Hot on the heels of Willard in 1972 Ben follows on directly from where its predecessor finished. Due to events of the previous film Ben and his rat pack are forced to move. They have detectives, cops, local cats and hoards of people aware of their existence now and on their tail (pun intended). Actually it’s worth mentioning the people as they strangely stand around during the film outside where the action is taking part as silent observers, it’s all very odd and spooky as they are emotionless and one has to wonder if there was some sort of in-joke from the makers going on maybe alluding to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers or something. The film definitely has some odd quirks about it including a tried and tested running gag about lighting cigarettes going on between the investigating detectives. Anyhow it’s pretty much a case of Rattus Norvegicus going Down In The Sewer and yep I suspect The Stranglers were fans too.
Despite being homicidal Ben is still a damn cute critter and he knows it and he ends up befriending a little boy locally. Danny child star of Disney’s Million Dollar Duck, Lee Montgomery is very special. Despite ailing in health he makes marionettes and holds puppet shows, sings, plays piano and harmonica and even composes his own songs. We should get the elephant out the room here as one of those songs became the nauseatingly sickly theme of the film sang by a 14 year old Michael Jackson. Hearing it on the radio was my first exposure to these films and it certainly didn’t endear me to see them, luckily I was far too young anyway. Once you hear it in the film you may discover yourself getting violent sweats and cringing as it is truly horrid. Yes I admit I did wish nasty death on Danny as he is so precocious and as he looks up into the camera asking his sister Eve (Meredith Baxter) “am I going to die” with pleading eyes, I probably was not alone in thinking “yes the sooner the bloody better.” But he has Ben on his side and things like the local bully are only ever going to bother him once.
The rats themselves are very busy; they have a massive chamber down below but need food and have to invade on mass turning up in the supermarket, hospital, local cheese shop and even the health club. Sure, not all these places are the best source of food but who cares when nurses and women in saunas in states of undress are on hand to jump on chairs and scream their hearts out, that ratty stereotype is amusingly used to full effect again. Director Karlson is responsible for many a gung-ho war and Western film in his career and he kind of brings this to Ben by injecting a lot of action in the film, much of it fought out between man and beast in the claustrophobic sewers. It gives the movie a different feel to Willard and with its knowing nods and cheap laughs it kind of loses the impact gained in the first one and cheapens things somewhat. Some of the characters like Danny hardly make you sympathetic to them either and it is probably not surprising to read that this was on critic Roger Ebert’s most hated list. I wouldn’t go that far but the psychological suspense of Willard are all but forgotten here and although I believe Ben was the more well known of the two films in my opinion it certainly isn’t the better of them. At times it is more of a kids film and if you had a kid that was not afraid of rats I can’t see them having a problem watching this at all.
Lots of people around at the time no doubt do have incredibly fond memory of the film and are going to grab the opportunity to see it again. It’s a film not been easily available in any medium for some time and although it is not as sharp image wise and indeed at times a bit grainier than Willard I can imagine this being a very popular title. As with Willard extras are down to a commentary track and short interview with main star (no not the rat) Lee Montgomery. Older and with less punch-able face he admits to being a hyper kid and one that was too young to have even seen Willard. He briefly reflects on the patience of the cast working with them and his memories of how great they all were to work with. He worked with rats, bears and hawks during his career and tells us there were actually 4 Ben’s on the film and describes them all as pretty cool and would do practically anything for peanut butter.
These are films that deserve to be loved by fans old and new although modern audiences may well find them a bit dated. Second Sight have done a great job with this double bill and although I haven’t got the full package the Graham Humphries artwork deserves special mention. The company are probably done with rats for now but I have to say that they have me very excited with plans to bring two very different favourites of mine to Blu-Ray next year, namely Harry Bromley Davenport’s alien nasty Xtro (1983) and Lee Tamahori’s Maori gang-buster Once We’re Warriors (1994), so keep your eyes peeled for these!