Willard is a horror movie based on the novel Ratman’s Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert. It tells the story of a coddled young man named Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison) who is dealing with pressures from his late father’s business partner (Ernest Borgnine) and his naggish infirm mother (Elsa Lanchester). Willard befriends and trains a group of rats, centering in on a white rat named Socrates and a larger black rat named Ben. When Socrates is killed, Willard and Ben set out to take revenge but the two eventually turn on one another.
Due to ridiculously complicated rights issues, both Willard and Ben have become notoriously difficult to find in the post-VHS era. As such, Willard has taken on a bit of a legendary status among cult film lovers. Unfortunately, the movie is nothing special. It feels like a made-for-TV movie and it’s slow and meandering that doesn’t really capture the dark tone of its source material (which is great by the way, check out the book).
Willard is okay at best, watch the 2003 remake with Crispin Glover instead.
Ben picks up right where Willard left off, to the point that the first ten minutes of this movie is actually the last ten minutes of the previous one. We watch Willard get eaten by rats as Ben watches ominously. Now the police bust into Willard’s house and find his journal (which never appeared in the previous movie, but featured very prominently in Ratman’s Notebooks, obviously) so they get the full story.
Ben himself wanders across the street to the house of Danny (Lee Montgomery), a young boy with a heart condition who has no friends and lives in a world of his own knowing that he will likely die very young. Ben and Danny become fast friends but the rat army from Willard are causing trouble around town and the police are hunting them doggedly. Danny can’t protect his new friend forever.
Does It Hold Up?
Nope, and that’s sad because Willard is not a good movie at all. Willard at least has Stephen Gilbert’s novel to give it strength, Ben is a wholly original story where the titular protagonist is the evil rat who represented the main character’s downfall in the previous film. Willard was a bastard but Ben was most certainly the villain of that story.
Ben’s biggest problem is its lack of a thesis statement. On one hand, it’s a rat invasion story along the lines of Deadly Eyes. But on the other hand, it’s the story of a sad little kid and his best friend, a rat. These two angles don’t mesh together at all. We get that Danny loves Ben, but Ben and his rat army are legitimately making trouble about town and they do indeed need to go. So as heartbreaking as it is to see Danny treating Ben’s likely-mortal wounds at the end, it’s not as if his fate is undeserved. The movie has no real driving plot or narrative and seems to be trying to be two entire different things at once.
And then there’s that fucking song. Michael Jackson’s Ben is a perfectly listenable tune but it so does not fit this movie and this movie leans very heavily on it. There’s are about four different versions of that song that feature into this movie and two of them are part of the plot. Unless you have some personal connection to or nostalgia for this movie or its predecessor then don’t waste your time.
Watch, Toss, Or Buy?
Where Can I Find It?
It’s still very out of print but Scream! Factory has announced a blu-ray release featuring Ben and Willard in one package for sometime in 2017.