Thursday, May 19, 2022

(Ro)Dental Problems

Films: Willard (1971); Ben
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

I used to have pet rats. When I say that, I learn that there are two basic types of people. There are a few people who know the joys of pet rats, but by far the most common response is a slight recoil and a wrinkling of the nose. I’ll happily tout just how good rats are as pets. They’re smart, affectionate, and trainable. In fact, the only real drawback to them is that they don’t live very long. We had a rat who lived for three years, and that’s sort of the equivalent of a human living to 110. I bring this up because Willard is a rat movie.

There are a few kinds of creature movies when we’re talking about real-world creatures. Jaws is the classic version of a big creature going on a rampage, and most other films of the same vein are pale shadows (Orca and Grizzly come to mind). There are also the classic giant vermin films that have good examples (Them, for instance) and plenty of terrible ones (The Deadly Mantis, The Killer Shrews, Night of the Lepus, and The Giant Leeches to name a few). And then there are swarm movies. Phase IV, Squirm, Frogs, Piranha, Kingdom of the Spiders and more fit into this category. That’s the category for Willard, with the swarm being rats.

Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison) is an introvert and something of a loser. Is job is at a plant that was started by his father but taken over by a man named Martin (Ernest Borgnine), who treats Willard terribly in the hopes of getting him to quit. Willard lives with his shrewish mother (Elsa Lanchester) in a dilapidated house that she constantly demands he fix. One of those fixes is getting rid of a nest of rats. Willard attempts to drown them but takes pity on them instead and keeps them in a shed. Slowly, he learns to like the rats, and has a favorite named Socrates. He also has a rat named Ben, who seems to have more a dark influence over him and his thoughts.

With the rats as the main positive in his life, the rest of Willard’s world spirals out of control. His mother dies, leaving him not money but a pile of debt. The house is going to be foreclosed on, and his boss desperately wants to buy it to knock it down and put up an apartment building. Willard, though, wants something like revenge. He’d also like a life with Joan (Sondra Locke), a temporary worker at his office.

What separates Willard from the rest of the swarm movie pack is that in this case there is a mind controlling the swarm. Willard trains his rats to obey simple verbal commands, and because he treats them well, they do as he asks. This includes helping him steal money to pay the back taxes on his house and helping him get revenge on the people who have wronged him. Willard only wants a normal life, but it appears that there is nothing but obstacles in front of him, preventing him from having it.

Willard is not the movie I thought it was going to be. Based on what I had heard about it, I expected something along the lines of Sugar Hill but with rats. Willard hunts down the people who have treated him poorly and sics his rats on them, allowing them to gnaw on his enemies and getting them a free meal out of it in the process. True, this does happen a time or two, but the movie is smarter than this. Willard isn’t so depraved an individual that he sees his actions as being entirely justified and justifiable. As the ending comes close, we see that Willard has decided that may rodental revenge isn’t always the best choice.

Bruce Davison is very good in this. Willard works because Davison is pitiable, and we need for Willard to be someone for whom we feel sorry. Even when he takes things too far, we need to be in his corner and rooting for him. He’s the one who has been put upon, and the is where our loyalties need to lie, and for the most part, they do. Ernest Borgnine is delightfully campy and chews all of the scenery, and it’s glorious to watch.

I’m not sure I’m keen on the ending of Willard, but overall, it’s a fine movie, and kind of surprising.

Willard was successful enough that it spawned an immediate sequel, Ben. This is the story of Willard’s surviving rat Ben looking for a new person to live with and looking to lead the pack to prosperity, or at least what counts as prosperity for a rat. We start the film with the last five minutes or so of the previous film. That was probably a good idea in 1972 since the audience likely needed that refresher, but when you watch the movies back-to-back, it’s a very odd recap.

Ben the rat escapes and makes his way to the house of the Garrison family. It’s here that he encounters young Danny Garrison (Lee Montgomery). Danny has heart problems (he’s clearly had heart surgery at one point, and shows his scar) and is something of a weird, introverted kid because of it. He likes to play with puppets and make them sing, and seems to be unable to do so without laughing at his own wit. He is also desperately lonely, which makes him a perfect target for Ben the rat. Danny lives with his mom (Rosemary Murphy) and his older sister Eve (Meredith Baxter).

What happens is that Ben shows up to Danny’s “workshop” where he keeps all of the things he likes to build and play with. Ben becomes his new friend despite the fact that there is essentially a city-wide rat hunt for the swarm of rats that is known to have attacked several people and that apparently lives in or around the old Stiles place. Not wanting his friend to be hurt, Danny keeps Ben safe and even lies to the police about the location of the rat swarm’s nest and about having seen any rats in the area. Despite his best intentions, the rats are spotted several times and eventually the police call in extermination experts and guys with flamethrowers(!) to deal with the menace.

In truth, the most notable thing about Ben is probably that the title song, which can only be described as a young man telling a rat that he loves him. The song was originally performed by Michael Jackson, so it’s got that working for it, too.

I’ll be blunt on this one: Ben isn’t nearly as good a movie as Willard is. There’s far less plot for one thing, in large part because a great deal of the film is about the police going into the sewers and attacking the rats with flamethrowers. Believe me, it’s not nearly as fun and exciting as it sounds like it’s going to be. The bigger problem with Ben is that a great deal of the plot simply doesn’t work. We have to make a lot of intuitive leaps to get from where we start to where we end up (which in this case happens to be a city sewer, covered in filth).

Ben isn’t bad. It just isn’t that great, either.

Why to watch Willard: A swarm movie with a difference.
Why not to watch: It’s not the ending you want.

Why to watch Ben: More ratty goodness.
Why not to watch: It makes less sense than Willard and it’s sappier, too.


  1. I haven't seen either of those films though I am aware of the song from Michael Jackson. A love song to a rat. I still love Michael Jackson and that Leaving Neverland documentary is a bunch of bullshit.

    1. The Michael Jackson song is odd, absolutely. It genuinely feels a bit out of place.

      Nothing wrong with loving the King of Pop. The man was a genuine talent.

  2. I saw both of these years after they came out because I was too young to go to see them in the theatre but I remember Michael Jackson's version of "Ben" becoming an enormous hit and though everyone knew the origin of the song and the context once it became successful it took on a life of its own divorced from the film. Credit for that goes to Jackson's rendering which is dreamy and enticing but it really was such an odd thing to garner that sort of acclaim.

    As to the films I have to agree that Willard is the better of the two, though neither is particularly my cup of tea. But they have something a lot of these 70's creepers do, a solid cast of performers slumming for the money but still doing decent work and in the case of Willard a respected director. Together they elevate what without them would be just two more B-level drive-in/grindhouse features.

    1. Years ago, one of my sisters tried to scare me by telling me about Willard, but it never really took. These days, having had rats as pets, they just don't hold a lot of fear for me, so the film starts at a deficit for me in that respect. It was going to be very hard for it to be scary.