Wednesday 25 October 2017

Willard (1971) and Ben (1972)

Rat-Tastic Double Bill - Wholeheartedly Recommended

Calling all rat fans! A decade before Roland Rat terrorised early 1980s Britain (if you don't know what I'm talking about you're very lucky), a duet of US horror pictures from Bing Crosby Productions (!) turned thousands of rats into movie stars and delivered a couple of extremely entertaining 'When Animals Attack' thrillers along the way. Now WILLARD (1971) and its sequel BEN (1972) are getting a limited edition Blu-ray boxset release courtesy of Second Sight.

The first, WILLARD, is loosely adapted from Stephen Gilbert's novel Ratman's Notebooks. Gangly, awkward Willard Styles (Bruce Davison) lives with his mother (Elsa Lanchester) in a rambling old house. The family business has been bought by sleazy Martin (Ernest Borgnine) who employs Willard partly as a kindness and mainly to berate him. To escape his mother's awful friends Willard takes to training the rats that have wandered into the garden, and soon he has an army to do his bidding.

Considering this was marketed as 'The One Film You Should Not Watch Alone', WILLARD is surprisingly lacking in horror, especially when you consider when it was made. In fact, for the first hour or so, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a slightly demented Disney live action film. It does get a bit bloody in the final act, though, and no doubt audiences of the time were thrilled to see vast numbers of rats crashing a dinner party, scurrying through an office, and killing Ernest Borgnine.

Second Sight's 4k transfer looks marvellous. For a movie that existed for years in washed out sepia-toned bootlegs, it finally looks fantastic & if you're a fan of the film I can wholeheartedly recommend it. You also get a Bruce Davison commentary and an interview with him as well, plus a trailer, TV & radio spots and a still gallery.

WILLARD was such a success that BEN followed a year later. Detailing the adventures of rat leader Ben and his army, BEN also feels rather less horrific than perhaps it could have been. A couple of rat attacks at the beginning soon give way to some lengthy downtime as we get to know the family of young Danny (Lee Montgomery) who befriends Ben and discovers that the rats, having escaped the Stiles house, are now hiding out in the sewers. Memorable shots of a supermarket filled with rats and a fiery finale don't make BEN quite as good as WILLARD but there will be many out there who remember this as a late night ITV staple and will want to revisit it.

Perhaps surprisingly, the 'best surviving archive print' for BEN doesn't look anywhere near as crisp and clean as WILLARD, so be prepared for a drop in quality. It still looks better than the bootlegs, though, and the transfer is perfectly fine to enjoy. Extras include a chatty commentary with Lee Montgomery, who seems to have made it through being a child actor in Hollywood relatively unscathed. He's interviewed as well. You also get trailers, TV & radio spots and a still gallery.

You want more? How about that gorgeous new Graham Humphreys artwork that graces the limited edition box? You also get a poster of the art to go with it. An excellent package of a pairing of classic horrors, Second Sight have gone above and beyond to give us the best possible package with WILLARD and BEN. Well done, guys. 

WILLARD and BEN are getting released as a limited Blu-ray boxset, and as separate Blu-ray and DVD releases, on 30th October 2017

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