Willard (1971) & Ben (1972)

| May 16, 2017

As a pair of films, Willard (1971) and its sequel Ben (1972) stand in stark contrast to each other and I’ve always been fascinated by the differences between the two. Willard offers audiences an unrelentingly tense character study hinging on a revenge narrative that’s elevated by the addition of a horror component in the form of an army of subservient, murderous rats. At its heart, though, the film is all about quiet, unassuming Willard (Bruce Davison), a character with whom we identify since we’ve all been taken advantage of at some point as Willard is in both his demanding home life and his oppressive work life, where he’s tormented by his boss (Ernest Borgnine).

We sympathize with Willard’s plight, with the feeling of helplessness he experiences at the realization that his entire life’s trajectory is out of control. That is, until he finds friendship in the form of an ever-multiplying horde of rats who help him realize his ever-growing need for vengeance against those who’ve wronged him. And those wrongs are both very real and sometimes simply perceived. Thus we identify with Willard and want him to succeed at first or, barring success, at least get some kind of revenge. Yet we know that if he turns to revenge, it’ll necessarily be his downfall. Therein lies the central tension that keeps us on the edge of our seat.

Adding to the brilliance of the film, Willard’s horror relies on a visual metaphor that speaks universally to those themes discussed above: the rodent. The rodent is detested, unwanted, and disposable. And to the people of Willard’s world, he is the same. He is unprofitable (the worst thing to be in a capitalist society), and therefore disposed of callously. But those who are swept out of sight do not necessarily go away. They move into the shadows and, like Willard’s disdain for humankind and his cadre of rats both, they grow more and more unwieldy.

Compare this to Ben, released one year later, which is little more than a creature feature about rats run amok. Do I want to see rats overtake a grocery store or maliciously attack people en masse in a film? Yes, I absolutely do. But what does it mean in the context of Ben? Virtually nothing. This is because we go from a film about a man wherein the rats serve to highlight and visually realize his internal struggles. Ben, being named after Willard’s most unreliable and intelligent rodent companion from the previous film, is a film simply about rats.

Does the film not have a human protagonist? Though Ben the rat is arguably the protagonist of the film, the film does follow a little boy named Danny. Whereas Willard was a complex human being both likeable and detestable as someone who oscillates between human door mat and would-be criminal, Danny is simply whimsical and loving. He’s the 1970’s stereotype of a cinematic “good little boy”—a Disney character who wandered into your horror film. He really just likes to play and have fun in his workshop, building marionettes and putting together musical numbers (he’s some kind of musical savant I guess). These things are supposed to endear him to us, but it’s simply too much of a tonal shift from Willard to fully engage most audience members who loved the original.

Compare the complexity of Willard’s character arc to that of little Danny who simply likes animals and doesn’t want Ben and his family killed, and you have a sequel near entirely lacking in depth by comparison. Ben also spends so much time on the rats, which Willard doled out sparingly, that they cease to be an effective source of horror or, by the end of the film, any tension whatsoever. The climax of Ben in which city officials attempt to wipe out the rats is so gratuitous and drawn-out that I found myself wondering while watching it this time around if the filmmakers hadn’t used the same shots of people flame-throwing rats upwards of four or five times in some instances.

Willard may not be a masterpiece, but it stands as an undeniably solid thriller that’s given a timeless appeal through wise handling of the rat army gimmick. Ben comes across as little more than an exploitative cash-grab by comparison, whipped up hurriedly to capitalize on the surprise financial success of Willard with little consideration given to how its component parts would fit together in the end. Yet, and this might surprise you after everything you’ve read here, I really do love them both—Willard for its genre purity and Ben for its sheer gratuity (not to mention the oddity of Ben having a theme song about the love of a boy for a rat performed by a young Michael Jackson… no, seriously).

When you watch Willard, you can’t wait for those rats to be put to use, to be let loose. They never really are, however. They’re confined to a few isolated scenes to be used for maximum impact. In Ben, by contrast, the rats ransack local businesses and the body count rises. This is to say that Ben gives you what you probably always wanted from the rats, even if the overall quality the film has to suffer. Willard tells the superior story and Ben gives you all the ratty action you can handle with little in the way of plot, combining to give you the best of both worlds.

For ages, neither film was easily available. I remember watching these on VHS rentals many years ago, but certainly hadn’t seen them out and about since. However, both films are now available in two separate Blu-ray + DVD Combo Packs from Scream Factory. That the films weren’t included in a double feature as Scream Factory has done in the past is certainly curious, especially given that Ben’s picture quality suffers immensely from the fact that it had to be sourced from materials that were neither the negative nor even an interpositive print. Still, as someone who enjoys both films on their own terms, I knew I’d be owning both releases anyway.

As I previously mentioned, the transfer of Ben is certainly lackluster given the nature of the source materials, with desaturated color and some noticeable speckling when compared to the far more color-rich image on the Willard disc, which boasts a gorgeous 4k transfer of the original negative. But it’s better to have the film preserved in the best format we have than to not have it at all. At least, that’s how I see it.

Both releases include trailers, TV spots, radio spots, and still galleries for their respective films. They also both features a brand new interview and audio commentary with the films’ respective stars—Bruce Davison on the Willard release and Lee Montgomery (Ben’s Danny) on the Ben release. This is of course provided you see Danny as the protagonist of Ben, though.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
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