Rats are terrifying, of that there is no doubt. Just the sight of one at a store or restaurant will cause us to never visit the establishment again, and heaven forbid we see one in our home! Now imagine them organized, and turned against us. Brrrr… yeah, really scary. That was the theme of two frightening films of the early 1970s. Meet me after the jump for my 31 Days of Horror reviews of Willard and Ben!
Willard was an event back when I was in elementary school. Those kids not lucky enough (or with parents negligent enough) to see it in theaters were in front of their black and white TVs watching it and talking about it in school the next day. In a world with only three networks and only a few UHF ones, it was easier for everyone to have watched the same show the night before, and Willard, along with things like Planet of the Apes or Helter Skelter or Roots, was one of those events.
Bruce Davison, one of the best and most underrated character actors out there, plays Willard Stiles, a quiet and meek twenty-seven year old who lives with his aged mother in a situation that more than echoes Psycho. Of course here, Mom is still alive, at least for a little while, and played by the wonderful Elsa Lancaster, probably best known as The Bride of Frankenstein. Willard works for Mr. Martin, a particularly nasty turn by Ernest Borgnine, who worked Willard’s father to death and stole his company. He constantly bullies and berates Willard much to the delight of his fellow workers. Willard’s only friend at work is Joan, played by a young Sondra Locke.. It’s a small cast, human cast that is, there are hundreds of rats..
Willard was one of classic Hollywood director Daniel Mann’s last cinematic films before moving to television, and was a summer horror hit in 1971, paving the way for more horrors with animals and outcasts. This film and Ben were based on the novel Ratman’s Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert, which surprisingly named more rat characters than human ones.
Lonely and awkward, Willard, when told by his mother to dispose of the rats in the cellar, befriends them instead. Soon he finds he can teach the rats tricks, and later encourage them to do his bidding. Willard forms unhealthy connections to the rats, naming a white rat he’s fond of Socrates, and another more aggressive black rat Ben. His preference, and death of Socrates by his boss’ hand, leads to dissension in the rat ranks. The rats, once loyal to Willard, turn on him.
With most of his acting done opposite the rats, this is a masterful soliloquy, an acting tour de force, by Davison. At times this is a sweet animal flick, even if they are rats, as when he is making friends and training them, but when it turns to horror, Davison takes that in stride as well, playing the vengeful monster as easily as he reacts to his mother’s death. Davison makes this movie.
With Mother dead, Willard allows the rats free reign in the big old house, as he slowly deteriorates. What enables the audience to sympathize with Willard, and the rats as well, is the quality of the monster he is up against. Borgnine is the real monster who makes Willard the lesser of two evils. Anyone of us who has known or worked for a Mr. Martin is definitely rooting for Willard when it comes to these two.
One thing I noticed on re-watch was that the burglary via rat was not in the version I first saw as a kid. The cat scene is still priceless, and the scene where Martin kills Socrates is fairly brutal. And when Willard gets even with Martin, Willard is far more frightening than the rats that do the deed. Speaking of acting, it’s amazing how good Ben is, no wonder he got a sequel. The power struggle between man and rat is impressive.
In the final act of Willard, Ben becomes the monster, as opposed to either Willard or Martin. I guess it’s this performance that earned the little guy a sequel and/or spin-off one year later. Moving against type when it comes to such things, Ben is a very different movie, and that difference starts with what most people remember about the movie – the title song.
Originally offered to Donny Osmond, “Ben” was Michael Jackson’s first solo number one hit. The ballad, not what one might expect from a movie about a killer rat, plays over the end credits of the film. The song won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar, losing to Maureen McGovern’s “The Morning After” from The Poseidon Adventure. When I first heard the song, also back in elementary school, I remember thinking a song for a rat very weird. It was only a sign of things to come for Jackson I suppose.
There’s a reason why the song is all most folks remember about the film, and that’s because it’s not very good, and a bit of a stretch from its source material. Ben begins with a clip of the end of Willard as the opening credits roll. We watch as Ben takes down Willard again, just in case we had forgotten. After this horrific start, we get an equally grisly aftermath of those events. We have a neighborhood where there have been two murders committed by rats, and the police have Willard’s notebook, a throwback to the source material, Ratman’s Notebooks.
As Ben and his army hide, the police and press conspire not to cause a panic as the bodies pile up. In the meantime Ben makes friends with a sheltered boy with a heart condition named Danny. As the movie switches back and forth between rat murders and this kid, I really started to hate him. I was hoping Ben would turn on him like he did Willard.
This movie is full of mediocre 1970s television and movie actors like Arthur O’Connell, Joseph Campanella, Kenneth Tobey (who starred in a number of classic scifi-horrors from the 1950s, including The Thing from Another World), Lee Montgomery (the kid) and very young Meredith Baxter (pre-Birney). It really feels like they are all reading their lines or only rehearsed once or twice. Weirder still are the extras that stare mindlessly. What us up with that?
Unlike Willard that had a very 1970s feel and subtext, Ben is almost 1950s in its horror. In many ways this is an old school monster movie (it even has Kenneth Tobey!), more in common with The Blob than a traditional horror flick. And while Willard was psychological and character-driven, this is more about how disgusting rats are, the grocery store scene being a prime example.
I’m not sure which was worse though, Danny’s fantasy world, including the Ben puppet show and the “Start the Day” song, or the crappy animated rats used in the attack scenes. I just can’t understand how Ben can put up with this annoying kid, but took out Willard first chance he got. And the way this kid played with the rats like dolls really creeped me out, more than the rats killing people, in either movie.
Ben has nowhere near the bite, ahem, that Willard has, and if you have choice, see the original over the sequel. Willard is the true horror, Ben is just an after-dinner snack… with a creepy theme song.