Willard/Ben Blu-ray Double-Feature Review (originally published 2017)
Lonely, depressed and isolated, Willard (Bruce Davison) is on the verge of a breakdown when he makes a new friend: Ben, one of the many rats who inhabit his dilapidated home. Not only can Willard communicate with the rodent, but he can actually command him to do his bidding. Using Ben and his furry friends as instruments of retaliation, Willard commands his pets to carry out his vengeance…(From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
In the wide world of unlikely sub-Hollywood hits, few could’ve predicted the lasting impact of Daniel Mann’s small-budgeted, tonally knotted, and just generally weird 1971 boy & his rats tale, Willard. The oddness begins with the film’s tiny scope. Mann and the producers (including Bing Crosby, of all people) clearly relegated the majority of their budget to rat wrangling/training and Ernest Borgnine’s paycheck, then designed everything else around the modest leavings. The director’s considerable talents (he already had a collection of multi-Oscar-nominated movies under his belt, including The Rose Tattoo, 1955, The Last Angry Man, 1959, and Butterfield 8, 1960) ensured that he is able to build a stylish and moody picture around what basically adds up to about 80 minutes of conversations (some with rats) and a few minutes worth of critter-based set-pieces. Gilbert Ralston’s screenplay, based on Stephen Gilbert’s The Ratman’s Notebooks (1969), is similarly spartan and focuses more on the title character’s interactions with his pets than anything else. Willard was then sold as an exploitation film, but there’s very little exploitable about it. The cast is designed to repel sex appeal with either painful chastity or campy eccentricities, the rats are generally portrayed as cute, rather than grotesque or frightening, and there is very little on-screen violence (the whole movie basically builds to only two rat-on-human attacks).
This may seem like a laundry list of shortcomings, but the simplicity is actually quite charming. I’m honestly fascinated that this warped little satire of Movie of the Week melodrama and Disney wholesomeness worked for so many people. Oddly enough, I think the film tapped into the same free-floating anxiety as Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) and that the audience’s connection to Willard – a listless, man-child Baby Boomer who has no clue how to navigate the social expectations of the modern world – was actually the impetus for its popularity. At least up to the point that the lovable loser starts murdering his friends. Norman Bates is the patron saint of lovable losers in horror movies, of course, but, in his own weird way, Willard primed audiences to turn Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) into a megahit. Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (aka: Braindead, 1992) also owes an enormous debt to Mann’s film. Other critics and writers have also connected Willard’s success with the rise of animal-attack/nature-run-amok movies throughout drive-ins during the ‘70s, but I think its early place in the subgenre pantheon is incidental and that Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) is clearly the spark that lit that match.
For whatever reason (probably rights issues), Willard was never released on DVD – even after the release of the 2003 remake. Stateside fans were left with the choice of Prism Entertainments clamshell VHS, Paramount Home Video’s re-released slipcover VHS, Image Entertainment’s hard-to-find Laserdisc, or, most likely, a bootleg. Not a single home video version was available in widescreen (including the highly sought-after Japanese videodisc from Pack In Video). In all honesty, Scream Factory needed only to produce a mediocre widescreen transfer to make this Blu-ray worthwhile, but they’ve gone above and beyond, creating a brand-new 1080p, 1.85:1 HD transfer from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. Details and patterns are about as tight as cinematographer Robert B. Hauser’s dark photography will allow and I didn’t notice any major over-sharpening artefacts. Some DNR has been used to scrub what I’d guess was a pretty grainy negative, which leads to some notable smoothing throughout what should probably be rougher textures. Despite this, none of the gradations ever appear waxy. Colors are naturally muted, aside from a few moments where Hauser cranks the red lighting, and there’s very little in terms of bleeding.
The original mono is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. There’s little in the way of effects here, aside from Alex North’s music and dialogue. Even the occasional outdoor sequence is generally stark and quiet. Sometimes, the dialogue even stops before the actor’s stop mouthing words, leading me to believe a lot of the location stuff was shot without sound. Interiors aren’t much more lively and tend to also feature an uncomfortable echo effect, likely stemming from the way sound moves throughout actual locations, rather than sets. Alex North’s oddly epic score dances from grand introductions and soothing, almost romantic melodies, giving the film’s cartoonish quality an extra boost.
Commentary with actor Bruce Davison – This new commentary, recorded exclusively for Scream Factory’s release, is moderated by Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson, who does an admirable job leading Davison through a series of behind-the-scenes stories, while also supplying plenty of context for the larger movie history surrounding Willard. Davison is clearly having fun and brings up plenty of unprompted anecdotes.
I Used to Hate Myself, But I Like Myself Now (12:27, HD) – Davison talks more about being cast in the film, working with Mann, getting advice from Ernest Borgnine, compares Willard to Kafka, and mentions the film’s lack of DVD release in this sort of off-kilter new interview.
Trailer, TV spot, and radio spots
When detective sergeant Cliff Kirtland (Joseph Campanella) investigates the horrifying murder of Willard Stiles by a band of rats, he discovers that the rats are now an organized army and he must destroy the murderous rodents before it is too late. But the rats, led by Ben, the only survivor of the Willard attack, take to the challenge with full force and little fear. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
So Willard was a surprise hit, which inspired the even more popular films I already mentioned, led to some direct rip-offs (William Grefe’s Stanley, 1972, for example, was basically the same movie with snakes, instead of rats), a flop of a 2003 remake (directed by Glen Morgan), and one official sequel, named Ben (also 1972), after the extra large, super-smart rat that survived the previous film. The sequel was also advertised as a horror film, despite director Philip N. Karlstein and returning screenwriter Gilbert Ralston doubling-down on the cutsier, kid-friendly elements of the first movie. The already childlike Willard is replaced by Danny (Lee Montgomery), an actual child who plays with puppets, sings to the audience (on more than one occasion), and suffers from quaint, elementary-school-level bullying. Oh, and he has some kind of heart condition, which, apparently, makes him all the more precious. Strangely, the film [i]does[/i] have more standard-issue killer animal movie moments than [i]Willard[/i], including scenes where Ben and his friends making quick business of snooping human authorities and one where they chase leotard-wearing weirdos out of a health spa that is hoarding a large cheese stash. There’s also a nearly compelling, hard-boiled cop drama woven into the story that smells like the remnants of an earlier screenplay. In fact, Ben often seems to have been cobbled together following hours of arguments as to the ‘direction’ of the franchise. It’s sort of charming in its dopiness and one has laugh at its desperate attempts to appeal to as many demographics as possible, but never as genuinely clever or unique as its predecessor. Karlstein survived as a Hollywood workhorse making B-crime movies (including the vastly underrated Kansas City Confidential, 1952) and westerns, before striking exploitation gold with the original Walking Tall (also produced by Bing Crosby) the year after Ben. He retired shortly after.
As you may’ve guessed, Ben was never released on digital format. The only options were more pan & scan VHS tapes and Laserdisc from Paramount and Image Entertainment. And remember what I said about Scream Factory merely needing to produce a mediocre widescreen transfer to make their Willard release worthwhile? Well, that’s basically what they’ve done with Ben. It’s not entirely their fault, though – there simply wasn’t a workable negative available to them, so they were forced to create this 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer from the best surviving archive print they could find. It’s definitely in widescreen and looks better than a VHS or Laserdisc, so it’s a net win for what is otherwise a pretty problematic transfer. Scream Factory has done their best to wring detail and color (greens and reds are particularly vivid, though it is also clear from the opening logos that the hues are going to be a little ‘off’) out of the print, but the footage is so very dark that just about every sequence is slathered in texture-devouring black crush. The daylight scenes survive the attack with some relatively minor high contrast issues, but the night shots and dark interiors are so slathered in blackness that you might as well be watching an unfinished velvet painting. Still, there aren’t any problems with compression artifacts and the fuzzy gradations definitely aren’t the result of DNR enhancement – the print is simply just softer than the original negatives would have been.
Ben is also presented in its original mono and DTS-HD Master Audio. The sound design is similarly flat and stark to that of Willard. The fact that it was lifted from an inferior print source also means it’s pretty quiet, though there aren’t any notable dips in consistency, nor is the sound floor buzzy. Walter Scharf’s mostly traditional thriller-type score is sadly absorbed into the gloom of this compacted soundscape. Speaking of music, what’s stranger than a movie about a loner that trains killer rats to solve his problems making loads of money? Why, the sequel to that movie becoming an inroad for Michael Jackson’s solo career, of course. In fact, I’m guessing literally thousands – maybe millions – people know Jackson’s title song (written by Don Black and composed by Scharf, who also wrote/composed the terribly obnoxious puppet show songs) without knowing it spawned from a sequel to [i]Willard[/i]. The scene in which little Danny writes an ode to his rat friend is high among the most cringe-worthy cinematic moments I’ve ever seen.
Commentary with actor Lee Montgomery – The film’s star (who is now an adult, by the way) talks with a returning Nathaniel Thompson about working with rats, remembering the trials of being a child actor, and pokes a little fun at his cherubic performance.
The Kid with the Rat (9:19, HD) – Montgomery talks a bit more about Ben and his career before and after the film.
Trailers, TV spots, Ben/Willard double feature trailer and TV spots, and radio spots
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