By Owen Gleiberman
Updated March 12, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Willard: Pierre Vinet

Crispin Glover still looks as youthful and milky-skinned as Michael Jackson does in his dreams. A Dorian Gray of spaced oddity, Glover has always been such a naturally stylized human being that it’s hard to think of many earthly roles he was born to play. An undertaker, perhaps, or a vampire, or maybe a Milquetoast silent-movie star. You can now add to that list the title character of Willard.

As Willard Stiles, a moistly quivering loser who makes friends with the rats in his basement because they’re the only creatures around who don’t threaten his self-esteem, Glover is doing what should be a camp goof on Norman Bates. He plays it straight and intense, though, building each scene to an elegant Gloverish crescendo of fear and loathing and operatic hysteria. It’s no faint praise to say that he’s every bit as creepily sympathetic as Bruce Davison was in the 1971 original.

The new version is actually better. It’s still a fairly ham-handed revenge-of-the-nerd horror fable, but you don’t go to a movie like ”Willard” for subtlety. You go to be skeeved out by rats, rats, and more rats, and I’m tempted to say that ”Willard” does a fairly rat-tastic job of it. The squirmy critters slither over floors, counter tops, and live bodies (including those of a few unfortunate house pets), scurrying and sliding with that skin-crawly symmetry that makes them seem so…purposeful. The writer-director, Glen Morgan, blends real, animatronic, and digital vermin without letting you see the seams. ”Willard”’s tour de force is Ben, now a foot-long super-rat who looks like an ugly, murderous rabbit. It’s a sign of the film’s shuddery cartoon appeal that Willard’s ambiguous interaction with this giant rodent is more potent than anything in his relationship with his sadistic boss (R. Lee Ermey, working up a full-metal racket). It’s about time Glover starred in a movie where he wasn’t the only one gnawing the scenery.