A Friend Like Ben: Willard (1971) & Ben (1972)

(image via IMDB)

I had a lot of plans this month. Last October was the first year where I really delved into horror in the lead-up to Halloween, and it was the discovery of some particularly excellent films—The Haunting, House, Cat People—that motivated me to start writing about film again after a period of feeling burned out and dissatisfied with my work. I had hoped to discover another batch of great horror classics this year, and write about as many of them as possible, this time utilizing this blog. Unfortunately, a number of assignment deadlines, a couple of midterms, and my work scheduling me for way more hours than usual halted these plans in their tracks. I’ve still watched some good movies this month, but I just haven’t had the time or inspiration to write about any of them.

This brings us to Willard and Ben, a pair of horror movies that have successfully gotten my creative juices flowing for the first time this month, and which I've actually found some time to write about. Most interesting about these films, and something I didn’t find out until after watching them, is that for the last few decades they’ve been incredibly hard-to-find: it's only this year that they've finally been unearthed, getting Blu-ray releases from Scream Factory in May, and receiving a premiere showing on TCM Underground this month, where I had the opportunity to discover them. Incredibly odd and off-kilter, this is a pair of films that aren’t hard to believe as under-the-radar cult classics, but I’m certainly grateful that they didn’t stay that way.

Between Willard and its sequel Ben, Willard is clearly superior—as is usually the case with horror films and their sequels—and follows the age-old plot of the young, awkward young man who longs only for some understanding and companionship. Played by Bruce Davison, Willard is definitely in the upper echelon of these kinds of characters: he is sympathetic while still capturing that vibe of strangeness that distances the viewer from him, helping us to understand the reactions he gets from the other people in his life. Davison performs some truly marvelous physical acting here, especially in some early scenes with the rats that could come off sappy or sentimental, but the look in Willard’s eyes or the angle of his smile is just disconcerting enough to throw the viewer off. Alongside Davison are two classic stars in late-era roles that they seem to be having a blast with: Elsa Lanchester as Willard’s overbearing mother, and Ernest Borgnine as the usurper of his father’s company and Willard’s new employer.

However, the true stars of the film are the rats, particularly Ben and Socrates. The rats are extremely well-trained, and are some of the best non-canine animal actors I’ve seen in a film; despite the lack of any CGI or puppets, they actually emote to some degree and successfully  bring out the necessary emotional reactions in the viewer. By the end, Ben in particular is as much a character in the film as any of the human actors, and it’s really interesting to see how the film slowly develops this character for him through his interactions with Willard.

The one major flaw of Willard, and assumedly the reason that it fell into obscurity for so long, is the visual style. It does look like a TV film, with rather bland cinematography and visual design, and it’s easy to see why those in charge of television broadcasts and home video releases would have passed over it in favor of more visually interesting films with more marketable stars and stories.

Ultimately, what really sets this film apart from all of the similar films that followed it is its focus on how easily victims can become the very villains that they’ve been fighting against. Willard is a clear victim, a guy who is undermined and manipulated by his mother and mocked and abused by his boss--who runs a company that should rightfully belong to Willard. It’s easy to sympathize with him and understand his budding friendship with the rats in the garden, another group who are unfairly mistreated. Once Willard takes them in as pets and apparently confirms that they don’t carry any disease, they should no longer pose any threat to the other characters in the film, yet they’re still persecuted because of the stereotype of rats as filthy, disgusting creatures. When Borgnine kills one of Willard’s rats, it is a shocking moment of violence that hits just as hard as many human deaths in other films because of this film’s dedication to humanizing these maligned rodents. However, once Willard attains his revenge, he seeks to be a normal person again and in the process turns his back on his rodent friends, leading to a surprising and horrific ending that hammers home just how important it is to stay true to the people—or rats—who stood by your side when nobody else would.

Willard is a minor masterpiece of horror, and one well-worth checking out now that it has finally achieved wide distribution.

Ben is quite another beast entirely. It is a bad film, and falls short—very short—of the standard set by Willard. However, in my mind, a truly, irredeemably bad film is that which is boring—and Ben is never boring, serving as the most ridiculous mash up you’ll ever see of killer animals, police procedurals, and family-friendly entertainment. Moving on from Willard, our new protagonist is a sick and lonely little boy named Danny who offers Ben a refuge after the events of the first film. The strange and somewhat subversive element running through the proceedings is that on some level, and certainly by the end, the boy knows Ben is a killer rat—he just doesn’t really seem to care, valuing the loyal animal’s companionship over ensuring the safety of his neighbors.

I can’t quite describe why I enjoy this film; essentially, there's just something so entertaining about Danny’s cheery, colorful playhouse—a prominent set-piece in the film—and its juxtaposition not only to the violent crimes committed by the rats, but also the incredibly self-serious investigation the police undergo to find the rats' hide-out. There's also the matter of  “Ben’s Song”, an early hit for Michael Jackson that is performed by Danny as a spur-of-the-moment piano ode to his new rat friend. Jackson’s track plays over the final scene of the film, one that mixes sentimentality with horror in a way that becomes unintentionally hilarious because of the use of the pop song.

Willard is a forgotten classic, Ben is decidedly less so; but neither are deserving of their mistreatment over these past decades, and both deserve to be rediscovered now that they’ve finally been dug out of home video release purgatory--especially if you can get your hands on them in time for Halloween.

Willard comes highly recommended to all (well, except those with a rat phobia), while Ben comes cautiously recommended, especially to fans of kooky, so bad-it’s-good cinema.  

 (images via RogerEbert.com)


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