Easily one of the strangest wide-release pictures of the early ’70s, Willard starts off as the character study of a deranged individual, and then it gradually morphs into a horror movie. Oh, and it’s also a love story of sorts between the lead character, a twentysomething misfit, and an extraordinary rat named Ben. The film’s sequel, Ben, pushes the formula even further by putting the titular vermin together with a new human, a horribly ill young boy who considers Ben a terrific pal even though the rat frequently leads thousands of rodents on murderous rampages. The inherent weirdness of these two films is encapsulated by the most noteworthy element of either picture, “Ben’s Song,” a gentle ballad that’s sung over the closing credits of Ben by Michael Jackson at the height of his early Jackson 5 fame. Like the song, both films approach bizarre subject matter with complete sincerity, which makes for singular viewing experiences.
Based on novel by Stephen Gilbert titled Ratman’s Notebooks and written for the screen by Gilbert Ralston, Willard compounds the oddity of its premise with a fairy-tale narrative approach. Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison) works for overbearing businessman Al Martin (Ernest Borgnine), who played a role in the business failure and death of Willard’s father. Meanwhile, Willard lives with his aging but smothering mother, Henrietta (Elsa Lanchester), in a stately house. Forgetful, introverted, and nervous, Willard makes an easy target for Al’s bullying and Henrietta’s nagging. One afternoon, Willard meets a group of rats in his backyard, subsequently adopting them as playmates. Then, once he moves the rodents into his basement and starts teaching them tricks—even as the group expands through breeding to include thousands of critters—Willard realizes he can use the rats to exact revenge against his oppressors.
The movie takes a long time to reach the point when Willard leads his skittering soldiers into combat, but Davison gives such a twitchy performance that it’s interesting to watch Willard spiral into madness. (Good luck shaking the image of Davison hanging out in the basement with a rodent on his shoulder and dozens of other rats literally crawling the walls around him.) As directed by studio-era helmer Daniel Mann, whose so-so filmography includes the Oscar-winning Elizabeth Taylor vehicle Butterfield 8 (1960), Willard evolves from campy to gruesome, so it’s impossible to take the film seriously. Nonetheless, the protagonist is quasi-sympathetic until he goes too far, so the character’s arc is similar to that of Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). Better still, the film’s final act is a tastefully photographed bloodbath sure to cause shudders among even the hardiest of viewers. That said, it’s a mystery why composer Alex North scored most of the movie with bouncy comic cues and triumphant marches—although the music certainly adds to the overall peculiarity.
Ben, which was directed by action specialist Phil Karlson, is an almost completely different type of film from its predecessor. In fact, Ben is really two movies in one. The main relationship story, about Ben’s new friendship with fragile youth Danny (Lee Montgomery), is so gentle that it includes comedy and music scenes. Yet the main action story, about Ben’s nocturnal adventures immediately following the events of the first film, is bloody and violent. Ben’s four-legged army starts claiming victims within the first 10 minutes, and the movie is filled with shots of grown men screaming as their bodies are swallowed by hordes of rodents. Later, once officials track down the culprits for various deaths and incidents of property damage, all-out war ensues. (Key image: City workers advance through sewer tunnels wielding flamethrowers, killing rats by the score.) Yet somehow, these disparate elements hang together in a ridiculous sort of way. As he did with his next film, the redneck-vigilante classic Walking Tall (1973), Karlson keeps things moving so fast that viewers can’t stop to smell the insanity.
The cast of Ben is strictly C-grade, with future TV mom Meredith Baxter playing Danny’s sister and journeyman players including Norman Alden, Joseph Campanella, Arthur O’Connell, and Kenneth Tobey filling out the various upporting roles. (Although Stephen Gilbert penned Ben as well as Willard, the writer’s character work is much more slack on the sequel.) Since Ben is basically a creature feature, however, the acting is much less important than the work of the animal wranglers and FX technicians who make the murderous monsters look convincing. FYI, Willard was remade in 2003, with eccentric actor Crispin Glover in the lead, though a revamp of Ben has yet to emerge. And in a particularly odd footnote, actress Sondra Locke, who costars in the original Willard, later made her directorial debut with a film titled—wait for it!—Ratboy (1986).