Willard/Ben Limited Edition Box Set
Directed by Daniel Mann/Phil Karlson.
Starring Bruce Davison, Elsa Lanchester, Sondra Locke, Michael Dante, Lee Montgomery, Joseph Campanella, Arthur O’Connell, and Meredith Baxter.
Box set containing two cult classics about killer rats from the early 1970s.
Something of a ‘lost’ cult film from 1971, Willard is often cited as a forerunner for all of those ‘nature gone wild’ movies that came in the wake of Jaws in 1975 and there is a bit of truth in that as the plot does revolve around rats that seemingly kill on the command of the titular character (played by a very young Bruce ‘X-Men’ Davison. However, the similarity really ends there as most of those animal movies that came afterwards were essentially horror movies based around whatever creature hadn’t been shown killing in a movie before and Willard, despite that plot point of rats killing, is really a revenge movie with a black streak of comedy running straight down the middle of it.
This is because Willard is about Willard and not about the rats, who are really incidental. Willard is a timid 27-year-old working in the accounts department of the company his now-deceased father founded and is regularly put-upon by his intimidating boss Mr. Martin (Ernest Borgnine – Deadly Blessing) and his overbearing mother Henrietta (Elsa Lanchester – Bride of Frankenstein), plus her circle of elderly friends who all seem to know what is best for Willard, but one day he befriends a rat he finds in his garden. After giving it a name more rats appear and Willard begins training them to attack on command, something which comes in handy when his mother dies and Mr. Martin tries to buy out Willard’s family home for a fraction of what it is worth. However, once Willard realises what he has done he betrays his rat friends and things don’t quite go to plan for the hapless young man.
However, things went well for Willard the movie as Ben, the sequel, came along the following year and picks up right where Willard left off as Ben, the leader of the rat army, is befriended by a young boy named Danny (Lee Montgomery – Burnt Offerings). Danny has heart trouble and does not have many friends, spending most of his time with his mother, sister and his own imagination, but once Ben comes into his life Danny seems to perk up, although Danny’s family believe his rat friends to be imaginary as they never actually see them but that doesn’t seem to stop a few locals getting attacked by the pesky rodents. Here we go again…
Although both movies are marketed as horror movies, there is very little gore, violence or – to use that favourite phrase of the BBFC – sustained threat to really call them that, although of the two it is Willard that provides the most fun and entertainment in that department. The strength of Willard is in the writing and the performances that the fairly high-profile cast turn in, especially Ernest Borgnine and Bruce Davison, who appears in nearly every scene and pretty much carries the whole film on his vulnerable performance that gets across the loneliness that Willard has to face every day despite being surrounded by people. Despite the ludicrous nature of a story where an army of rats is trained to attack by a social outcast it is all taken relatively seriously, even though you know that the cast and crew must be sniggering away to themselves between takes, and the feeling of wanting to be taken seriously gives the film an accessible edge despite the sinister undercurrent of the plot. As previously stated, the film is light on gore and only really veers towards horror during the final 15 minutes, by which time you’ve spent enough quality time with Willard, Mr. Martin and everyone else to at least get invested in what happens to them.
By contrast, Ben tries to follow a similar path and doesn’t manage to remain as fun or as interesting as its predecessor, mainly down to not having any big names in the cast and by just being a retread without adding anything significant to the plot. In many horror movies, when a sequel is named after the main villain the focus of the story usually shifts and everything that the previous movie gave you is amplified but Ben doesn’t seem to want to lift its game at all, happy to pretty much tell the same story and not really deviate from where it went before. Obviously making the lead a young boy instead of a grown man makes the character dynamics a little different but the central theme of loneliness and being an outsider is the same and, probably more importantly for those looking for a ‘nature gone wild’ movie, the lack of blood and violence is even more noticeable than it was before.
Ultimately, Ben turns into a rats-versus-the authorities movie that only really offers the excitement of seeing some truly dreadful special effects as the police go after the aggressive rodents through the sewers with flamethrowers and that is really the only leanings towards horror that we get, although the carnage is minimal and the overall tone is one of B-level character actors taking it all way too seriously without the knowing nuances of an Ernest Borgnine or Elsa Lanchester to help move it along, and although young Lee Montgomery isn’t the most annoying child actor you’ll ever see – he’s not up there with Bob from The House by the Cemetery in terms of painful performances – he does not have enough chops to carry the movie and so you end up with a Disney-esque family drama with a backdrop of killer rats that never really gets the adrenaline levels above mildly watchable and certainly not enough to get behind any of the non-characters we get presented with.
The 4K scan of Willard looks pretty good, with the blues, greens and reds leaping out from the screen amidst the standard 1970s browns and greys, but the HD transfer of Ben sadly does not look anywhere near as shiny, looking more like a DVD rip. To be fair, the materials that were available weren’t particularly great to start with so this is the best they could do with what they had but if you watch it straight after watching Willard the difference is quite startling. Extras include TV spots, trailers, stills galleries and interviews and commentaries from Bruce Davison and Lee Montgomery for their respective movies plus a poster of the new Graham Humphreys artwork so that’s a nice little bonus for collectors but overall, while Willard is definitely the better of the two films and just about comes under the banner of 1970s movies genre fans should see, Ben is an unnecessary and forgettable movie that only really serves as a bonus feature in this set, although the combination of Willard, the poster and the fancy packaging makes it worth adding to your physical media collection should the urge take you.
Willard – Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Ben – Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★