Director: Daniel Mann, Phil Karson
Screenplay: Gilbert Ralston
Starring: Bruce Davison, Ernest Borgnine, Sondra Locke, Lee Montogomery, Meredith Baxter
Year: 1971 / 1972
Duration: 189 min
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 15

“Ben, the two of us need look no more” – I’m a child of the seventies, so I’m very familiar with Michael Jackson’s 1972 slice of pop cheese with a generous helping of sweetener. It seemed to always be on the radio throughout my childhood and I vividly remember my Dad telling me it was from a film about a boy and his pet rat. Now, you would expect this to be a charming Disney style kid’s film, but Dad was gleefully happy to explain that it was a horror with rats going on killing sprees. This led to a need to see the film Ben, and Willard, the film it was a sequel to. However, I never did manage to watch either (although I have seen 2003’s excellent remake of Willard starring Crispin Glover) and was glad to see both were getting a blu-ray release and I would finally get to watch them.

Willard (1971) stars Bruce Glover as the title character, an introvert in his 20s who works for the company his father built with the loathsome Mr Martin (Ernest Borgnine). Since the death of his father, the company is now run by Martin who obviously hates Willard, but whose respect for his mother prevents him from firing him.

The house Willard lives in with his mostly bedridden mother is decrepit and falling into ruin, but with debts and taxes mounting, neither of them will entertain the notion of selling it. His mother is overbearing, spending their time together ordering him around and putting him down.

She throws him a birthday party that is only attended by her elderly friends, presumably as Willard has no friends of his own, at which they all berate him and he escapes to the overgrown garden where he discovers a group of rats living there. Ignoring his mother’s orders to kill them, he starts to care for and train the rats and forms a close bond with a white rat he names Socrates. Over time, Willard’s rat colony grows and he encounters a large brown rat he names Ben, who wants to be treated with the same love as Socrates.

Willard starts to find joy in his life, and uses his rodent friends to exact revenge on his boss by ruining a party he is not invited to. He even starts to spend time with the new girl in the office. But when Willard’s mother dies, he starts to use the rats for darker and more disturbing purposes.

Bruce Davison is wonderful as Willard, a man who is still treated like a child by his mother and her friends. His performance is so believable as a man who is under pressure but just wants to be normal and fit in, but is forced to make disturbing choices. This is in stark contrast to Crispin Glover’s portrayal in the remake, who is a very angry young man who you can easily see will soon turn murderous.

Another strong performance is Ernest Borgnine as Willard’s boss. He provides suitable sleaze to Mr Martin as the office bully, overworking Willard, and taking every opportunity to humiliate in front of the rest of the staff. When he receives a call telling him Willard’s mother has died, he doesn’t have the backbone to tell him the news, just sending him home as his mother needs him.

Ben was released a year later in 1972, and sees the titular rat befriend a lonely sick child.

Danny spends his days creating music and performing puppet shows when Ben appears on his windowsill. After an encounter with a bully, Ben sends his colony of rats on the attack and spends his nights cuddling Danny. Soon, Danny is performing songs to his rat friend, including the cringe worthy Michael Jackson hit. However, Ben’s loyalty to Danny leads to him and his fellow rats embarking on more missions and overrunning the town.

Obviously made with a much larger budget than Willard, Ben is the vastly inferior film. The horror has been ramped up, but the script is much cheesier than it’s predecessor. Whereas, Bruce Davison was a sympathetic lead, you just can’t feel same for Danny. This is due to Lee Montgomery’s performance which is quite frankly awful. Montgomery is the worst kind of child actor, over the top and incredibly irritating.

Phil Karlson’s direction is pretty workmanlike, with the action scenes of the rats attacking seeming laboured. Karlson would appear to be more comfortable with the “cutesy” scenes between Ben and Danny, rather than large scale action.

In conclusion, Willard, is a quirky gem which has become a true cult classic, whereas Ben is little more than your typical studio cash in.

Willard & Ben are distributed by Second Sight are available on Blu-ray, DVD and as a limited edition Blu-ray boxset. Extras include:

WILLARD

• New 4K scan of the original camera negative
• Audio commentary with actor Bruce Davison
• Interview with actor Bruce Davison
• Theatrical trailer, TV spot, radio spot
• Stills gallery

BEN

• Interview with actor Lee Montgomery
• Commentary with actor Lee Montogomery
• Theatrical trailer, TV spot, radio spot
• Stills gallery

Willard / Ben
3.5Overall Score
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About The Author

Neil is a practicing Buddhist with far too unhealthy an appetite for violent films and video games. His young son also objects to his love of grindcore music, claiming it “makes his ears bleed”. Kids, eh?

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