Your awareness of Daniel Mann’s 1971 horror film Willard and Phil Karlson’s 1972 sequel Ben probably stems from the repeat plays over the last forty five years of Michael Jackson’s title song of the latter, and possibly the loosely based remake of the original film starring Crispin Glover.
Second Sight has put together a brand-new 4K/HD transfer respectively of each film with special features and they look fantastic in this case.
One suitable option to view the films is as a two-part mini-series form, as like the original Carpenter Halloween and Halloween II, Ben takes up where Willard left off. Seen today, both may well be more of interest to older viewers and cult fans of vintage horror.
Willard tells of Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison), about as nerdish and geeky as they come, whose boss (Ernest Borgnine) has stolen the business from his deceased father, not to mention an overbearing family who are as bullying as he is, led by mother Henrietta (the original Bride Of Frankenstein, Elsa Lanchester). However, in his solace, he makes friends with some rats in the neighbourhood and discovers a newfound power, as well as naming his ‘pets’, choosing the likes of Socrates and Ben. Before long, he is using this to manipulate them into causing havoc amongst his close circle.
Ben is the tale of Danny (Lee Montgomery) who has discovered Ben and as a result, his unsavoury relationship becomes a saving grace. However, Ben’s cohorts are turning violent and causing all manner of trouble in the neighbourhood…
On balance, the extent at which you will find these horrifying depends on your in-built phobia around rats. If you didn’t flinch during that Venice sequence in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, when Indy and Elsa fled from explosions and rats escaping, then you probably will find these more fun.
Willard is a strange affair now, as it isn’t really that horrifying and the pay-offs at the end are relatively tame. It struggles in what it is trying to be and indeed, some critics commented on this back on its original release. Performance-wise, Davison and Borgnine are competent and the film also has some appeal for fans of Clint Eastwood, given that his long-term collaborator Sondra Locke makes one of her early appearances in this. Vintage Universal horror fans will no doubt want to see Lanchester in action in one of her last screen roles.
However, Ben is more successful, due to sticking to a Them-style monster narrative and actually having some rather atmospheric moments of tension, thus being more effective as a horror movie. It still lacks some genuine scares, but tries its hardest at least to be more of a genre piece. The title song, though a catchy number, seems out of place in this type of film, but remains one of the best things about the film overall. Family Ties fans can also take pleasure from one of Meredith Baxter’s early film roles.
Overall, one for true fans of the films and cult film collectors.
WILLARD / BEN – BLU-RAY LIMITED EDITION / CERT: 15 / DIRECTORS: DANIEL MANN, PHIL KARLSON / SCREENPLAY: GILBERT RALSTON / STARRING: BRUCE DAVISON, ERNEST BORGNINE, ELSA LANCHESTER, LEE MONTGOMERY, JOSEPH CAMPANELLA / RELEASE DATE: 30TH OCTOBER