Home Video Hovel: Willard/Ben, by David Bax
1971’s Willard, directed by Daniel Mann, was something of a surprise hit. A relatively low-budget creepshow from minor studio Cinerama Releasing with Ernest Borgnine in the antagonist role as the biggest star, it went on to gross almost $15 million (close to $90 million in 2018 money). This is remarkable given that it’s not very good and not very scary. In any case, the film’s legacy was soon undone by a quickie sequel, Ben, released the next year, which is even worse. If the horror hit/rushed sequel scenario makes you think of Scream and Scream 2, lower your expectations drastically. Both films are now available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory.
Willard stars future great character actor and Oscar nominee Bruce Davison in the title role, a wimpy manchild living with his mother and toiling away at the company his late father founded before it was taken over by Martin (Borgnine), a boorish taskmaster. Willard’s only friends are the rats hanging out around his dilapidated home. His mother wants Willard to kill the rodents but he names them and trains them instead. His favorites are Socrates and Ben, who turn out to be good and evil, respectively, in a dynamic that will be recognizable to Gremlins fans as similar to the relationship between Gizmo and Stripe. Davison’s oddball performance is the best thing going here; his ineffectual rage at Martin is palpable and when he finally screams at him, “You made me hate myself!”, bullying victims everywhere will know just what he means and believe him. But Mann’s shoddy staging, haphazard framing (he seems to be allergic to close-ups) and low-contrast lighting sap the drama and tension from most of the movie. The ending is cool, though.
It might actually be worth sitting through Willard to have an excuse to cackle at the even worse Ben. The tagline says, “Where Willard ended… Ben begins,” and they aren’t lying. Director Phil Karlson starts by replaying the last five minutes of the previous movie and then immediately picking up his new story on the street outside. What follows is both more conventional and far odder than Willard. In some senses, the sequel is a much more traditional monster movie (as opposed to a pre-Carrie social outcast story like Willard), in which a mischief of rats kills multiple hapless townsfolks on the way to a violent showdown with the authorities at the end. It’s even got the weary newspaperman and detective archetypes, bantering vapidly at the crime scenes in the aftermath (“What have you got?” grunts out one through teeth clamping a cigar; “I wish to God I knew,” answers the other before turning and walking away). On the other hand, though, the human protagonist, a young boy who befriends the evil rat from the first movie, is even weirder than Willard. He’s got an elaborate marionette collection and a stage for them in the shed where he makes up songs and dances for the dolls. He also pens a heartfelt ode to his new rodent friend mere hours after meeting him (the Oscar-nominated “Ben’s Song,” written by Don Black and Walter Scharf and sung by Michael Jackson over the closing credits). And he remains steadfastly devoted to Ben even after he finds out about the killings.
Ben’s blend of laughable clichés and so-nuts-it’s-great weirdness almost makes Willard seem like a nuanced and mature character study in comparison. Almost. Really, these two movies exist as a bizarre reminder of the brief period when American moviegoers apparently went rat-crazy.
Unless Willard’s flatness is due to bad color timing (and the overall ugliness of the movie leads me to believe that it is not), the transfer on the first movie is actually quite good, with a filmic fidelity in terms of grain and plenty of detail in faces and costumes. Ben, on the other hand, has been less well-preserved. The second movie actually includes a disclaimer that the original negative and interpositives made from it have been lost and the transfer was patched together from existing prints. The result is soft and muddy. The sound is good on both discs, though.
Willard contains a new commentary by Davison and an interview with Davison as well. Ben contains a new commentary with Lee Montgomery, who plays the weird kid, and a new interview with him as well.