In light of the fact that the 1971 film Willard was such a box office smash, bringing in almost $10 million (pretty big money in those days), I suppose it was practically inevitable that a sequel was soon put into production. And sure enough, in June ’72, almost a year to the day after Willard had had its premiere, that sequel, Ben, did indeed arrive. Featuring all new characters, with the exception of its titular rodent star, the film yet picks up mere moments after the conclusion of the first, and indeed, the sequel’s opening credits are scrawled over the final moments of that first film, to remind viewers of where things had left off.
In that first film’s conclusion, young oddball Willard Stiles (well played by Bruce Davison), after having killed his hateful boss with the assistance of his well-trained rat army, led by the almost supernaturally intelligent black rat Ben, had decided to do away with the hundreds of rodents living in his Los Angeles home, and a battle royale had ensued, in which Ben and his cohorts had done Willard to his death. As the sequel begins, cops and reporters swarm over the Stiles abode, trying to figure out what has happened, while gawky neighbors look on, aghast. One of those neighbors is the Garrison family, consisting of a single mother (played by Rosemary Murphy), her teenage daughter Eve (Meredith Baxter), and Danny (Lee Harcourt Montgomery), a young kid with a heart condition.
Danny, like Willard, is something of a loner, but a talented one: He plays piano, writes songs, and is something of an amateur puppeteer. While Ben and his army terrorize the neighborhood — killing cops, causing traffic accidents, breaking into and trashing a supermarket, invading a candy factory and causing a near riot in a women’s health spa — Danny befriends the intelligent super-rodent. To the viewer’s astonishment, Danny even kisses the furry critter, taking it to bed with him and telling it, “You’re the best friend I ever had.” And sadly enough, I suppose that, for poor Danny, that statement is indeed true … especially when Ben instructs a few of his henchmen to assist Danny when he is being pushed around by a brattish bully.
But real trouble looms when the authorities finally get wind of where Ben and his crew of thousands are holing up (and perhaps I should add here that the hundreds of rats in Willard seem to have enjoyed a dramatic population growth in this second film) — namely, in the catacombs of the sewer system — and another battle royale begins, as the cops and local engineers gear up with flamethrowers, high-powered rifles, water hoses and jackhammers to wipe out this pestilential scourge once and for all…
Ben maintains a light tone for the most part, and indeed, many of the film’s rat attack scenes — especially the one in the health spa — are played largely for laughs. The picture only gets serious toward its final 20 minutes, when Eve chases Danny through that sewer system, while a truly ferocious battle swirls around them. I’m not sure if “no animals were harmed in the making of this picture,” as many films proclaim (not this one, it should be noted), but if that IS indeed the case, some truly outstanding special effects were brought to the fore here, as it really does look as if hundreds of rodents are scampering before the onslaught of those flamethrowers while at the same time being roasted alive.
What I cannot understand is the Maltin Movie Guide‘s assertion that the film boasts “gory visuals”; while there are any number of scenes in which a person is covered with rodents here, I did not see a single drop of the red stuff once. Actually, this is a film that might make perfect fare for watching with your favorite 8-year-old, as Montgomery is as cute and appealing as can be. The song that he composes on the piano for his buddy, “Ben,” is one that you may well recall as having been sung by Michael Jackson, heard here during the picture’s end credits; the song was Oscar nominated, losing to “The Morning After” from The Poseidon Adventure.
As compared to the first film, the sequel is certainly a lesser affair, perhaps because it lacks the fine supporting contributions of Ernest Borgnine, Sondra Locke and Elsa Lanchester from that first outing. Still, here, the late Joseph Campanella (as the head cop on the case), Arthur O’Connell (as a wisecracking reporter) and Kenneth Tobey (as the No. 1 engineer) do get to add some welcome gravitas to the shenanigans. Surprisingly, director Phil Karlson, who had previously been responsible for such marvelous noir films as Kansas City Confidential, 5 Against the House and The Phenix City Story, and who, in ’73, would go on to helm the highly popular Walking Tall, offers up some fairly pedestrian work here; Ben surely could have benefited from a bit more style and suspense. Still, the film, uh, squeaks by as a moderately acceptable entertainment. “You sure have a big family, Ben,” Danny tells his buddy as he visits its home, deep in the L.A. sewer system, and I suppose that Ben the movie might be a good choice to watch with yours…