THERE WASN’T any such thing as a “summer blockbuster” season when Willard was released in June of 1971. Nevertheless, this offbeat little horror movie about a lonely young man and his army of killer rats captured the public’s imagination and grossed somewhere between 14 and 19 million dollars (depending upon who you ask)—which is quite a feat when you consider that Willard is essentially an exploitation movie, and the average price of a movie ticket in 1971 was just a little over a buck fifty.
Not surprisingly, a sequel was put into production just 5 months later., and in June of 1972 we got Ben.
Now, 45 years later, both films—neither of which has been available officially in America since the VHS days—finally get the Blu-ray/DVD treatments they deserve thanks to the good folks at Shout! Factory. They’re out this week on the company’s Scream Factory label, in Blu-ray/DVD combo packs that are loaded with nice extras, including audio commentaries from Willard star Bruce Davison and Ben‘s Lee Montgomery. Ben is an HD transfer from an archival print, and Willard is a full 4K scan of the original camera negative.
Taken together, the films are an interesting mix. Willard, directed by Daniel Mann (Our Man Flint), and based on the 1968 book Ratman’s Notebooks, by Stephen Gilbert, is the more pure horror movie of the two, an intimate exploration of the dark corners of both a Victorian house and the fractured mind of one of its residents, Willard Stiles (Davison). He’s insecure and socially awkward, living under the stifling watch of his ailing mother (the Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester). He’s got an awful boss, too, played by the great Ernest Borgnine.
But Willard does have friends, specifically, two rats who live in his basement. He names the white one Socrates and the black one Ben, and before you know it Willard’s got several hundred additional rats to care for and it isn’t long before he puts them to work straightening-out his affairs. But keep a close eye on Ben. As far as he’s concerned, there’s room for only one king of the rats.
Ben picks up just minutes after Willard‘s thrilling conclusion and expands on the story significantly, taking us out of Willard’s dark little world and out onto the streets—and sewers, and supermarkets, and various grizzly crime scenes—as Ben and his army of now hardened four-legged killers lay claim to an entire section of the city.
Everything about this sequel seems like a commentary, or reflection, on the terrible events of the first film. For one thing, Ben‘s lonely young protagonist (Montgomery) fares much better with the rats than Willard does because he’s more interested in being their friend than their master. And whereas most of Willard‘s horrors happen in secret, outside the view of the public, Ben director Phil Karlson (Walking Tall) takes pains to give us a much wider perspective, dwelling heavily on beleaguered cops and journalists, hysterical eyewitnesses, and the stunned faces of gawkers who gather at crime scenes in the wake of attacks. In the world of this story, these people have already read newspaper accounts of the unthinkable horrors that occurred in the Stiles home. But now that horror threatens to engulf them, too.
In one sense, Willard and Ben unfold in much the same way the first two Alien films did: An intimate horror film followed by a much larger war film that draws its soul from the first. That’s about as far as I’d go in comparing the two franchises, but I am most definitely suggesting that there’s a lot more going on here than simple ratsploitation.
Both Blu-ray/DVD combo packs are available at Amazon. Here are the trailers.