Before James Herbert’s Rats novels, there were Willard (1971) and Ben (1972), which focussed on the little critters. The first was based on a novel called Ratman’s Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert, while the second continued the story – following the leader of the rats, Ben.
In Willard, we meet the title character early, played to perfection by Bruce Davison (X-Men, Knight Rider) – a misfit who works for the firm his father used to own and is bullied by sleazy boss Martin (Hollywood legend Ernest Borgnine). He also lives in a huge run-down house, where he looks after his ageing and possessive mother (Elsa Lanchester). Willard is certainly a bit odd, but then what can you expect if you’ve been brought up by the Bride of Frankenstein?
After being humiliated by his mother and her friends at his 27th birthday party, he makes friends with a rat out in the garden by feeding it some cake. Before long, there’s a litter of the things out there – and he’s ordered to kill them by his mum. But Willard just can’t go through with it, especially as he’s grown very close to a couple of them in particular: Socrates and Ben. He’s also developing a kind of strange ability to control them, something that will come in handy when he wants to get revenge on those who’ve wronged him.
Ben picks up directly after the climactic events in Willard, in fact we get the end of the movie at the start just to refresh our memories. This time it’s a small boy called Danny (Lee Montgomery) – who has a bad ticker – that Ben befriends. His sister Eve (Meredith Baxter, later to be the mom in Family Ties) thinks the rat is imaginary, or just one of the puppets in Danny’s toy collection – but is she in for a shock! With the police investigating what happened in the previous film, and a veritable army of murderous rodents on the rampage, things finally come to a head in the sewers under the town, in true man vs nature fashion.
The strangest thing about these two films is the music, and the tone it sets. Almost comedic at times, or melancholy – the theme for Ben is the Michael Jackson number, for instance, which was a number one hit and nominated for an Oscar. It’s at odds with a story about killer rats, and you do find yourself at times wondering why both Willard and Danny give any of them the time of day. Having said that, there are some genuinely chilling moments – like when the army of rats take over a supermarket, or cause havoc at a gym – and the tension in both finales is handled well for the time. However, these movies are probably best viewed as the cult films they are, with all the nostalgia that goes with it.
Both movies benefit from being tickled up, Willard with a new 4k restoration and Ben an HD transfer, while extras include audio commentaries and interviews with actors Bruce Davison and Lee Montgomery, trailers, TV and radio spots, plus stills galleries. Paul Kane