TCM Underground: Willard (1971) and Ben (1972)

Welcome to my first-ever write-up of TCM Underground’s late night, weekly horror double feature they present every Saturday.  This is one of my favorite things on television and I’m so happy TCM takes the time to highlight some underseen pieces of horror and exploitation.  I’m really excited for this and I hope to do this every week.

Ideally, I’d like my write-ups to go live on Sundays, but October has been a little crazy with fun activities.  So, better late than never?

This week I’ll be reviewing a pair of rat-starring horror pictures from the early 70s, Willard and its sequel Ben.

Let’s do this!

Willard (1971)

Willard felt, to me, sort of like a reluctant horror movie.  It felt more comfortable when it was telling the story of a shy put upon named Willard (played by Bruce Davison) who must suffer through the indignity of working for a man actively trying to destroy him and at home must take care of his sick mother.

Cleaning up around the house one day–a much-too-large house for two people, a sort of mansion in Southern California–he discovers a nest of rats and, under the orders of his mother, is set to kill the little animals.  At the last minute, he relents and rescues them from the drowning trap he has set for them and rushes them off to the safety of his storage shed.  There, he begins giving them names, begins to train them and begins to become obsessed with the rats.

Willard names two of the rats.  The first one he names is a white rat he calls Socrates, and refers to Socrates as the best friend he’s ever had.  The other one has a bit more personality, is a little devious and petty and seems to have human emotions.  This is Ben.

When the horror aspects of the story come through, it seems like a pretty decent, quirky character drama is being interrupted by a horror movie that, while not bad, needs a lot of work.  The two sides of the story seem at odds with each other, instead of complimenting each other.  And it really only becomes a horror movie near the end, where Willard’s revenge on his boss (played by Ernest Borgnine, who seems to be enjoying himself) is enacted for having one of his rat friends killed by the tyrant.

There is a violent, bloody end for poor Willard, who made the mistake of turning his back on Ben.  I think the final moments of Willard work remarkably well, giving the title character an almost Ahab-esque ending, allowing him to die at the hands of his obsession.  He’s a little bit like Dr. Frankenstein, too, allowing a creation to run amok and never taking the personal responsibility for it, opting to destroy it instead.

I avoided seeing the remake of Willard starring Crispin Glover, but now I have to admit that I’m intrigued.  It was written and directed by Glen Morgan, one of my very favorite X-Files writers.

Trivia: Willard’s mother is played by Elsa Lanchester, probably best known by me for that episode of I Love Lucy about the hatchet murderess, and probably best known by everyone else for The Bride of Frankenstein.

Ben (1972)

Out of the two, Ben was my preferred movie.  The horror seems to work better here, seems to be more committed to scaring an audience, and balances that with a, somehow, touching story of a sick boy named Danny and the friendship he forges with the surviving rat and his giant, rodent family from the first film.

Apparently in this movie, Ben is now capable of understanding English and Danny seems to be capable of understanding Ben’s ratty little chirps and squeaks (I call this language “Ratonese”).

Danny has a bad heart and doesn’t go outside much.  Ben escapes Willard’s house in the opening scenes, family in tow, killing a police officer in the process.  He winds up at Danny’s house and they form a friendship almost immediately.  Because Ben killed a cop, though, he is being actively hunted by Detective Kirtland who seems hell-bent on destroying the entire horde of rats.

Ben attacks a bully for Danny, biting his legs.  Danny lies to the police and says that the bully had fallen into a rose bush.  Everything comes together at the end when the police discover Danny was lying, knowing now where the rats are living and take to the sewers with shotguns and flamethrowers to kill the animals.

Ben, wounded from the confrontation, comes to Danny at the end where Danny says to him, “You’re the only friend I have. I love you, Ben,” while Michael Jackson’s Oscar-nominated song “Ben” plays.

It’s actually really fucking sad.  It’s the story of a kid who has no friends and a rat that has nowhere to go, who kills to survive out of fear.

Ben is by no means a perfect movie.  The manhunt plot with the police officer is ridiculous.  It’s so silly.  I can understand the movie anthropomorphizing the behavior of Ben for the audience’s sake, to create a sympathy for him, but for a cop to do the same is just… bizarre.  And that final confrontation in the sewer is like a solid ten minutes of rat noises.  It got real old, real quick.

What both Willard and Ben needed were each other’s strengths.  I wish they could have been combined into one movie.  Willard needed the commitment to horror that Ben had and Ben needed a character as twisted as Willard.  Danny had all the required pathos to make the story truly heartbreaking but he didn’t have much more personality than… he sang and played with puppets and played harmonica a lot.

I’m looking forward to next week, where I’ll be reviewing both The Brood, directed by David Cronenberg and Repulsion, directed by Roman Polanski.