Ben: 1972 rat-tastic Willard sequel is now on Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Scream Factory
Where Willard ended, Ben begins! Yesterday, we raved about Scream Factory’s release of director Daniel Mann’s 1971 adaptation of Stephen Gilbert’s novel “Ratman’s Notebooks,” on Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, a legitimately noteworthy cause for celebration as Willard has never been legitimately available in either format before. Neither has Ben, the immediate 1972 sequel that takes the leader of the sentient rat colony and pairs him with a sick little boy who is also one helluva piano player and impromptu songwriter.
Taking the final frames of Willard, with Bruce Davison’s rat-master milquetoast hero getting torn to shreds at the command of his former “friend”, Ben begins with a police procedural and a pack of confused detectives trying to make sense of the situation. Luckily, it appears Willard had kept a journal of his adventures with the vermin and now the cops are keen to find the head honcho critter dubbed in said diary, “Ben”. The device is both lazy and interesting as I don’t recall Willard ever putting a pen to page in the first picture and yet it makes sense, seeing as the first film’s source novel was indeed about the character’s notebooks.
Anyway, Ben – now without a human enabler – leads his “people” (in some ways the movie and the motives echo the spate of “revolutionary” genre films, like Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, released that same year) on a series of covert adventures to fine food, ripping apart any too-curious human who get in their way. All this rogue rat horror is juxtaposed with the tale (tail) of little Danny (Lee Montgomery from Dan Curtis’ Dead of Night and Burnt Offerings as well as eco-horror flick Mutant), a child who, after undergoing multiple heart surgeries, is coddled and protected by his mother and big sister (Meredith Baxter from Family Ties). Danny whiles away his day making music and creating a world of fantasy and puppet shows and escape and when Ben shows up on his windowsill, calmed and fascinated by the boy, the two begin a friendship. When bullies target Danny, Ben sends his army to but the bite on them and the pair cuddle up nightly, something that was constantly denied him by his previous human pal Willard. Meanwhile, the cops still bumble around town and Ben keeps leading his pals on nightly raids of supermarkets and, in one particularly amusing scene, a ladies only health spa.
Critics were even meaner to Ben than they were to Willard and one can sort of see why. Like it’s predecessor, the movie features acres of vermin running wild but unlike the first film, there’s no psychological component to ground and propel it. The big difference here is that Willard was indeed based on a literary source and you felt that. The first film had a spine, finely etched characters and subtext. Ben is just a movie about rats doing stuff. While both films were PG (or GP) rated (and both have screenplays by Gilbert A. Ralston), Willard is not really for kids, filled as it is with icky moments, cruelty, psychodrama and dollops of gore. Ben however, with its child hero and sweeter tone and lack of blood, seems tailored for younger audience. But once you accept that, there’s plenty of weird, jittery thrills to be had here. Director Phil Karlson, a journeyman hack who excelled making action films like Walking Tall and Framed, had his roots in episodic television and indeed Ben often feels like a ’70s TV film with a fatter budget (that went to realizing the rat apocalypse no doubt), moving as it does from one melodramatic scene to the next. There are also surreal touches, like after a trucker crashes his rig after a rat attack and a supermarket gets trashed by the beasts, onlookers just stand like statues and stare, with Karlson’s camera staring back. It’s an off-note touch and whether accidental or not, it adds eeriness to the movie. Additionally, as many of you know, the breakout Michael Jackson hit song “Ben’s Song” was written for this movie (amusing as the legion of fans who thrilled to the tune hadn’t a clue it was a love song penned for a cinematic sewer chewer) and there’s a really goofy scene where Danny sits at a piano actually writing the song itself. Goofy but, like the rest of the movie, charming.
Scream Factory did the best they could with the source material for this High-def transfer (Willard is a 4K scan of the negative, Ben is obviously mastered from a print) but Ben is a different looking movie to begin with, taking place mostly at night, and the movie doesn’t have the comic-book, brightly colored texture of Willard. This is the best this muddy looking movie has ever or likely will ever look. Extras include a wonderful commentary with Montgomery (who is unrecognizable from his youth) and interview, where he talks about how much fun he had making the movie, how kind everyone was and his experiences dealing with the initially repellent rats themselves.
Not the masterpiece Willard is, Ben is still a curious and occasionally moving companion piece with the young Montgomery excelling in a fairly demanding role. Together these films (which were both financed by crooner Bing Crosby!) mark a time when genre movies aimed to offer more than just cheap shocks and franchise baiting imitation. A great double bill indeed.