Written by: Stephen Gilbert (characters), Gilbert Ralston
Directed by: Phil Karlson
Starring: Lee Montgomery, Joseph Campanella, and Arthur O'Connell
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Start the day, oh come along now, Ben. Come on out before I count to ten. If you stay, you will miss all the fun and there's room for everyone..."
If youíre like me and have vague, fleeting memories of renting Willard and Ben many years ago, chances are theyíve been conflated quite a bit, with each film overlapping the other. That was my experience, anyway: while Willard was only faintly familiar, its sequel was much more so, which only makes sense considering I would have likely watched it more as a kid. Not only does it boast a child protagonist, but itís also more in line with what youíd expect a killer rat movie to be like. Where Willard is a slow-burning character drama that just happens to feature killer rats, Ben goes all-in on the lunacy inherent in the premise. This is the one you want to watch for (mostly) pure schlock, as the title suggests everything you need to know: this time, itís Ben, the highly intelligent, scheming rat taking center stage to wreck some shit for 90 minutes.
Picking up moments after Willard ended, Ben finds a gaggle of rubbernecking onlookers gawking on the scene at the Stiles house. Authorities of discovered the corpse of poor Willard, now gnawed at and presumably mostly eaten away. The culprit is obvious, yet the police are befuddled: not a single trace of an actual living rat can be detected. When one of them starts poking around, however, he discovers theyíre inexplicably hiding in the walls and cabinet. None too pleased about being found, they immediately devour the poor bastard before quickly scurrying off again, once again leaving the police confounded. This time, they abandon the old mansion completely and start wreaking havoc all over town. Along the way, Ben is befriended by another loner in Danny (Lee Montgomery), a sickly little boy with a heart condition.
Of course, itís that last little development that keeps Ben firmly on the eccentric side. Eschewing the temptation to simply have the film focus on Benís now rampant destruction, thereís an attempt at recapturing the weird, character-driven dynamic from Willard. Itís not quite as striking this time around, but it is a decidedly odd turn of events, mostly because Danny is such a strange presence and personality. Despite his sickness, heís preternaturally gifted at, like, everything: playing piano, composing songs, putting on marionette shows. Montgomery matches it with a precocious turn that falls somewhere on the spectrum between grating and endearing, with gradual hints of deviousness being added into the mix when he begins to cover for Ben.
Thatís essentially what Ben boils down to: the story of a boy who refuses to, er, rat out his pet rodent to the cops. Like Willard before it, the film plays out askew but without winking at the audienceóitís absurd, to be sure, but itís almost too fucked up to even chuckle at. Even a scene where Ben and his minions exact revenge against a bully on Dannyís behalf isnít played too triumphantly, as Dannyís refusal to cooperate with the police takes an obvious toll on his poor mother (Rosemary Murphy) and sister (Meredith Baxter). They know something is obviously up with the suddenly cagey Danny, who is also very concerned about his creeping mortality. It turns out itís kind of hard to indulge in the trashy potential of a movie when it also features scenes of a 10-year-old asking his sister if heís going to die. Not helping matters: she responds by insisting that everyone dies and that, yes, Dannyís doctor has recently stated that his condition might soon be fatal. What a buzzkill.
And yet, this is somehow the same film that features a copious amount of unhinged destruction from a pack of rats. At least half of Ben is dedicated to the title character engaging in random acts of violence. Nothing is safe: a truck driverís rig, the town supermarket, and a spa resort all fall victim to Benís horde during the filmís more exploitative scenes. Thereís more of those here than there were in Willard, a film that was admittedly a bit more fully formed and more tightly constructed than this sequel. Willard deftly tows the line between disparate tones; Ben is a bit more haphazard in slapping them all together. Scenes with Ben and Danny feel like a screwy kids movie, with the rest taking on the tenor of the schlocky killer animal flicks that would come to dominate the 70s trash cinema landscape. The two meet in the middle with a nicely crafted climax that takes Danny and his sister down into the bowels of the sewers to help Ben brace for the coming assault once the police finally snuff out his location.
Just poring over the absurdity of that previous sentence comes close to aptly summarizing how strange (and fun!) Ben manages to be. In addition to everything else going on, itís also a goddamn police procedural about hunting down killer rats, with Joseph Campanella as a high-strung cop and Arthur OíConnell playing the thorn-in-the-side reporter. With musical interludes and marionette shows peppered in, thereís rarely a dull moment in Ben, a film that somehow transcended all this wackiness to earn an honest-to-god Academy Award nomination for Best Song thanks to Michael Jacksonís rendition of the theme. Of all the things that make the least sense between these two movies, this might be the most inexplicable, and, even though Ben lost out to ďThe Morning AfterĒ from The Poseidon Adventure, it allowed this weird little film to forever carve itself into the public consciousness.
Which, again, makes it all the more strange that it and Willard practically disappeared during the past twenty years. For most of that time, I assumed clearing the use of Jacksonís performance might have been the biggest stumbling block, but it was actually even simpler than that: all this time, itís just been a lack of elements, per Bruce Davisonís interview on the Willard disc. Scream Factoryís disclaimer on the Ben release seems to confirm this, as it opens with a note about the transfer being sourced from a surviving archival print rather than the original negative or an interpositive. Nonetheless, the presentation is fine (itís just not reference quality, but you probably wouldnít expect that regardless), and Scream has also provided a commentary by Montgomery alongside the typical assortment of trailers, TV ads, and radio spots.
Itís been said a lot about Scream Factoryís releases, but it bears repeating: this is a case where weíre lucky to finally see these particular films on a digital format. Everything else is gravy. Or cheese. Whatever. Now, if we could just convince WB to release the remake on BluÖ
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