Sometimes a successful sequel requires the filmmakers to tear apart what made the previous entry work, and piece together something new; perhaps just keeping the engine and the chassis, and other car stuffs that I know nothing about. What I do know, however, is that when you rebuild a clever psychodrama like Willard (1971) and turn it into a Rats Gone Wild meets Disney Lonely Sick Boy flick, the result is Ben (1972). And that result is a model so endearingly odd I’m amazed it made it off the assembly line at all, yet so glad it did.
Released by Cinerama Releasing in late June stateside with a worldwide rollout in the fall, Ben was viewed by critics at the time as a laughable follow up to a film that didn’t exactly win over reviewers (I Dusted Off Willard here, if you’re so inclined). They simply found the premise and execution unfrightening and silly, and moved on. They’re not wrong, but why does a horror film have to be scary to work? Ben is weird, folks (especially for the mainstream), and that’s always a win to me.
The film opens with the finale of Willard, as our titular antihero (Bruce Davison) gets his comeuppance from Ben and several of his friends. On to the scene arrives Detective Cliff Kirtland (Joseph Campanella – Meteor), who finds Willard’s notebook filled with rants, ravings, and how-tos on training a squad of vermin (Rats for Dummies?). Hanging on his every action is veteran reporter Billy Hatfield (Arthur O’Connell – The Poseidon Adventure), who naturally suspects something is amiss when Willard is covered in bites yet nary a rat is found.
As a group of onlookers watch the formerly warmer Davison being carted away, one family stands out: the Garrison’s – mom Beth (Rosemary Murphy – To Kill a Mockingbird), daughter Eve (Meredith Baxter – Family Ties), and young son Danny (Lee Montgomery – Burnt Offerings), a triple threat composer, puppeteer, and heart disease sufferer. As it turns out, Danny has one more talent: he can talk to the animals! Specifically, Ben; as he plays with his marionettes in his garage/playhouse, Danny is befriended by our furry murderer even as Ben is amassing an entire army of rats within the L.A. sewers. Will Ben & Company take over the city? Will Danny’s ticker hold out with all this to-do? Will you hear the Family Ties theme every time Baxter appears on screen?
Ben doesn’t have a lot on its mind, but what it does say speaks volumes about sequels. Completely ditching the power struggles and office politics of Willard for a strange mix of sentimentality and sewer soirees, it doubles down on the mayhem while shoehorning in a story that would make Uncle Walt proud. (I dream of an alternate universe where Kurt Russell’s Dexter Riley trains the rats to stop Cesar Romero from robbing a bank. My dreams are weird.)
There are scores of vermin below the streets, and were they the sole focus of the story, it would be another entertaining yet slight addition to the Animals Done Wrong sub-genre prevalent at the time (think Frogs, Night of the Lepus, Kingdom of the Spiders, and on). Where Ben really flies is the uncomfortable marriage of the two; Danny is a sick little boy who earns audiences’ sympathy with his heart condition: lonely and facing his own mortality, he asks his sister if he could die, and she says “maybe”. (Jesus, Mrs. Keaton, not cool.)
So Danny wiles away his days composing cloying songs for his puppet show (which he sings several times), and the highlight of the whole shebang for me, writing a song on the piano for his new friend Ben. And yes, it is in fact the same loopy love song that Michael Jackson sings over the closing credits (and won a Golden Globe for!), to whit:
Ben most people would turn you away
(Turn you away)
I don’t listen to a word they say
(A word they say)
They don’t see you as I do, I wish they would try to
I’m sure they’d think again, if they had a friend like Ben
This is merely the final verse, and I’ve never felt a purer joy than watching Montgomery tickle the ivories as he comes up with each exact line. I mean, it’s a pretty well put together tune; to see Baxter sidle up and not even be surprised he wrote it is par for the course in a film that tampers with the conventional.
Clearly, Bing Crosby Productions felt the need to supersize the infestation; the last act of the film turns away from the bizarre preoccupation with Danny to launch a full scale subterranean attack. In between, the rats nibble here and there, including my second favorite moment in the film, when they take over a health spa that plays as much more comical than probably intended. (Who’s to say? This sucker tonally plays blindfolded darts like a champ.) They must have assumed audiences were there for the carnage, and they were probably right.
Director Phil Karlson (Walking Tall) doesn’t bring much visually to the table, but he pulls solid early performances from Montgomery and Baxter, and O’Connell has a fun rapport with Campanella; Gilbert Ralston (Willard)’s script offers nothing profound for them to say, but holey moley does he give them interesting things to do.
Which is why we’re here, right? It may not be as smart as Willard, but its odd mixture of Disney and danger is never less than fascinating, and easily as entertaining. And that’s why I’ll always have a friend in Ben. (In Bennn.)
Ben is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: GREAT WHITE (1981)