Guest Reviewer Lee Broughton is back, with a rodent roundup of horror, or more accurately, psychological suspense interrupted by a few salacious slayings. What would Mickey say?
The brief synopses of Daniel Mann’s Willard and Phil Karlson’s Ben that appeared in the horror movie books and magazines that kids in the UK loved to pore over during the late 1970s always gave the impression that this pair of killer rat films were hardcore horror shows.
In truth, the actual horror content of both films is relatively mild and infrequent. In spite of this, Willard and Ben still tend to be discussed in terms of their relation to the often more extreme movies that appeared in the “animals attack” cycle of horror films that flourished during the 1970s.
That particular subgenre represents something of a niche interest area that is governed by a pretty tight set of boundaries. The use of a variety of markedly different generic modes serves to distinguish Willard and Ben from each other and their “animals attack” subgenre stable mates. Indeed, both films remain interesting and idiosyncratic enough to appeal to a much wider audience.
Guest reviewer Lee Broughton
Region B Blu-ray
1971 / Colour / 1.85:1 anamorphic / 95 m. / Street Date October 30, 2017
Starring: Bruce Davison, Ernest Borgnine, Sondra Locke, Elsa Lanchester, Jody Gilbert, Michael Dante, Joan Shawlee.
Cinematography: Robert B. Hauser
Film Editor: Warren Low
Art Director: Howard Hollander
Original Music: Alex North
Written by Gilbert A. Ralston from the novel Ratman’s Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert
Produced by Mort Briskin
Directed by Daniel Mann
Willard (Bruce Davison) is a socially awkward young man who lives at home with his unstable and ailing mother (Elsa Lanchester). He works in the office at a factory where he is both underpaid and bullied by his boss, Al Martin (Ernest Borgnine). One fateful day Willard discovers that he is able to communicate with and train the rats that live in his large garden and before long the place is overrun with them. He forms special relationships with two of their number that are super-intelligent creatures – a gentle white rat called Socrates and a more aggressive and dominant street rat called Ben. When a series of misfortunes and tragedies result in his personal life spiralling out of control, Willard decides to hit back at those who have made his life a misery by using the rats as a feral weapon.
Willard possesses many interesting narrative strands that serve to trouble the idea that the film is simply a generic “animals attack” drive-in horror movie. Indeed, the more straightforwardly dramatic sections of its story arc cleverly incorporate tropes that have been skilfully borrowed from a number of different genres. And director Daniel Mann uses these tropes to present some pretty well realized studies of the human predicament.
It transpires that Martin’s illicit business practices allowed him to swipe Willard’s father’s business so, rather than being the company vice president that he should be, our eponymous protagonist toils as an underpaid and underappreciated clerk. It seems to be an open secret that Martin actually murdered Willard’s father in order to facilitate the takeover and the fact that Willard has thus far been unable to take action against Martin in this regard is an early indication of his impotent nature.
It’s clear that a lack of personal funds and a newfound sense of responsibility for his elderly and unstable mother resulted in Willard remaining in the family home and becoming increasingly isolated and socially inept. Willard’s mother is domineering and needy but the near mansion-sized house that they live in is big enough for him to find his own space when he needs to.
But we can’t help but feel for Willard when the only attendees at his 27th birthday party are his mother’s gaggle of pensioner chums. His immaturity, the way that his mother and her pensioner friends infantilize him and the frustration that he feels when his mother makes demands of him – along with his need to rebel against her authority in small and childish ways – give the early portion of the show the feel of an angsty teen drama.
When Willard strikes up a friendship with a sympathetic office temp, Joan (Sondra Locke), Mann switches modes and the film becomes a kind of (belated) coming of age movie for a spell, with Willard finding himself on the verge of embarking on his first meaningful relationship with a girl of his own age. We’re really rooting for him to succeed but his lack of social skills and his growing preoccupation with his rats make the chances of a successful union appear slim.
Whether Willard really can communicate directly with the rats in a wholly meaningful way is open to question but his training techniques do result in them responding to his finger snaps and key words and phrases, such as “food” (in order to make them move towards foodstuffs) and “tear it up/tear him up” (in order to make them attack designated targets). Thus when the film nears its end it is perfectly primed for Mann to switch straight into revenge movie mode.
The rat wranglers led by Moe Di Sesso do excellent work here and good editing, eye-line matches and point of view shots tie all of the human-rodent interactions together nicely. The way that Mann shoots the scenes where Willard is seen lovingly training the rodents makes them look like cute and appealing little critters and, as a consequence, we soon come to regard the rats with a degree of affection too.
It’s actually Willard’s obsession with his rats – rather than their attacks – that generates many of the film’s moments of dread and suspense. Socrates and Ben come to fill the gap in his life that should be occupied by human friends. But when he starts carrying them about his person at home and in public and taking them to work, we’re presented with a series of tense scenarios that revolve around the very real possibility that the rats will be spotted or discovered by an unsympathetic third party.
Willard’s central narrative conceit – the idea that a human might become able to command an army of rats – may seem too fantastical for its nominally realist early 1970s setting but the film works really well, thanks in no small part to its excellent casting. There’s a feeling that Willard’s ensemble of actors gelled and their belief in and commitment to the material pervades the whole show.
As Willard, Bruce Davison is called upon to express a wide range of emotions in response to an inordinate number of slights, upsets, disappointments and traumas. He pitches Willard’s reactions somewhere between the expressions of knowing deep thought and silent menace that are associated with Anthony Perkins’ sociopathic characters and the expressive looks of confused exasperation and barely contained fury that Roddy McDowall’s oddball characters were often called upon to emote. In doing so Davison creates a convincing portrait of an awkward and disturbed young man that is his own.
Ernest Borgnine (The Wild Bunch) can usually be relied upon to come up with the goods in his own inimitable way and he plays the bullying, philandering and downright mean-spirited Martin with absolute relish – hence we’re ready for Martin to get his just desserts when the appropriate moment comes. Borgnine looks pretty trim here and when a desperate Martin cuts loose in a violent manner he looks like he could do real damage to Willard.
Elsa Lanchester (The Bride of Frankenstein) carries an aura of old school class and charm about her even at this late stage of her career and she does good work as Willard’s overbearing mother. A number of familiar faces appear alongside Lanchester as her pensioner friends. Sondra Locke’s turn as Joan is pleasing enough and it might well be the most sympathetic, appealing and convincing performance of her career.
Willard is a worthy if somewhat idiosyncratic film that remains hard to pigeonhole. Promoted as a horror film, the show played in popular cinemas and drive-ins and was a box office success. Reviewed retrospectively, the film probably has more in common with the more outré New Hollywood films of the time than it does with bog standard “animals attack” horror movies or contemporaneous exploitation flicks.
Indeed, the well-realized dramatic plot points and locations that it shares with films such as Noel Black’s Pretty Poison (the factory setting, the disgruntled lowly employee, the awkward young man slowly getting close to a pretty girl) and Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (the opulent old money mansion house setting, the young man’s strained relationship with his mother, the isolated young man’s friendships with older folk) suggest that it might be more appropriate to position Willard on the outer limits of New Hollywood’s corpus of films as opposed to sandwiching it between the likes of George McCowan’s Frogs or William F. Claxton’s Night of the Lepus.
Willard is also quite interesting at a stylistic level. There’s nothing too remarkable about the film’s cinematography but a number of its key scenes do feature noticeable combinations of striking and contrasting colours: at times it looks as if the show’s art director (Howard Hollander), set decorator (Ralph S. Hurst) and costume designers (Eric Seelig and Dorothy Barkley) were working in unison to produce a stylized colour scheme that fell somewhere between that of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast. And some wonderfully expressive lighting comes into play during Willard’s final confrontation with Martin.
One technical aspect of the film that does cause some frustration is veteran soundtrack music composer Alex North’s score. While it’s not completely incongruous, there are sections of the show where North’s music appears to be too grand and ebullient and thus a little ill fitting. Maybe a more doom-laden score would have made this intriguing little film too dark a proposition for its producers?
Second Sight’s Blu-ray presentation of Willard is a beauty. Mastered from a 4K scan of the film’s original camera negative, the show’s striking colours really pop off of the screen. The film’s sound quality is excellent too. The extra features include a fun interview with Bruce Davison.
Region B Blu-ray
1972 / Colour / 1.85:1 anamorphic / 94 m. / Street Date October 30, 2017
Starring: Lee Montgomery, Joseph Campanella, Arthur O’Connell, Meredith Baxter, Rosemary Murphy, Kaz Garas, Kenneth Tobey.
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Film Editor: Henry Gerstad
Art Director: Rolland M. Brooks
Original Music: Walter Scharf
Produced by Mort Briskin
Written by Gilbert A. Ralston using characters created by Stephen Gilbert
Directed by Phil Karlson
Police officers Kirtland (Joseph Campanella) and Greer (Kaz Garas) begin investigating the events that unfolded in Willard, which results in a feral pack of rats attacking and killing a uniformed cop who disturbs their hiding place. The locality is immediately gripped by a state of panic, with citizens wondering when the rats will strike again. The aggressive street rat Ben turns up at the home of a small boy, Danny (Lee Montgomery), who is thrilled to discover that he can communicate with the super-intelligent rodent. Danny is a lonely and sickly boy who is cared for by his mother Beth (Rosemary Murphy) and his older sister Eve (Meredith Baxter) and he’s yet to discover that Ben leads an army of rats who are very hungry. When the rats start brazenly raiding food stores en masse, Kirtland and Greer are forced to step up their investigations with a view to wiping the rats out completely.
While the almost New Hollywood-like Willard added real human and dramatic interest to its basic “animals attack” horror film formula by successfully incorporating tropes related to teen angst movies, coming of age dramas and revenge flicks, its sequel Ben treads a somewhat different path. Ben’s narrative arc is closer to that of a traditional exploitation film but this show also makes good use of tropes that we would normally associate with other genres.
The first bit of rat action offered up by Ben plays like the director Phil Karlson was thinking about the kind of staging that is used for the first appearance of a vampire in a gothic horror film. The rats are silently secreted in the wooden wall cavities of Willard’s cellar when a lone cop on night duty has his suspicions aroused by the actions of a nosey cat. He crowbars a vertical wall panel open – coffin lid style – and exposes the rodents. It’s worth noting that the rats only attack and kill him in self-defence here.
Film Studies 101-ers would no doubt be quick to assert that the rats seen in Ben must represent a hungry “Other” of some kind since the people that they scare tend to be white cops, white workers at capitalist food outlets or white upper middle class suburbanites. As in Willard, the rodents are coded as cute and sympathetic critters and we quickly appreciate that they simply want a safe place to live and enough food to survive. The pure-hearted kid Danny is able to think along these lines and he can only see the good in the rats. By contrast, Kirtland wants them exterminated fast.
Most of the time the unfortunate rats wind up scaring the humans quite by accident. For example, a raid on the JL Candy Company’s premises causes panic when the female shift workers call up a service elevator that the rodents are riding in. And in true exploitation film fashion, a raid on a cheese shop after dark sees some of the rats inadvertently entering the females-only Slim ‘n Trim European Health Spa situated next door with obvious results.
At a moral level, the desperate but daring raids that the rats lead on delivery vans and food stores play like the raids that sympathetic Native Americans or social bandits might be forced to make in revisionist US Westerns. And, just like such characters in Westerns, the rodents elect to make a brave but doomed final stand against an enemy who is equipped with superior weapons (it’s teeth and claws versus pump action shotguns, pressure hoses and flamethrowers here).
Incredibly, the tropes of the Robin Hood-styled folk hero gangster film are also evoked in early shots of the gang leader Ben, who is seen hugging the shadows of high concrete kerbs as he quickly makes his escape – public enemy No. 1-style – from the blaring police car sirens and intrusive police car lights of his pursuers. Ben’s fellow rodents surely see this particular “dirty rat” as a social bandit in the mould of Jimmy Cagney’s popular gangster types.
Ben’s action and horror scenes are linked by a couple of distinct narrative strands that are eventually drawn together. The first strand is a fairly unremarkable police procedural arc that is led by Kirtland and Greer. They are usually accompanied by a sarcastic newspaper reporter, Hatfield (Arthur O’Connell), who is always on hand to deliver a cynical wisecrack (“Panics sell papers”) or sage observation (“The territorial imperative. Lebensraum. Living room, that’s all they want”).
Veteran actor Kenneth Tobey shows up as a crack sewer engineer who is pressured into assisting the cops during the film’s final third. These four characters essentially function like the generic investigators-cum-problem solvers that are typically found in sci-fi and monster B-movies from the 1950s. Which is kind of fitting because Ben is essentially plotted just like a generic sci-fi-cum-monster B-movie.
The second narrative strand focuses on Danny and his relationships with his mother, sister and Ben. Sickly but resolute, Danny is the kind of kid that makes cinema audiences emote a communal and sympathetic “aaawwww”. He’s also a multi-talented child so we get to see him composing the show’s title song (as sung by Michael Jackson), dancing around while playing the harmonica and putting on marionette shows in his workshop. It’s overly cutesy stuff that plays like something out of a Disney show at times. Indeed, actor Lee Montgomery had starred in Vincent McEveety’s Disney flick The Million Dollar Duck the year before Ben’s release.
Overly cutesy material of this nature can be grating but it somehow works okay here, largely because it plays like just another eccentric ingredient in Ben’s already off-kilter mix. Danny’s affectionate interactions with Ben are really endearing and we feel for the kid – and the rat for that matter – when he’s pleading with Ben to run to safety rather than stay and fight with the approaching cops. Ben seems to be able to understand every word that Danny says to him.
Danny’s illness and the danger that it poses to him is convincingly telegraphed when the physical effort that he expends crawling into the sewers to find Ben’s home takes its toll. The film’s final scenes, which have Danny and sister Eve trapped in the sewers and caught in the crossfire between the cops and the rats work extremely well and feature some credible special effects work.
When compared to Willard, Ben features much more in the way of rodent action and the rat wranglers led by Moe Di Sesso do excellent work again. As in Willard good editing, eye-line matches and point of view shots tie all of the human-rodent interactions together nicely. The quality of the human acting isn’t as good as that found in Willard. The same goes for the script work and the cinematography in the film’s incidental (non-rat action) scenes. All of these factors add to Ben’s exploitation film-like look and ambience. On the plus side Walter Scharf’s soundtrack music features a number of appropriate sounding and well-used cues. In spite of – or because of – its eccentricities Ben remains an entertaining and compelling little feature.
The original negative for Ben is seemingly missing in action so this release has been mastered from the best surviving archive print of the film. All things considered it looks and sounds pretty good. It’s a shame that the original negative wasn’t available as Ben’s art director (Rolland M. Brooks), set decorator (Antony Mondello) and costume designers (Ray Harp and Mina Mittelman) appear to have conjured up a strikingly coloured film between them. The extra features include a fun interview with Lee Montgomery.
Reviewed by Lee Broughton
Willard and Ben Region B Blu-ray
Movies: Willard Excellent: Ben Good / Very Good
Video: Willard Excellent: Ben Good
Sound: Willard Excellent: Ben Very Good
Supplements: Willard: an interview with Bruce Davison, a commentary track by Bruce Davison, theatrical trailer, TV spot, radio spots and a stills gallery; Ben: an interview with Lee Montgomery, a commentary track by Lee Montgomery, theatrical trailer, teaser trailer, TV spots, Willard / Ben double feature trailer and TV spot, radio spot and a stills gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep cases (separate purchases)
Reviewed: November 8, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Lee Broughton
CineSavant Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson