Goon Review: Ben (1972)

(Submitted by our Ho-rror Ho-mie, Mr. Andrew Peters…Thanks, ya Goon-ie!! 😉 xoxo)


Willard had a direct sequel after the film’s fan favorite rodent Ben named, well, Ben. I don’t know how well Willard had done in theaters to warrant a sequel, but apparently it did well enough that Bing Crosby backed its production (seeing as he also financed Willard). Yeah, crazy to think that an old school crooner like himself wanted more killer rat movies, but once again this really isn’t about nature striking back. I mean, it kinda has that element going on, but like its predecessor, Ben is more about someone befriending the rodents. Instead of a socially awkward young man using his newfound friends as a means to get revenge, it’s a socially awkward boy just being friends with them and deaths just kind of happen incidentally.

We pick up right where Willard left off and I mean right where it left off. The police find what remains of Willard and uncovering his journal that mentions Socrates and Ben. To be honest, I missed this little tidbit of information at first and was really confused at how the hell the cops could have known the two rats’ names, but after a quick rewind, I saw what I missed. Not sure why I wasn’t paying attention or maybe the detail was glossed over quickly, but nevertheless it’s there. Detective Sergeant Cliff Kirtland is tasked with heading up this investigation, which seems like it should have come to a close almost immediately. Willard has basically been devoured by the rats, so I don’t know if his plan was to arrest all the rats or what. Ben watches menacingly from the rafters above as a single cop, all by his lonesome, hears something behind the wall and decides he should check it out. Now I have to ask because the movie presented it; what the hell was this guy thinking? It’s clearly rats that just ate a person. Why in the love of Nina Hartley’s sweet tits would he crack open the wall? What was his plan here? I’ve been asking, “what’s the plan” a few times now, so it’s safe to assume we’re getting the movie logic of cops that do stupid things in order for events to unfold. So yeah, he gets killed. Surprised?

Being a smart little bugger, Ben knows it’s no longer safe and it’s time for them to find a new home. Luckily, an awkward and lonesome kid named Danny happens to be kind of weird. Hopefully you won’t find him as mildly annoying as I did, because he’s the central character of the film and to desperately make him sympathetic, he has a heart condition that’s never really explained nor is it used to the plot’s convenience all that well other than to occasionally make you feel sorry for him or to build some tension. Sorry, movie, you failed on both accounts.

While putting on his one man puppet show that apparently Danny does to no audience, so it’s in no way kind of creepy, he notices Ben watching him from the window to which Danny tortures the poor rat by submitting him to his little play and the two quickly becomes pals. Don’t count on this ending happily, however, as the Police seem to be narrowing down the places to search and even come by asking questions after Ben and his army of badass rats protect Danny from a bully. In a very creepy turn of his character, Danny stares at the kid accusing him and says to the Police and all of the adults in the room that the bully must have fallen into a rose bush. The bully quickly noticing the Damien from The Omen death stare and agrees he must’ve fallen into a rose bush. It’s almost unsettling and for a brief moment you might be thinking that the movie may take a turn into dark territory with Danny losing his grip on reality, much like Willard had, but nope. They toy with the idea for a moment and discard it. The movie’s credit, it’s at least not trying to repeat Willard and wants to do its own thing.

Ben and the other rats terrorize the city in the sense that they are merely searching for food, but turn over a grocery store in the process and the death toll even spikes a wee bit. Kirtland continues his manhunt, or erm, rathunt and draws nearer and nearer until the film’s climax when it’s an all out war of man versus rats. I may have overhyped it in that last sentence, but I have to admit that it’s a little heartbreaking, especially with Danny desperately trying to save Ben. I can relate to that, because I would do anything for my guinea pigs and the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever experienced is when I lost my first piggie to heart disease. I don’t think the film did very well, so there’s not another sequel, although I have to say I think it would have been great to see the further adventures of Ben. I can say that at least film’s started being kinder to animals around this time, so some poorly composited shots of rats being set on fire is used in place of actually setting rats on fire. Thank goodness this wasn’t an Italian production.

It was nice to finally see rats get some love, at least to some extent, but therein lies the problem… who was this movie made for? The kid becoming friends with the rats and all the whimsy that follows suggest it was made for kids, but the carnage ensues tells me that maybe it’s a horror film. Like with most of these mixed bag films, it can’t seem to decide which it’s trying to be and ultimately doesn’t do well with blending either genres. Although the younger audience might be enticed by the relationship between the humans and animals, they would probably find all the talking and plot development parts boring since it’s trying to speak to an older audience who in turn will find the parts involving Danny and Ben childish and the horror parts rather dull and not scary. While watching it, I couldn’t help but think of Pod People which had the same problem. JP Simon, the director of that film, wanted a horror film and the producers wanted a kiddie film, so both were mixed to poor results (although Pod People is fun as hell to watch, especially the MST3K version).

Ben is somewhat of a lost film in that the original negatives apparently couldn’t be found, but that didn’t stop good ol’ Scream Factory from fine tuning it from whatever source they could find. Seeing as a master source wasn’t used in restoring the movie, so while it doesn’t look as sharp or clean as Willard, I’m genuinely shocked at how good it looks giving what they had to work with. Like Willard, there isn’t much in the way of special features. Aside from a small interview with Lee Montgomery who played Danny in the film who also provides an audio commentary, you get your usual Scream Factory extras, like a theatrical trailer, TV spots, radio spots and a still gallery. Unless you’re a fan of the film or a Scream Factory completist, you’ll probably want to pass on it.

Ben is kind of a forgettable, especially in the horror or nature strikes back or child befriending animal or whatever the hell genre it is, but if there is anything anyone will remember from this movie it’s the theme song sung by Michael Jackson. I know, at first I thought it was a joke too, but an early ‘70s, young Michael Jackson sings the song and even has a giant credit during the opening text. Well, there’s that and Danny’s puppet play with a puppet of Ben which performs in front of Ben. It’s kind of weird. Even Ben looks creeped out. Maybe the movie should have been a puppet play.

Goon Review: Willard (1971)

(Submitted by Mr. Andrew Peters…Thanks, Ho-rror Ho-mie! 🙂 xoxo)

Can we all agree that rats have been treated more than unfairly in films? They are always portrayed as filthy, disease ridden, hell spawn with a lust for blood and devastation. They are looked at as these solitary creatures you just toss in a cage and only take out when you want to monologue to something. In actuality, they are social creatures that are incredibly smart and friendly and make amazing friends. I have two guinea pigs myself and I couldn’t have asked for better buddies. I realize it doesn’t help my point when I basically have no friends and talk to my piggies constantly, but I’m not spewing plans for revenge or training them to gnaw off people’s faces, like the tit-ular character from Willard!

At a glance, Willard is often viewed as a killer rat movie and while there are deaths caused by the rats, it’s hardly that. It’s focus is on the aforementioned tit-ular character, Willard, a socially awkward misfit who befriends a large group of rats, trains them and then when things don’t necessarily work out in his favor, he turns to his friends for help and that leads to darker things as Willard’s state of mind begins to slip. While watching the movie, I really wanted things to work out for the guy, but he makes some really dark choices and I became resentful of the guy. Bruce Davison (Senator Kelly from the X-Men films) plays two sides to Willard; his playful and charming side, which we rarely get to see, and his broken, beaten down side. That’s the side you see more often in the film, because you are with him on his journey of unintentional self destruction and it gives him reasons to do the precarious things he does. We are left wanting more of the well intentioned side of Willard, but it’s used sparingly to show you how damaged he’s become. How he got to become so sympathetic may be pretty standard on paper, but you still feel for the guy.

Martin works at a company for the nefarious Al Martin played by Ernest Borgnine (Escape From New York, BASEketball) who had stolen the company from Martin after his father’s passing. Now the young lad spends his days essentially being the office punching bag by having worked dumped in his lap, forcing him to work nights and weekends while Al mocks him and plays grab ass with some of the office gals. Willard’s home life doesn’t seem to fare much better. He lives with his mother and cares for her in a dilapidated house surrounded by her elderly friends that are constantly berate the boy about how he should be living his life. Between work and tending to all his mother’s needs and wants, the poor kid can’t catch a break and has no friends. He’s basically what every emo kid wishes their life was really like. This all changes when Willard’s mother commands him to take care of the rats that are hanging around the house which he then attempts to drown, but he can’t bring himself to do. Instead, he realizes how intelligent the creatures are and quickly admires them, especially a little white rat he names Socrates.

Willard soon begins teaching the rats commands, like “food” and “empty” and the rats are proving themselves to be smart. Things change with the arrival of a bigger rat that he names Ben, seemingly harmless at first. With the help of his rats, Willard crashes one of his boss’s party and has a laugh from the bushes while his rodent friends send the party goers running and screaming. While Willard seemingly loves all of the rats, that affection isn’t nearly as strong for the affection he has for Socrates, who becomes somewhat of his sidekick. Willard brings him to work in his satchel and even cuddles up with him at night and has conversations with him. Ben takes notice of this love and, as any creature does, wants some of that shared love. You get the feeling as if Ben wants them all to be a happy family, but Willard only cares for Socrates and this is what I believe is his biggest flaw.

You see, I’ve always viewed Willard as the, well not villain, but antagonist of the film. He’s not intentionally a bad person, but he’s been molded in such a deformed way that he focuses all his love onto Socrates. Not to the fault of Socrates and I think Ben realizes this, but Ben wants the same affection Willard gives to Socrates and works hard for it, even finding ways to sneak into the bedroom to bunk with them even if Willard ends up throwing him outside the door multiple times. Ben doesn’t want to give up on Willard and believes that he could one day earn that same love. Unfortunately Willard, possibly having been damaged by his relationship with his own mother, seemingly can only give his attention to one being and that’s Socrates. It’s really tragic in my eyes, because this is the beginning of the preventable downfall.

We come to the inevitable point in the movie when Willard’s mother dies and leaves him the house. Unable to afford the home, Willard’s boss is pushing him to sell the place so that he can buy it at a low cost and demolish it to build an apartment building. In desperate need of money, Willard learns of a secret stash of cashHo-ste and sends in his army of trained rats to steal it, but this isn’t the end of the escalation. While hiding Socrates and Ben in the closet after bringing them to work, another employee spots them and the unthinkable happens to poor Socrates and I actually had to stop the movie here to take a breather. As I said, I have a strong affection for rodents that even simulated abuse or death is hard for me to watch, especially for an endearing, sweet creature like Socrates. I know what it’s liked to be attached to an animal and to have that animal show you that it cares back and to have it stripped away horribly is heartbreaking. Unfortunately for Willard, he cannot show his pain, because then his boss will find out all about his misdoings. Alone with Ben, there’s a gaze in the rat’s eyes that says he knew this would happen if the love wasn’t shared and that he’s ready to Socrates place at Willard’s side (or maybe I’m reading too much into this). Realizing what Ben is trying to tell him, Willard readies his friends for some well deserved revenge, but even Willard may not be ready for what follows.

Ernest Borgnine is usually known for playing lovable characters, be it good or bad and here you really get to see him be a bad guy. He’s disgusting and even though you hate the bastard’s guts, you still enjoy seeing him on screen. The performances of rivalry between Bruce Davison and Ernest Borgnine really give you an underdog to root for and a scoundrel to despise. Their performance styles, however, are much different. Ernest Borgnine, along with a majority of the cast, play up the fact that they are in a horror movie about rats and overperform, like they are trying to chew more scenery than their rodentia co-stars. Bruce Davison, on the other hand, gives a much more grounded performance that I’m sure all geeks can relate to, because at one point in our lives we all have been outcasts. We’ve all been shunned by society and you feel alone until that moment where you find a friend in place you least expected. It really adds three dimensions to the character of Willard and it’s that much more heartbreaking when the character finally snaps and turns on his friends. It makes you feel frustrated and angry at how he could do such a thing, but that’s what makes him flawed and relatable.

Willard is a film that wasn’t very well received by critics upon its initial 1971 release and to my surprise has a seemingly small fan base, but that was enough for Scream Factory to release the film in a brand new transfer. The 4K scan of the original camera negative looks phenomenal. There’s some noise and grain, but that’s comes with the territory and is welcomed. It’s just astonishing that for a film of Willard’s caliber with a seemingly absurd plot that it would get a restoration that makes it look brand new makes me smile. However, there isn’t much in the way of special features. Aside from the conventional trailer, TV spots, radio spots and still gallery, there is only a new interview with Bruce Davison (who also recorded a new commentary for the film) who briefly talks about his experience with the film. He’s actually very funny and entertaining in the short time the feature runs and I say “thank you” to him for coming back and talking with the fans about Willard after all these years.

But it really doesn’t matter that Willard isn’t packed to the gills with special features. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about finally having this heartwarming/heartbreaking mildly horror film available on DVD and Blu-ray and looking sharp. I don’t think every horror fan is going to like the movie, in fact even those who love the “when animals attack” movies may not like it. Maybe because it’s more about a mistreated, socially awkward young man’s descent. Willard is so much more than just a killer rat movie.

I have to say I really love Ben and I wish we could see more of him. Of course, I will be eating those words after seeing the sequel, 1972’s Ben.

Ho-stess’s Note: I thought it was worth pointing out that Willard’s mother was played by Ms. Elsa Lanchester, the Bride of Frankenstein herself!
Ho-stess’s Other Note: I also thought it was worth pointing out that Crispin Glover is ridiculously hot. 😉 #MCM

Ho-stess’s Final Note: Here’s my own little Socrates. (Real Name: Rat Murdock ” #proudratmama :))

Happy Birthday, Crispin Glover & Clint Howard!! :)

Happy Birthday to two site favorites: Clint Howard and Crispin Glover!

Both Mr. Glover and Mr. Howard are among the most beloved actors in the world of cult cinema. Neither one is your average leading man, but they’d be far less intriguing if they were.

Crispin Glover is one of the most unique personalities in cinema. He has appeared in blockbuster crowd-pleasers, but his heart clearly lies with the darker, challenging side of film. As an artist in many fields, Mr. Glover is always provocative and has the uncanny ability to perturb viewers in fascinating ways. While the average film-goer may recognize him as the nebbish father in Back to the Future, Glover’s acting work has included everything from slasher films (Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter), art films (Dead Man), big-budget fantasy (Alice in Wonderland), offbeat crime films (Wild at Heart), black comedies (Nurse Betty), and other varied films. No matter the film, Glover always brings an intensity and strange quality that is all his own. Glover has brought his surreal talents to directing with What Is It? and It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine, both part of a planned “It” trilogy. There’s no denying that Glover is a true original.

Clint Howard will (to the general public, anyway) always be known simply as “Ron Howard’s brother”,  but has Ron had memorable roles on three different versions of Star Trek? No, but Clint sure has! In fact, Clint has had a pretty legendary career in his own right. Starting in 1963, Clint Howard has been in… well, just about everything. Mr. Howard is the ultimate character actor. He’s been in countless iconic television shows, horror movies (including The Ice Cream Man, a favorite of our fearless ho-stess!), comedies (the first two Austin Powers movies, among many others.), has gone face-to-face with Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy on the original Star Trek series, and was Roo (!) in two Disney Winnie the Pooh shorts! In 1998, Howard won the MTV Lifetime Achievement Award. It was clearly a gag, but it shouldn’t have been. Clint Howard has been around for over four decades and has produced many roles and moments that will be remembered by fans forever. If that isn’t award-worthy, we don’t know what is.

 In honor of these two eccentric gentlemen, we thought it would be appropriate to have a little music… performed by the birthday boys, of course! The first is a new wave rocker performed by Clint Howard and the Kempsters, the second is Crispin Glover doing his best (and the all-time best) Olivia Newton-John in The Orkly Kid. Both performances are delightfully strange, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Happy Birthday, Boys!