Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Retro Review: WILLARD (1971) and BEN (1972)

(US - 1971)

Directed by Daniel Mann. Written by Gilbert A. Ralston. Cast: Bruce Davison, Ernest Borgnine, Sondra Locke, Elsa Lanchester, Michael Dante, Jody Gilbert, William Hansen, John Myhers, J. Pat O'Malley, Joan Shawlee, Alan Baxter, Sherry Presnell. (PG, 95 mins)

A surprise sleeper smash for Cinerama Releasing in the summer of 1971, WILLARD, from the masters of horror at Bing Crosby Productions, has been out of circulation for a number of years but has resurfaced, along with its sequel BEN, on Blu-ray courtesy of Shout! Factory. To those under 30, WILLARD has probably been supplanted by the minor cult following of its over-the-top 2003 remake, but for Gen Xers and older--those fortunate enough to have seen it theatrically or on one of its many TV airings as kids throughout the '70s and '80s--the original WILLARD remains one of the most beloved horror films of its day. It's creepy enough to make you squirm and give everyone the willies, but carries a PG (or GP at the time) rating that allowed it to have a huge impact on kids who were actually allowed to see it. It also helped that everyone at some point in their lives probably felt like Willard Stiles, the slumped-shouldered sad sack played by Bruce Davison in the role for which the veteran character actor is best known, even with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for 1990's LONGTIME COMPANION. Endlessly picked on at work by his cruel, bullying boss Al Martin (an essential Ernest Borgnine performance) and never given a moment of peace at home by his needy, domineering mother Henrietta (Elsa Lanchester), Willard is a ticking time bomb looking for a way out. He has no friends and his birthday party is attended only by his mother's elderly friends who start in on him about how he needs to stand up to Martin, a conniving asshole who co-owned a foundry with Willard's late father only to muscle him out of the partnership and stress him into an early grave. Martin kept Willard on the payroll as a consolation prize for being screwed out of co-ownership, putting him in sales accounting, dumping everyone else's work on him and forcing him to come in on weekends in the hopes that he'll quit. Willard's only joy in life comes from a family of rats he finds in the backyard. He spends all of his free time with them, playing with them and teaching them tricks, eventually getting them to understand voice commands and perhaps even developing a kind of psychological connection with them. He bonds with two in particular: good-natured and playful white rat Socrates and clingy and vaguely sinister black rat Ben.

Willard soon devotes all of his time to the rats, especially after his mother dies. He moves the fertile rat pack, which has grown exponentially, into the basement, where he has a hard time corralling and controlling them. He ignores the attention given to him by shy, pretty co-worker Joan (Sondra Locke, several years before hooking up with Clint Eastwood) and begins using the rats to plot vengeance against his tormentors. Director Daniel Mann (THE ROSE TATTOO, BUTTERFIELD 8, OUR MAN FLINT) and veteran TV writer Gilbert A. Ralston (BEN CASEY), working from Stephen Gilbert's 1969 novel Ratman's Notebooks, play a little coy with the horror element for a good chunk of the film's running time, whether it's the lighthearted, cute antics of the rats or the completely, almost sarcastically inappropriate score, which sounds like it belongs in a cheerful, uplifting kids movie. Willard just seems shy, lonely, and unable to stand up for himself until his dark side takes over. First it's relatively harmless pranks like setting some rats loose at a swanky work party hosted by Martin that everyone was invited to except Willard, who was nevertheless put in charge of mailing the invitations. But before long, he's using the rats as a decoy to stage a theft of some cash at the home of Martin's sleazy new business partner (Alan Baxter) and eventually, after bringing Socrates and Ben to work with him only to have Martin kill Socrates after he's spotted in the supply closet, training them to attack under the newly-assumed leadership of Ben. It's about 2/3 of the way through WILLARD before its shift to outright horror, and the much talked-about scene where Willard finally exacts his revenge on Martin by bringing along a few thousand of his friends ("Tear him up!" a wild-eyed Willard commands) was the kind of cathartic, crowd-pleasing entertainment that helped make WILLARD such a huge word-of-mouth hit.

WILLARD's inspired willingness to go off the rails in the home stretch makes it especially endearing all these years later. With his mother gone and Martin no longer around to make his life miserable, Willard is finally free and doesn't need his rodent friends anymore. But Ben, feeling rejected on an almost-FATAL ATTRACTION level, won't be ignored, and the scene where Willard's romantic dinner with Joan is interrupted when he spots Ben on the mantle stink-eye squinting at him in a jealous, silent rage is absolute genius. WILLARD inspired one direct ripoff with 1972's STANLEY, about a PTSD-stricken Vietnam vet (Chris Robinson) who trains his pet rattlesnake to take out his enemies, but can be seen in retrospect as a loose precursor to two later 1970s trends: the "nature run amok" (JAWS, GRIZZLY, THE FOOD OF THE GODS, etc) and the "social outcast exacting telepathic revenge" subgenres (CARRIE and JENNIFER--the latter about a teenage girl with both CARRIE-like powers and an ability to control snakes, starring Lisa Pelikan, who was married to Davison for many years--as well as popular made-for-TV-movies like THE SPELL and THE INITIATION OF SARAH). What helps WILLARD a lot is the genuinely terrific performance by Davison, who sells the character much the way Anthony Perkins did with Norman Bates in PSYCHO. Sure, there's the similarities in that they're both sheltered mama's boys, but like Norman Bates, you sympathize with Willard until he starts crossing lines. Norman Bates got off easy by getting to spend two decades in an institution for his crimes. Willard Stiles wasn't so lucky: he made the mistake of fucking with Ben.

WILLARD opening in Toledo, OH on July 2, 1971

(US - 1972)

Directed by Phil Karlson. Written by Gilbert A. Ralston. Cast: Joseph Campanella, Arthur O'Connell, Meredith Baxter, Lee Harcourt Montgomery, Rosemary Murphy, Kaz Garas, Kenneth Tobey, Paul Carr, Richard Van Fleet, James Luisi, Norman Alden. (PG, 94 mins)

In theaters less than 12 months after WILLARD, the quickie sequel BEN looks and feels even more like a made-for-TV movie than its predecessor, a vibe enhanced by the presence of TV stalwarts like Joseph Campanella and a young Meredith Baxter in leading roles, both of whom accumulating only a small handful of big-screen credits over their long careers (unless I'm mistaken, BEN is the only time Campanella headlined a theatrical release). Stepping in for Daniel Mann was veteran journeyman Phil Karlson, whose directing career dated back to Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys programmers in the 1940s and included some westerns and film noir in the 1950s and Dean Martin's Matt Helm movies in the 1960s. Karlson's biggest success would come 30 years into his career with his next-to-last film when, right after BEN, he directed the surprise 1973 blockbuster WALKING TALL, with Joe Don Baker in his signature role as ass-kicking, hickory-clubbing Sheriff Buford Pusser. Karlson came from the "Let's just get it in the can and move on" school of no-nonsense efficiency, but things get off to a shaky start with an awkward and stilted opening with a bunch of people standing as silent and still as a freeze frame outside the home of Willard Stiles, with BEN picking up immediately after the events of WILLARD. Willard's body has been found in the attic following the Ben-orchestrated revenge attack on him. Dogged detectives Kirtland (Campanella) and Greer (Kaz Garas) find Willard's diary, where he details his training of an army of rats, but the incredulous cops are quick to dismiss it as the rantings of a kook since the rats are nowhere to be found. That's because Ben has directed them to hide in the walls undetected, and while the detectives bicker with cigar-chomping newshound Hatfield (Arthur O'Connell), Ben waits patiently to lead them to a safe place. The safe place turns out to be the sewer, from which Ben and a few other scouts emerge to befriend lonely Danny (Lee Harcourt Montgomery), a frail eight-year-old with a weak heart who lives in Willard's neighborhood. Like Willard, Danny has no friends and spends his time putting on marionette shows in the garage, converted into a workshop/playroom by his single mom Beth (Rosemary Murphy) and big sister Eve (Baxter). Danny and Ben bond immediately, with Ben doing for Danny exactly what he did for Willard when he leads a rat attack on a neighborhood bully who's picking on Danny. Meanwhile, Kirtland and Hatfield are scouring the city for the rat army, though who knows what they intend to do when they find it?

BEN wasn't as big of a hit was WILLARD, though it was just as ubiquitous on late-night TV in the '70s and '80s. With the killer rat angle already established, BEN is able to get right to the horror element and as such, it follows a template not unlike later slasher films like HALLOWEEN, with Ben and the rats terrorizing a small suburban town and going back into hiding, pursued by cops and the media, both of whom have little success in catching them as the body count escalates. Again scripted by Gilbert A. Ralston, BEN manages to be simultaneously more nasty and grisly and more maudlin and silly than WILLARD. There's some amusing scenes like rats invading a health spa and walking on treadmills and an absolutely ludicrous shot of Ben and a few other rats peeking out of the sewer with their eyes fixated on the display window of a nearby cheese shop, not to mention the fact that while Danny speaks and Ben squeaks, they're both able to understand each other perfectly ("Which way, Ben?  Left or right?" Danny asks, to which Ben replies with a series of short squeaks.  "OK, left!" Danny somehow concludes). But elsewhere, it goes bigger and grosser. There's several times the number of rats here than in WILLARD and Karlson really likes going for lingering shots of them swarming over a victim, putting several cast members in visibly unpleasant situations (Eve ends up looking for Danny in the sewer, and Baxter proves herself a real sport by crawling through all sorts of wet gunk and piles of live rats in the glory days of pre-CGI), or taking over a grocery store to the point where literally the entire floor is covered in large rats climbing all over one another. Young Montgomery, who would go on to be a regular presence in '70s horror cult classics like BURNT OFFERINGS (1976) and in the terrifying "Bobby" segment of the TV-movie DEAD OF NIGHT (1977), is pretty hard to take as the whiny Danny, but he's boldly fearless when it comes to working and physically interacting with his rodent co-stars. BEN could use more smartass banter between seasoned pros Campanella and O'Connell and less of Montgomery's Danny and his marionette song and dance productions, but kids ended up digging WILLARD, so they had to make BEN appeal to that audience. That appeal went so far as getting 13-year-old Michael Jackson to record the title song, a heartwarming ballad about a young boy and his best friend who happens to be a super intelligent, insanely possessive, serial-killing rodent. Titled "Ben" but generally known as "Ben's Song," Jackson's theme song ultimately ended up being more popular than the movie it was from, becoming his first chart-topping solo hit and scoring a Best Original Song Oscar nomination, losing to Maureen McGovern's "The Morning After" from THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Yes, BEN is an Oscar-nominated film.

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