Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: As part of Horrors Week, we’re recommending some of the finest (or just weirdest) killer-animal flicks money can buy.

Willard (2003)

A mass of killer rats sounds, on paper, like fodder for a chintzy non-shocker—a Stephen King knockoff or a Syfy original. While the 2003 remake of Willard is as much a dark-comic character study as a scary movie (if not more so), it does zero in on the throngs of rats controlled by Willard Stiles (Crispin Glover) enough for specific animals to emerge. When Willard first discovers the rat colony, he intends to exterminate them. But the smart little white rat Socrates catches his fancy, whom Willard uses to train and lead the others. The human-rat partnership also leaves an opening for the grossly oversized (and more menacing) Ben to emerge from the shadows and assert himself. For much of its running time, the movie is both a boy-and-his-pet story and a pet-from-hell story, running concurrently.

Glover, in a rare starring role for a studio film, has no trouble keeping up with both threads. He’s heartbreaking as the friendless outcast consigned to a life caring for his crone mother—and working at a family business ceded to a nasty interloper played by R. Lee Ermey—and a little scary as he hisses directives to the rats that have infested his basement. Glen Morgan, part of the Morgan/Wong partnership that produced some of the better X-Files episodes as well as Final Destination movies, re-introduces the Willard character through the home he shares with his mother. The camera peers around dark corners, pulls back to take in the large rooms, and pushes in on Glover’s anguished face. One of the best shots of the movie captures Glover’s pale blue eyes, alive with excitement, as he watches his new friends through a rat hole.

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The rest of the movie’s small (human) cast doesn’t get nearly so much loving attention. Willard’s boss (Ermey), for example, exists primarily to tee himself up as a foe via ironic rat-related affronts and taunts: specifically vowing not to be devoured by “rats” in the proverbial rat race, or literally trapping Willard in a cage to berate him. Even the main rats aren’t especially expressive; they gain dimension through Glover’s committed portrayal. It’s Willard’s vulnerability that makes Socrates seem like such a gentle comfort, and makes the disobedient, malevolent Ben seem like such a villain—even though the killing Ben does is all made possible, directly or indirectly, by his human frenemy. Glover’s one-man show is so convincing it doesn’t always seem like a performance at all.

Availability: Willard is available on DVD via Netflix and your local video store/library, and available for purchase or rental from the major digital outlets.

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