There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.
Sometimes, though, when you take that second trip to the well, there’s just no way you can squeak out a win here…
Distributed by: Cinerama Releasing Corporation
Directed by: Phil Karlson
Please note: There will be spoilers in this piece, though they be not as spoilt as the film itself…
Once upon a time, it didn’t take much to creep out theater audiences. In 1971, all it took were a few half-decent actors and a large number of rats:
Times were different, except for one constant: if a film made money, someone was going to green light a sequel.
In a rare case of truth in advertising, the ad copy was pretty spot on: the cold open for Ben is the last two or so minutes of Willard, when we watch the title character (Bruce Davison, who despite his prominence in the opening was not given credit in the new film) get taken down by Ben and the army of rats that he now controls.
Soon, with the neighbors looking on, the police are surrounding the house to retrieve Willard’s body from inside, presumably brought there because Willard’s girlfriend Joan (Sondra Locke) got suspicious when Willard told her to run for her life as the squeaking from the basement got louder and louder.
It’s here we get the first of a number of insidious exchanges between Police Chief Kirtland (Joseph Campanella) and newspaperman Billy Hatfield (Arthur O’Connell). In probably the most fantastic element of the film, because there has NEVER been a relationship between the cops and the press like this anywhere at any time, these two go back and forth between antagonistic and incestuous at the turn of a thin dime. (About the only real purpose their interaction serves is to bring up the fact that Willard had a diary, the only shout-out made in both films to the source material, Ratman’s Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert.)
Among the throng watching are the Garrison family, matriarch Beth (Rosemary Murphy), daughter Eve (Meredith Baxter), and little heartless bastard Danny (Lee Montgomery). And that description of the young lad is not entirely cruel; one of his defining characteristics is that he’s had a series of operations to combat heart disease that leaves him vulnerable and with a big scar down his chest, while his father is mentioned in passing as no longer being around. Though considering this family and the film they’re in, he might have made an “Irish goodbye” at the first chance he could…
It’s Danny who’s the main human focus, the one Ben sizes up as a sucker to work over makes contact with to try and find someone who falls for his crap understands him. And Danny, who’s soppy and annoying (and yes, that is supposed to be cruel), falls for Ben’s BS right away. He’s so swayed by him, in fact, he composes a song and sings it to him, accompanied by a marionette he made for the occasion:
When he’s not being sung to by his pigeon friend, Ben is busy plotting some major heists with his army of rats. A supermarket here, a candy factory there, then a cheese emporium (but of course), complete with a rat run through the health club with female patrons in towels screeching as they jump off the floor, and soon the residents of Los Angeles are looking at a serious issue.
No, not Hantavirus, something worse: real estate depreciation. You have a fairly middle class group of panicked folk who look much like the kind of folks who’d head for the suburbs back in those days, ifyouknowwhatImean, and they seem more concerned with the general skivviness of having rats next door than what such vermin could actually do. It might give the film makers too much credit to assume that this was a subtle commentary on urban affairs in the 1970s; the film’s producer, Bing Crosby Productions, was the same outfit that thought Hogan’s Heroes was worth putting on the air, so make of that what you might…
This leads to an effort to eradicate the millions of rats Ben’s amassed once and for all, going into the sewers with flamethrowers and firepower to take them out. Picture the climatic battle scenes of Them! but without the imposing monsters to go up against, which makes the whole thing kinda silly when you watch it.
Which pretty well sums up the problem with the film: what kept Willard interesting was having this cast of kooky characters to watch between shots of the rats, some of them played by the likes of Davidson, Elsa Lanchester, and Ernest Borgnine. For Ben, the rats have to do all the heavy lifting by themselves, with actors either not taking the film seriously or not up to the task of working with animal co-stars. Only Montgomery seems to try and engage with his rodent cast mates, and it’s so saccharine and over-the-top you want to forget him and the two songs he tries to sing that Walter Scharf wrote for the film.
Yes, two; the one we heard earlier, and the one that was sung by Danny early on but at the end of the film gets handed off to another singer…
Yes, this is where that song came from. Michael Jackson’s first solo hit, which made him at 14 the youngest artist to get to #1 on the Billboard singles chart, was a tie-in with this movie. The song, which originally was offered to Donny Osmond (who was too over-scheduled to record it), actually earned the film an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, losing to “The Morning After” from The Poseidon Adventure, which feels miraculous considering how quickly the film came and went in theaters.
This horrifyingly cheesy (#SorryNotSorry) film that feels like a made-for-TV production that got into the theaters by mistake actually gave Michael Jackson his first solo hit, by avoiding any mention of rats whatsoever in the lyrics. In avoiding association with the film, the song thrived on its own and did very well by itself.
Would that we could so emulate Michael Jackson, in making our lives so much better by excising Ben altogether…
NEXT TIME: It’s cold and the snow’s up to here, so let’s play a high stakes game to waste time; what could go wrong…?