Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Friday, December 19, 2014

[Musophobia] Ben (1972)

Ben - Theatrical Poster
Theatrical Poster
This sequel to WILLARD (1971) pretty much picks up exactly where its predecessor left off. In fact, the opening scenes to BEN are the closing scenes from WILLARD, following which we cut to the crowd gathering outside of Willard's house in the aftermath of the rat attack that left him dead.

Among the curious spectators are Danny Garrison, his older sister Eve, and their mother Beth. They gawk and gape for a bit before Danny is ushered home for his own safety, as he was born with a heart defect and too much excitement can kill him.

Beth, understandably, dotes on her son and he leads a pretty sheltered life. He plays quietly by himself, and has taken to some mostly sedentary activities—such as model train conducting and marionette puppetry. He doesn't leave the house much, and doesn't have any real friends to speak of. Until he meets Ben, that is.

Ben and Danny hit it off like Mowgli and Baloo, but with less singing and dancing. Not that much less, to be honest, as there is still an unusual amount of musical numbers here. Ben never participates, though. He is always the straight man in this strange, almost uncomfortable, genre outing.

The scenes of Danny and his family are occasionally interrupted for scenes of rodent destruction at various locales around town. Some people inevitably end up dead in these assaults, but that is never the reason behind them. Danny knows that Ben and his enormous family simply need to eat, and occasionally humans just happen to get in between them and their food source. How does Danny know this? Because Ben tells him.

That's right, as Ben's new best friend, Danny is privy to all kinds of rat secrets, including where their lair is hidden deep underground. This is a secret that city officials would love to have, but until they can learn it, they are stuck going door to door and boobytrapping neighborhood homes to try to catch the little buggers. Luckily Danny is there to teach Ben what a trap is, and how to avoid one. In exchange, Ben protects Danny from the local bully by leading an assault against the kid's shins.

Things build slowly (and rather jerkily) to a full-on war against the rats in the city's sewers, with the rodents
bearing their teeth and the humans wielding firearms and flamethrowers (the sound of hundreds of squealing rats being burned alive is really rather haunting). The battle rages on until the humans are victorious and the smell of burned rat hair lingers heavy over the town.

Danny is left friendless and heartbroken...but not for long. As he mourns the loss in his bedroom, a battered-but-alive Ben inches his way in. Danny promises to nurse him back to health, and once again, all is right with the world.

Ben - "The Two Of Us Need Look No More..."
"The Two Of Us Need Look No More..."
This strange and awkward sequel could very well have been the start of a new franchise covering the exploits of its animal star, following in the paw prints of canine fare like Lassie and Benji. Thankfully it stopped here, though, as Ben really doesn't have as much personality as his poochie counterparts, and another movie likely would have removed whatever bite the little critter had left.

In WILLARD, basically everyone involved could be viewed as a villain if thought of in the proper context. The world was villainous because it mistreated Willard. Willard was villainous because he sought revenge (no matter how hard we try to justify his actions, they still cannot be placed in a strictly heroic light). The rats were villains because they were the actual purveyors of violence.

It goes both ways, of course. The world wasn't really being villainous, some people are just kind of assholes, and dealing with that is a part of life. Willard, as mentioned in his own review, was more of an antihero than a true villain. And the rats were only following commands, basically living weapons being wielded by a man with a grudge. It's all a matter of perspective regarding whose side you were on.

In BEN, there isn't really that moral grey area for you to wade through. Simply put, there are no villains here. Danny is far too innocent to even fall into the antihero category and doesn't do nearly enough to be a hero. The police are merely doing their job, trying to protect the public at large from a serious threat. And Ben and his minions are merely doing their job—being rats and doing decidedly rat-like things, which is hardly something that we can fault them for. On a strictly human level, you may want to root against them after just a quick read of the synopsis, but after seeing their relationship with Danny, that's a very difficult thing to do. You may want to root against the officials, but if your city was being besieged by rats, wouldn't you want them to step in? So instead, you watch it all unfold onscreen, rooting for nobody in particular.

In a film that doesn't really have an antagonist, Danny remains our protagonist-by-proxy. Was it by chance that Ben found him, or was it by design? Danny could certainly be seen as a younger version of Ben's former "master", as he is just as strange, sad, and lonely as Willard was. Danny, though, never thought of the rats as anything but friends, and he never sought to control them. He only wanted to protect them. We have no way of knowing if Willard would have behaved the same way at Danny's age, or more importantly, if Danny will behave the same way at Willard's age. We can only imagine how things might have unfolded for Danny and Ben in a third entry that was never made.

Based on the aforementioned song and dance numbers, and Danny's proclivities for puppetry, my guess is that they would have ended up in show business together. I imagine something along the lines of MAGIC (1978), but infinitely sadder and with more of a chance of plague.

At one point, in an effort to entertain Ben, Danny plays an astoundingly terrible song on the harmonica, spasmodically dancing around the room until his heart threatens to give out. On more than one occasion, he makes his marionettes dance while singing "Start the Day", a performance which seems to entertain him to no end (but reminds me of some of the more unsettling moments from 1929’s THE GREAT GABBO). And yet another time, Danny sits down at the piano and plinks out an ode to his buddy named "Ben's Song," which he delivers in a stilted monotone like bad spoken word poetry. This all adds an uncanny air to the movie that is difficult to work around.

Director Phil Karlson had previously been responsible for adaptations of The Shadow (BEHIND THE MASK; THE MISSING LADY, both 1946); Charlie Chan capers (THE SHANGHAI COBRA, 1945; DARK ALIBI, 1946); crime dramas (KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, 1952; THE PHENIX CITY STORY, 1955); westerns (GUNMAN'S WALK, 1958; A TIME FOR KILLING, 1967); war pictures (HELL TO ETERNITY, 1960; HORNETS' NEST, 1970); and teenage fare (Elvis in KID GALAHAD, 1962; Fabian in RIDE THE WILD SURF, 1964); so a horror film was just about overdue. He followed BEN up with what would turn out to be his penultimate—and most famous— picture, 1973's WALKING TALL with Joe Don Baker.

Danny's mother Beth was played by Rosemary Murphy, who had won a daytime Emmy for her performance as the president's mother in ELEANOR AND FRANKLIN (1976), and was nominated again for the same role in ELEANOR AND FRANKLIN: THE WHITE HOUSE YEARS (1977). She appeared in the acclaimed film TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), and showed up in TV shows such as ONE STEP BEYOND, THRILLER, NAKED CITY, THE FUGITIVE, and THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO. Genre fans may remember her for her portrayal of Karen Wagner in Oliver Stone’s THE HAND (1981).

Eve was played by Meredith Baxter, who had only four television credits and an appearance in the women's lib comedy STAND UP AND BE COUNTED (1972) under her belt when she took the role. She went on to star in a significant number of made-for-TV movies, some of which may be of particular interest to genre fans: the Robert Bloch scripted THE CAT CREATURE (1973); the sci-fi tinged possession flick THE INVASION OF CAROL ENDERS (1973); and THE NIGHT THAT PANICKED AMERICA (1975), which dramatized the effect that Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast had on the country. She also appeared in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976), but will forever be remembered as Elyse Keaton from seminal sitcom FAMILY TIES (1982-1989).

Young Danny was played by Lee Montgomery, who got his start in the 1971 Disney film THE MILLION DOLLAR DUCK. He quickly traded in the wholesome world of Disney for the more sinful likes of BEN; the incestuous THE BEAST IS LOOSE (1974), co-written by Frank De Felitta (which explains a lot); and BURNT OFFERINGS (1976) and DEAD OF NIGHT (1977), both from Dan Curtis. In 1985, he appeared alongside Sarah Jessica Parker, Helen Hunt and Shannen Doherty in GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN.

Both "Start the Day" and "Ben's Song" were written by lyricist Don Black, who also wrote the lyrics to "Born
Ben - Michael Jackson Album Cover
Album Cover
Free" and four different James Bond themes (not to mention songs for a hundred or so other projects). In a bit of pop culture absurdity, Michael Jackson performed "Ben's Song" over the closing credits, which became a #1 hit under the simplified title of "Ben". It catapulted him into stardom as a solo act, free from the other members of the Jackson 5. The song was doubtlessly more popular than the movie it spawned from, and many people mooned over the saccharine representation of friendship that it offered without ever realizing that it was actually a love song to a telepathic rat. I wouldn't go so far as to say that MJ owes it all to this movie, but one does have to wonder if Donny Osmond would be known as the King Of Pop, had he been available to record the song, as was initially planned.


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