January 20, 2008

Not on DVD: BEN (1972) spawn of the original WILLARD

(1972, US)

I recently looked at the original rat-attack classic Willard, but unlike the 2004 remake, the 1971 film instantly spawned a sequel.

In the early seventies, movies were slow to get to TV and of course couldn’t be scrutinised on home video. This meant that film-makers making sequels could re-use footage, and flashbacks could be unecessarily long. Ben opens with a hefty recap from the climax of Willard running under the opening titles.

The story then picks up at the moment when the police arrive at Willard’s house. Almost immediately, it’s a different kind of movie – with all the police cars and crowds, this one has scale rather than character-driven claustrophobia. It’s about the police and the city taking on a new type of rat problem – an intelligent rat directing thousands of others…

Ben is big budget but far less even than the first. On the plus side there’s more rat action, special effects on an almost disaster movie level, flame-throwers in the sewers… and an atmospheric motif of crowds of public that gather around accidents, silently watching for glimpses of calamity. They reminded me of pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers – emotionless.

The minus side is in the form of… music. Ben, the leader of the rat pack, befriends a young boy down the road from Willard’s house. Danny has a heart condition, a rich imagination and unfortunately a puppet show in his den. He also likes to write songs. These two talents collide in a scene that never works in horror films – a musical interlude where Danny sings as he plays with his puppets. The scene belongs in a live-action Disney film, not a horror. Considering the movie is about rats attacking people, I have no idea what the producers were thinking. It’s like a Disney making a musical sequel to Jaws. Of course, the other song Danny ‘writes’ in the film is a love song about his friend, a rat called Ben. “Ben’s song” wasn’t written by Michael Jackson, but it was his first solo hit and was recorded for this film. It’s probably the music royalties that are preventing this movie from being released on DVD anywhere. Or it could be Danny’s unbearable harmonica solo.

Lee Montgomery plays Danny and bravely copes with multiple rat scenes - he was also very good in a scary horror a few years later, Burnt Offerings. He’s good in this, but not when he’s singing. It’s hard to empathise with his character, especially when he lies to his family and even the police about what he knows. As the rats lair remains elusive, the attacks continue – in beauty salons, supermarkets and the sewers.

Special effects are used to multiply the rats numbers (there’s a horrifying shot of hundreds of them hiding in the walls of Willard’s house), and to protect them from actual harm (like in the scenes where swarms of them are hit by flame-throwers). The effects look OK because of the murkiness of the scenes. Cleverly, most of the action takes place at night, adding to the mood.

Although there are quite a few deaths, it’s not a very violent film, but it preys upon people’s fears of large numbers of rats. If you’re not bothered, then it’s not scary. It's also never clear quite how the rats can bring down truckers and policemen so quickly.

The story then descends into the logistics of pest control, with only Danny and his sister wandering around in the sewer to provide any narrative thread.

I started wondering if there was any message to the movie, the authorities stampeding in, declaring a curfew, and using all their technology to exterminate the enemy. It’s very Hollywood to deliver exciting conflicts and portray both the public’s fears of an epidemic, and the maudlin friendship between a sick little boy and his pet (“I love you, Ben”). But in real life, rats wouldn’t actually behave like this, and controlling them takes brains, not brute force.

For all it’s sentimentality, the finale is quite heart-breaking, certainly for animal lovers, and Michael Jackson’s rendition hits all the right buttons at this moment.

There weren’t any more sequels, but ratty horror soon continued across the Atlantic, when James Herbert published his first horror novel in the UK, The Rats, which lead to many book sequel, all seemingly written for bloodthirsty schoolboys, like I was.

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  1. I must disagree with you. You said it was hard to empathize with Danny, and I think it was very easy. Of course he would lie to his parents and the police. Do you expect him to say "Oh, yes. I have the killer rat. Feel free to kill him if you want even though he's my only friend." I think it was perfectly reasonable for him to lie. I also like his singing and harmonica playing.

  2. Finally on blu-ray!