Where ‘Willard’ Ended…Ben Begins.
This sequel to WILLARD (1971) picks up exactly where its predecessor left off. Among the curious spectators in the aftermath of that earlier film’s climax is the Garrison family. Young and fragile Danny meets and befriends the intelligent rat Ben, and the unlikely duo assist each other in various ways. Meanwhile, Ben’s rodent hoard is pillaging the town for food, and the populace grows increasingly panicked.
BEN is very different in tone than WILLARD, feeling almost like a family fantasy film that eventually remembered it was supposed to have some horror undertones. Whereas the previous entry was quirky, this one is occasionally downright strange and frankly uncomfortable. Where else can you find song-and-dance numbers featuring a boy and his rat? It has quite an unsteady build-up, but the finale is memorable and aurally haunting. Although an uneven follow-up, it deserves to be seen at least once, but it likely won’t make it into your regular rotation.
There’s a lot of domestic drama with Danny, his older sister Eve, and their mother Beth, but they are occasionally interrupted for depictions of rodent destruction at various locales around town. Some people inevitably end up dead in these assaults, but that is never the reason behind them. Danny knows that Ben and his enormous family simply need to eat, and sometimes humans just happen to get in between them and their food source. How does Danny know this? Because Ben tells him so.
As Ben’s new best friend, Danny is privy to all kinds of rat secrets, including where their lair is hidden deep underground. This is a secret that city officials would love to have, but until they can learn it, they are stuck going door to door and boobytrapping neighborhood homes to try to catch the little buggers. Luckily Danny is there to teach Ben what a trap is, and how to avoid one. In exchange, Ben protects Danny from the local bully by leading an assault against the kid’s shins.
The point is, it’s a symbiotic relationship that the two enjoy. Ben and Danny hit it off like Mowgli and Baloo, but with less singing and dancing. Not that much less, to be honest, as there is still an unusual amount of musical numbers here. Ben never participates, though. He is always the straight man, watching on bemusedly. This very well could have been the start of a new franchise covering the exploits of its animal star, following in the paw prints of canine fare like Lassie and Benji. Thankfully, though, it ended here. Ben really doesn’t have as much personality as his poochie counterparts, and another movie likely would have removed whatever bite the little critter had left.
In WILLARD, basically everyone involved could be viewed as a villain if thought of in the proper context. The world was villainous because it mistreated Willard. Willard was villainous because he sought revenge (no matter how hard we try to justify his actions, they still cannot be placed in a strictly heroic light). The rats were villains because they were the actual purveyors of violence.
It goes both ways, of course. The world wasn’t really being villainous, some people are just kind of assholes, and dealing with that is a part of life. Willard, as mentioned in his own review, was more of an antihero than a true villain. And the rats were only following commands, basically living weapons being wielded by a man with a grudge. It’s all a matter of perspective regarding whose side you were on.
In BEN, there isn’t really that moral grey area for you to wade through. Simply put, there are no villains here. Danny is far too innocent to even fall into the antihero category and doesn’t do nearly enough to be considered a hero. The police are merely doing their job, trying to protect the public at large from a serious threat. And Ben and his minions are merely doing their job—being rats and doing decidedly rat-like things, which is hardly something that we can fault them for. On a strictly human level, you may want to root against them after just a quick read of the synopsis, but after seeing their relationship with Danny, that’s a very difficult thing to do. You may want to root against the officials, but if your city was being besieged by rats, wouldn’t you want them to step in? So instead, you watch it all unfold onscreen, rooting for nobody in particular.
In a film that doesn’t really have an antagonist, Danny remains our protagonist-by-proxy. Was it by chance that Ben found him, or was it by design? Danny could certainly be seen as a younger version of Ben’s former “master”, as he is just as strange, sad, and lonely as Willard was. Danny, though, never thought of the rats as anything but friends, and he never sought to control them. He only wanted to protect them. We have no way of knowing if Willard would have behaved the same way at Danny’s age, or more importantly, if Danny will behave the same way at Willard’s age. We can only imagine how things might have unfolded for Danny and Ben in a third entry into the franchise that was never made.
Based on the aforementioned song and dance numbers, and Danny’s proclivities for puppetry, my guess is that they would have ended up in show business together. I imagine something along the lines of MAGIC (1978), but infinitely sadder and with more of a chance of plague.
At one point, in an effort to entertain Ben, Danny plays an astoundingly terrible song on the harmonica, spasmodically dancing around the room until his weak heart threatens to give out. On more than one occasion, he makes his marionettes dance while singing “Start the Day”, a performance which seems to entertain him to no end (but reminds me of some of the more unsettling moments from 1929’s THE GREAT GABBO). And yet another time, Danny sits down at the piano and plinks out an ode to his buddy named “Ben’s Song,” which he delivers in a stilted monotone like bad spoken word poetry. This all adds an uncanny air to the movie that is difficult to work around.
Scriptwriter Gilbert Ralston returned for this outing, as did animal trainer extraordinaire Moe Di Sesso and his amazing rats. For a bit more information about these two men, please see my article on the original WILLARD.
Director Phil Karlson had previously been responsible for adaptations of The Shadow (BEHIND THE MASK and THE MISSING LADY, both 1946); Charlie Chan capers (THE SHANGHAI COBRA, 1945; DARK ALIBI, 1946); crime dramas (KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, 1952; THE PHENIX CITY STORY, 1955); westerns (GUNMAN’S WALK, 1958; A TIME FOR KILLING, 1967); war pictures (HELL TO ETERNITY, 1960; HORNETS’ NEST, 1970); and teenage fare (Elvis in KID GALAHAD, 1962; Fabian in RIDE THE WILD SURF, 1964); so a horror film was just about overdue. He followed BEN up with what would turn out to be his penultimate—and most famous—picture, 1973’s WALKING TALL with Joe Don Baker, which reportedly made him millions as he owned such a large percentage of the product.
Danny’s mother Beth was played by Rosemary Murphy, who had won a daytime Emmy for her performance as the president’s mother in ELEANOR AND FRANKLIN (1976), and was nominated again for the same role in ELEANOR AND FRANKLIN: THE WHITE HOUSE YEARS (1977). She appeared in the acclaimed film TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), and showed up in TV shows such as ONE STEP BEYOND, THRILLER, NAKED CITY, THE FUGITIVE, and THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO. Genre fans may remember her for her portrayal of Karen Wagner in Oliver Stone’s THE HAND (1981).
Eve was played by Meredith Baxter, who had only four television credits and an appearance in the women’s lib comedy STAND UP AND BE COUNTED (1972) under her belt when she took the role. She went on to star in a significant number of made-for-TV movies, some of which may be of particular interest to genre fans: the Robert Bloch scripted THE CAT CREATURE (1973); the sci-fi tinged possession flick THE INVASION OF CAROL ENDERS (1973); and THE NIGHT THAT PANICKED AMERICA (1975), which dramatized the effect that Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast had on the country. She also appeared in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), but will forever be remembered as Elyse Keaton, mother of Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton et. al, from seminal sitcom FAMILY TIES (1982-1989). In something of a hat-tip to her Elyse Keaton character, she appeared as Michael J. Fox’s mother again in two episodes of the sitcom SPIN CITY.
Young Danny was played by Lee Montgomery, who got his start in the 1971 Disney film THE MILLION DOLLAR DUCK. He quickly traded in the wholesome world of Disney for the more sinful likes of BEN; the incestuous THE BEAST IS LOOSE (1974), co-written by Frank De Felitta (which explains a lot of the perversion); and BURNT OFFERINGS (1976) and DEAD OF NIGHT (1977), both from Dan Curtis. In 1985, he appeared alongside Sarah Jessica Parker, Helen Hunt and Shannen Doherty in GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN. His sister is actress Belinda Montgomery, best known for her role as the mother on DOOGIE HOWSER, M.D. (1989-1993), who spends most of her time these days painting some pretty spectacular artwork, which can be seen at her official website.
Both “Start the Day” and “Ben’s Song” were written by lyricist Don Black, who also wrote the lyrics to “Born Free” and four different James Bond themes (not to mention songs for a hundred or so other projects). In a bit of pop culture absurdity, Michael Jackson performed “Ben’s Song” over the closing credits, which became a #1 hit under the simplified title of “Ben”. It catapulted him into stardom as a solo act, free from the other members of the Jackson 5. The song was doubtlessly more popular than the movie it spawned from, and many people mooned over the saccharine representation of friendship that it offered without ever realizing that it was actually a love song to a telepathic rat. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that MJ owes it all to this movie, but one does have to wonder if Donny Osmond would be known as the King Of Pop, had he been available to record the song, as was initially planned.
That folksy bastard just might have moonwalked into America’s heart.