For many years both Willard and Ben have been nearly impossible to acquire, and even when a solid remake of the later starring Crispin Glover came out, there was no DVD re-release. However, thanks to Shout Factory in the US and now due to Second Sight in the UK, we can finally see these two films about boys and their pet rats. Willard is most certainly the better of the two films, with Ben probably best remembered for the title song sung by Michael Jackson, back when he was a little kid and still black.
The original Willard was based loosely on an obscure novel by Stephen Gilbert called Ratman’s Notebooks, which was long out of print. Since 2013 it has been available in a new edition with an introduction by noted horror critic and writer Kim Newman. The novel never named the protagonist as Willard, and it’s in the form of diary entries written while he slowly goes crazy when he starts hanging with his little buddies. However, that internal descent to insanity wouldn’t have translated well to the medium of film.
The choice of the extremely underrated Bruce Davison as Willard was inspired, but it didn’t help him from being typecast as the crazy young man for the next decade. He has this perfect slightly quirky nervous energy that is a bit Norman Bates and a bit Harold from Harold & Maude. This similarity between the characters is heightened by the overbearing mothers of all three. He is one of the best character actors alive, and it’s a shame to see some of the crap he has been in, like The Leisure Class, the film that was made out of the Project Greenlight show a couple of years ago.
The majority of the film’s running time is this quirky tale of Willard and his rats, and it’s not till the last 15 minutes that the horror elements kick it. It has a nice build-up that makes you sympathise with Willard through his interactions with his boss from hell, who is played perfectly by Ernest Borgnine, and the doomed but blossoming relationship he has with the sweet-natured temp assistant he works with. Elsa Lanchester, who was the Bride of Frankenstein, is excellently cast as Willard’s overbearing mother in one of her last roles.
The original Willard is a slightly forgotten gem that has been overshadowed by its remake at the turn of the century. It makes me want to go back and watch Crispin Glover’s take on the material and compare the two: the jury is out on which film is better. The sequel to Ben continues where the first left off, and Ben is now in the hands of a sweet but annoying kid but soon is the cause of complete panic. However, the whole film looks like a ’70s Afterschool Special, and even at 95 minutes it’s a real chore to get through. It’s kind of perverse that Michael Jackson sings this super saccharine song about a murderous rat, but he was kind of a perverse man himself. I prefer Crispin Glover’s cover of the song over it any day.
Both discs have a new restoration: Willard had the full 4K treatment, and Ben looks a little ragged around the edges, but it kind of adds something to the poor sequel. Each film includes a commentary and an interview from their stars, Bruce Davison and Lee Montgomery, and these sit alongside trailers, TV spots, radio spots and a stills gallery. They are available in a double pack with an exclusive poster, or seperately.