Nether Regions 10.19.10: Ben
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask “Why should I care about a film I have no access to?” My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Starring: Lee H. Montgomery, Joseph Campanella, and Rosemary Murphy
Directed By: Phil Karlson
Written By: Gilbert Ralston (based on his novel)
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Date: June 23, 1972
Missing Since: 1990
Existing Formats: VHS
Netflix Status: Not Available
Availability: Ben ate many of the VHS copies, so it’s as rare as can be
For those that have experienced the original Willard, or even the remake and have just heard of the 1971 version, you will be amped to read about the 1972 sequel, Ben. That’s right, Ben got his own movie, a story which is known for one reason and one reason only: Michael Jackson. Yes, around this time, a teenage Jackson recorded “Ben’s Song” for this film, and it begins as the movie ends. It was #1 at the time, won a Golden Globe, and was nominated for an Academy Award. Of course Crispin Glover covered this tune during the closing credits of the remake, and caused us all to wish we had never heard the creepy song in the first place. Other than that, I doubt many movie fans know anything about Ben, and how could they? It has been out of print as long as the original Willard has.
the rats liked.
Why these two films haven’t been pumped out easily as a double feature DVD is anyone’s guess. I find it ridiculous that the rights are that big of an issue here. Even if it was on shelves today, the amount sold would be small. One reason it hasn’t been released might be that Bruce Davison appears via flashbacks (or a recap of events) at the beginning, yet he is not credited anywhere. Someone might be worried about paying him, which is ironic since Crispin Glover was the actor that started those sort of suits when he was seen in Back to the Future II. Anyway, in this picture Ben and his army have moved into the sewer. The police have discovered Willard’s diary, and have found the dead bodies. Now they begin a search for the rats, but come up empty handed despite the fact that they are still attacking people and destroying property.
Meanwhile, Ben has made friends with Danny (Lee H. Montgomery), an 8 year-old boy with a heart condition. They have a great relationship, and when questioned about seeing any rats, Danny replies “Only Ben.” Everyone assumes it is an imaginary rat. They even communicate with each other. Previously, Willard barked orders at his rats, and they obeyed to a degree, but there were never exchanges between himself and the four legged pests. Danny has that ability. He teaches Ben to avoid the traps and poison. Danny is even privy to the location of the rats’ new home. Every time Danny speaks to Ben, the rat responds via squeaking at various levels. The sound is reminiscent of abruptly turning your shoes on a newly cleaned floor, and/or occasionally the noise your car makes when the door is ajar.
to Ben’s secret lair.
There is literally a scene where Danny says “Turn left here? Ok.” as he carries Ben along with him to find his slimy underground pad. The kid then climbs into the sewer and crawls through “shit smelling foulness I can’t even imagine” similar to that of Andy Dufresne at the end of The Shawshank Redemption. I’ve had dogs I’m really fond of, but I have never had the urge to follow them into their dog houses. To each his own. Danny is played by Lee H. Montgomery, in his second role. It’s hard to fault Montgomery much, since the writers demand that we love and adore Danny lik he was our own flesh and blood, but he becomes excruciating to watch. This is a child that spends his free time entertaining himself with puppet shows and getting dizzy playing the harmonica. There is also a moment when Danny sits at the piano and before our very eyes, composes the music and lyrics to “Ben’s Song.” Yeah, and I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish this movie too.
At one point, Danny is accosted by a bully, an older kid that could be a relative of Scott Farkus from A Christmas Story or perhaps of the O’Doyles from Billy Madison. Every town has them. Ben quickly realizes Danny’s peril and attacks the vicious bully, giving him lots of painful nicks on his legs. The rats do not kill him though. Even rodents draw the line somewhere because after all, this is rated PG. This is a terrible movie if you hadn’t guess by now. The use of rats by the trainers is incredibly stupid. Every attack occurs in the dark, and it is always up to the poor actor to scream out in bloody horror to convince us he/she is in pain. In this case they are a cop, a rambling truck driver, and construction workers. The cop even shoots repeatedly to alert his partner, who waits until the barrel is empty to run and see.
One of the worst revelations of Ben is that Willard Stiles left a diary detailing how he trained the rats and so forth. Apparently he wanted to make certain it was documented. Willard was such a worrywart you know, and he wanted to make sure he could recall everything for his memoirs later in life. The authorities are amusing in Ben too. They commonly arrive on the scene, light up a cigarette, and stare into space at the crime scenes. I must admit, observing Ben and his minions ransack a grocery store and invade a cheese shop called “The Wedge” marked the highlight of this superfluous sequel. It’s the only segment of the story that actually makes perfect sense.
Phil Karlson has over 50 titles to his resume, and was directing since the early 40’s. He is best known for the original Walking Tall, which is probably his finest effort. The problems with Ben rest more with Gilbert Ralston’s screenplay than with the direction, but Karlson could have honed the acting a bit. Everyone involved screams, yells, and wails at the top of their lungs, or approaches each line of dialogue as if they are in an after school special. The editing and pacing is definitely choppier than its predecessor with footage of the rats coming off like haphazard cutting and pasting. On a random note, the product placement included is overbearing. Hey, if the cereal companies want images of rats eating their foods in the customers’ heads, it’s their right damnit!
Why Ben was made in the first place is a topic for debate. In The Jacksons: An American Dream mini-series, a young Michael befriends a mouse. Maybe it was because MJ agreed to sing the song that Ben was greenlit. Maybe I’m the weird one and many kids have had pet mice and rats. The rapport between the cop in charge and the newspaper reporter is intriguing, and is about as “deep” as Ben gets. I wish this “creature feature” had gone off on a tangent and pursued the cooperation between the media and the police department. I suppose the goal here was a horror film for children, but whatever the intention was, it fails in every conceivable manner. Ben is a laughable follow-up. Is it wrong that I wished Ben would turn on Danny and haul him into their sewer lair? And why hasn’t there been a real life newspaper headline that reads “RATS! RATS! RATS!”?
Thank you and goodnight.
Final Rating = 2.5/10.0
—Out of Print—
The Heartbreak Kid
The Taking of Pelham 123 (1998-TV)
The Stepfather 3
America, America – Available 11/09 in a Elia Kazan box set
State Fair (1933)
Children of the Corn 2: The Final Harvest
High Noon Part II: The Return of Will Kane
The Prehysteria! Trilogy
The Little Norse Prince
Breaking the Waves
Cruel Story of Youth
The Magnificent Ambersons
Two Rode Together
The Portrait of a Lady
The Unholy Three
King Solomon’s Mines (1937)
Richard Burton’s Hamlet
Orson Welles’ Othello
Love with the Proper Stranger
The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover
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“The plural of Chad is Chad?”
–From the movie Recount