BEN (1972) Blu-ray/DVD Combo
Director: Phil Karlson
Scream Factory/Shout! Factory

The “tear ‘em up” antics of rat thriller WILLARD proved to be box office gold in 1971, so naturally a sequel was ordered and released the following year. Once again produced by Bing Crosby Productions (and distributed by Cinerama Releasing), BEN is not the startling drive-in groundbreaker that its prequel was, but it has good blend of popcorn fodder required to be an entertaining film on its own. As with WILLARD, BEN was MIA on home video for decades and Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory arm is delivering both simultaneously as a Blu-ray/DVD combo. Doubtless these are two of their more significant releases of the year for the more seasoned horror fans raised on an era of Famous Monsters magazines and constant neighborhood theater monster movie double features.

Picking up right where its predecessor left off, the opening credits of BEN replay the climactic events of WILLARD, as a small army of rodents lead by black king rat Ben devour their hapless trainer after he attempts to rid himself of all his squeaking friends. The police discover Willard’s body in his house, but no sign of rats, only his diary telling how he trained them to kill. Leading the case is Cliff Kirtland (Joseph Campanella, THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, DEFIANCE) who can’t find any evidence of the critters, even after one of his patrolman (Richard Van Vleet, ANGEL IN MY POCKET) is attacked to death snooping around where he shouldn’t be. In the meantime, the rats lay low in the Los Angeles sewers, coming up in droves at night to scavenge for food, leaving the scenes of their crimes just before the police can arrive. Ben comes across the home of Danny Garrison (Lee Montgomery, BURNT OFFERINGS) a young boy with a heart condition who lives with his single mother Beth (Rosemary Murphy, YOU’LL LIKE MY MOTHER) and his older sister Eve (a very young Meredith Baxter, “Family Ties”). The king rat befriends lonely Danny, who puts on marionette shows in front of him and even composes a song for him. The rat problems in the area become increasingly worse (“state emergency” worse) and Danny finds himself protecting Ben and his pals (who sometimes secretly bunk with him after visiting his bedroom window) from the pesty police and the rat traps and pesticides that have been put down. Danny later discovers where their nest is, as he follows Ben down an open sewer drain. When authorities discover where these creatures are residing, they break out the full artillery—including blow torches—forcing Danny to put his life in danger when he goes back down to warn Ben and company.

For monster movie fans of a certain age, the early 1970s was a very special time, and it was evident that a major genre trend of the period was immediate sequels. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES had a sequel, COUNT YORGA VAMPIRE had a sequel, BLACULA had a sequel, TALES FROM THE CRYPT had a sequel, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS had a sequel, and then there was the PLANET OF THE APES saga. In most examples of this, especially in the case of WILLARD and BEN, the follow-ups were not as well-appreciated or as well-received as its predecessor, sometimes being accused of being retreads or inferior, despite how entertaining they might have been on their own. WILLARD was something of an instant classic, an animal-attack flick with psychological horror instincts and loaded with great, quirky performances lead by Bruce Davison as a tormented, psychotic manchild ala Norman Bates. As he dies at the conclusion, what then to do in the sequel? Well, lead white rat Socrates got killed, but his rival Ben lived, so bring him back. And instead of a manchild with serious issues, how about having Ben befriend a harmless, cute kid with other problems (under his overprotective mother) including a possible terminal illness causing him to be sheltered and not have many friends? Also, the rats here are no longer contained, but rather let loose in the community, and they have multiplied to vast amounts. So we're talking major rats!

So as a sequel, BEN may not be as good as the original, but it certainly goes in the right direction of intensifying the horror while maintaining a sentimental side, and it’s never boring and consistently entertaining. Maybe it’s due to its unavailability over the years, but BEN holds up well if you appreciate similar drive-in fair released by companies like Cinerama and AIP in the early 1970s, so be advised to put aside those negative things you’ve read about it going into it now. Although the scene where Willard lets lose a bunch of rodents at Martin’s (Ernest Borgnine’s) party was a highlight of the first film, BEN has number of such “rat attack” scenes that may be more humorous than scary, but amusing nonetheless. Here, the rats are let loose on a nervous truck driver, in a closed supermarket devouring an aisle of cereal boxes (it’s great to see the retro product labels), on a hospital lift to startle a horde of screaming nurses, and at an old-fashioned ladies’ health spa which is right next door to a gourmet cheese shop! Like many of the “animal attack” films that would follow during the 1970s, BEN also takes on more of a supernatural angle than WILLARD, as the rats are now believed to be highly intelligent (working well in large groups) and have the ability to quickly scatter before harmful people show up. Another convenient plot angle is that Willard had kept a diary, revealing that he trained the rats to kill (something we never saw in the first film, but it’s perfectly believable as he spent a lot of lonely nights alone in his bedroom with his rodent pals). With the rats being again trained/wrangled by Moe Di Sesso (who also trained the rats used for Socrates and Ben in WILLARD), all these on-screen antics are well-edited, with the close-ups and longshots of the rats creating a sense of believability within the context of the film.

Lee Montgomery (in his second feature after Disney’s THE MILLION DOLLAR DECK) brings a nice contrast to WILLARD’s vengeful adult protagonist, as the health-troubled but multi-talented boy who finds friends in Ben and company, and the scenes between likable Danny and the rats are genuinely touching, especially when he’s doing a marionette show for Ben, letting the critters take a ride on his electric train set, or when Ben comes back battered to Danny’s workshop during the climax, after which he nurses his little friend back to good health (not having seen the film in decades, I for one found the tears running down my cheeks like a faucet at this point right before the ending credits as Michael Jackson’s hit theme song—credited here as “Ben’s Song—starts playing over them. Really!). The rats do protect Danny from a big bully (Scott Garrett, WATERMELON MAN) by covering his lower legs in bites, with Danny retaliating by telling the adults his nemesis made up the story (blaming his multi-bandaged injury on a rose bush). Although WILLARD’s producer Mort Briskin and screenwriter Gilbert Ralston are back, the director’s chair for BEN is handed over to veteran Phil Karlson, who early in his career directed some Bowery Boys films and Charlie Chan entries at Monogram, followed by classic crime films such as THE PHENIX CITY STORY and THE BROTHERS RICO. Karlsen—who never directed a horror film before or since—mixes the cheap scares, black humor and sentimental bits well, and some scenes are quite creepy, like when Ben introduces Danny to his army of rats in their underground dwelling. Fleshing out the cast are a few familiar character actors including Paul Carr (THE BAT PEOPLE), Norman Alden (THE NUTTY PROFESSOR), Arthur O'Connell (7 FACES OF DR. LAO) and to remind you of a 1950s monster movie, Kenneth Tobey (THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD) as an engineer who is called upon to save the day.

Cinerama had a sizable enough hit with BEN in 1972, and they quickly re-promoted it on a double feature with WILLARD. On the small screen, it first aired on “The CBS Late Movie” in 1975 and after that, it was a staple of local late-night and afternoon programming such as Channel 7’s “The 4:30 Movie” in New York. Not seen on home video since its VHS issue over 25 years ago, this very welcomed Blu-ray/DVD combo brings BEN into the digital age, but unlike WILLARD, the negatives and interpositives for this film are lost, so the transfer was done from an archival print. The film is presented in 1080p HD in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and it’s a pleasure to see it that way rather than the previous boxy full frame broadcast and VHS versions. Shout! did an admirable job with the elements at hand, and while it doesn’t look nearly as pristine as WILLARD, it still looks very good. Darker nighttime scenes suffer slightly more than the daytime scenes in terms of detail and sharpness, but colors are well-saturated throughout and filmic grain is thankfully present. The archival print's source displays some small nicks and light debris, but rest assured, they are not at all distracting. The English DTS-HD master audio 2.0 is crystal clear and English SDH subtitles are also included. The DVD portion has the same HD transfer presented in standard def (anamorphic 1.85:1 with a Dolby Digital Mono track) with all the same extras.

Supplements include an audio commentary with actor Lee Montgomery, well moderated by Nathaniel Thompson. Montgomery remembers much about making the film, including the fact that he was too young to see WILLARD before starring in BEN, that Bruce Davison visited the set, that after being a bit freaked out he was not afraid of handling the rats, and he recalls the “sewer” set created for the film with awe. He also mentions that there were at least five “Bens” used (and that Moe Di Sesso also brought the rats that played Socrates in WILLARD to the set), that the numerous rats were trained with peanut butter, that actor Danny Kaye (a friend of director Karlson) visited the set, that he injured his fingers in a door slam before shooting (something which had to be constantly tended to that he hid from the camera) and that rumors of another sequel were brought up at one point (Montgomery also assures us that Ben is meant to survive at the climax of the film). This is a fun commentary, and it’s interesting to note that the two participants were looking at an old VHS copy when recording it (apparently the new transfer wasn’t ready yet). Montgomery is also interviewed for the featurette “The Kid With The Rat” (9:19) produced by Walt Olsen of Scorpion Releasing. The actor repeats some things that he mentions in the commentary, but it’s great to hear how much he loved acting as a child, how he appreciated his co-stars the crew and the fun he had making BEN. Rounding out the extras are two different theatrical trailers (both narrated by Adolph Caesar), two TV spots, two TV spots for the WILLARD/BEN double feature (“teamed up to tear’em up”) which prominently feature the Oscar-nominated Michael Jackson song, a radio spot and a still gallery. (George R. Reis)