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  Ben Tomorrow The Rat
Year: 1972
Director: Phil Karlson
Stars: Lee Montgomery, Joseph Campanella, Arthur O’Connell, Rosemary Murphy, Meredith Baxter, Kaz Garas, Paul Karr, Richard Van Vleet, Kenneth Tobey, James Luisi, Lee Paul, Norman Alden, Scott Garrett, Arlen Stuart, Ric Drasin
Genre: HorrorBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: A crowd has gathered outside this suburban house in the middle of the night, silently looking on and awaiting the authorities' next move. Something terrible has occurred in there, and someone has died: it's to do with the rats that infested the building, and as they watch, a body is taken out on a stretcher, presumably the deceased owner, who the rumours have it was attacked by the rodents, just as those he knew suffered the same fate. One family present decide to take their little boy, Danny (Lee Montgomery), away home, to his protests, but what he does not know is he will soon have a far stronger connection to the small, furry creatures than anyone could have possibly imagined...

Willard was a sleeper hit in 1971, but the problem with creating a sequel was that more or less every significant character had expired by the end of the movie, so where would you go from there? The answer was Ben, rushed into production while the original was barely out of theatres, and instead of a put-upon office worker it was decided to make this a lot more cutesy, therefore moppet Montgomery was hired to be best friends with the titular beast. The results were bizarre, to say the least, as if you can envisage a Disney movie, one of those live action affairs about a kid and the animal they befriend, then have that animal marshalling its troops to conduct a war on humanity, that's what this was like.

It even had that flat, bright lighting and appearance of a Disney movie, and the pint-sized star had made his debut the previous year in one of their projects, but there's a reason their most famous character is not Mickey Rat, and that was what the producers hoped to capitalise upon with Ben. With the cops on his tail, he has gone to ground, or under the ground in the sewers where he gathers an army of thousands of his brethren to attack anyone who gets in their way, and as they have already murdered a bunch of folks the police (led by Joseph Campanella) are keen to flush them out and prevent what happened before from happening again. Naturally, it doesn't work out that way.

Nature being the operative word, as this was part of the wave of revenge of nature movies that spread like a rash across seventies horror and science fiction, rats a popular menace though not necessarily the main focus. James Herbert must have seen Willard and Ben at some point before he began to pen his gruesome paperback bestseller The Rats and it sequels, there was something about the swarming of the vermin that tapped into a sense of disgust in many audiences, offering a frisson of unpleasantness this film was not about to shy away from. On the other hand, there are those among us who do not feel this revulsion, care little for the diseases rats carry, and actually really like the critters, to the extent of keeping them as pets, and they were the surprise members of this film's fan club.

Not because of the climactic scenes where their favourite pets were set upon en masse with flamethrowers, but because Danny's relationship with Ben was presented as one of the best with an animal imaginable, a true companion for the mite who, to pile on the pathos, suffers from a heart condition that might just kill him, and means he has to stay mostly at home with sister Meredith Baxter and mother Rosemary Murphy where he will not be stressed or placed in peril. While he is there, the lonely kid puts on puppet shows and composes a song about Ben, the most famous element of the movie as a young Michael Jackson performed it over the end and it became a hit, not many twigging subsequently this was a horror theme. In fact, the whole film was downright confounding, with full-blooded "Argh! They’ve got me!" rat attacks rubbing shoulders with would-be tearjerking sequences as Danny mawkishly makes a connection to the rodent, who we must do a lot of reading emotions and intelligence into its oblivious visage for this to be dramatically successful. All very peculiar, like a little kids' entertainment with slaughter, but not uninteresting. Music by Walter Scharf.

[Second Sight have released Ben in the UK on a restored Blu-ray double bill with its predecessor Willard. Special features include audio commentaries and featurettes.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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