character is at first macabre and, ultimately, endearing; when he makes a friend out of a white rat named Socrates, Willard's loneliness is so unsettling that your heart goes out to him, even as you're simultaneously creeped out.

An oddball love triangle is formed with the appearance of bruiser Ben, an enormous rat who just wants a little furry lovin' for himself Ñ but Willard's heart belongs to Socrates, and Ben doesn't take kindly to being relegated to second banana. As Willard's army of rodents multiplies to the point where it takes over his familial Gothic mansion, clever Ben becomes more insistent that he be treated with respect.

And yes, you read that correctly Ñ 'army of rodents.' As Willard's confidence grows, so does the burgeoning number of ratty followers he harbors in his basement. Eventually hundreds of rats swarm the kitchen, living room and hallways of Willard's home and, in a reworking of the most famous set piece in the original film, accompany him on a special visit to his abusive boss.

To Morgan and Wong's credit, computer-generated images are used with a light hand here, and the rats are, for the most part, honest-to-goodness live rodents. Or at least they look like it, which is the important thing. So the creep factor is high, even for those of us who aren't afraid of the critters Ñ for those who are, well, it may be unbearable. During a recent screening, a steady stream of rat-phobic audience members fled throughout the film; one woman shuddered, exclaiming, 'OK, that's all I can take!' before heading for the lobby.

More black comedy than horror, 'Willard' is a terrifically funny and sublimely strange Hamlet-meets-Hitchcock mix, topped with a slice of cheese. See it with your favorite furry friend. Squeak!