One of the UK's most interesting home video distributors of the moment is Second Sight. A quick look at some of the titles they've treated to special edition HD releases in recent years reinforces this point: SOUTHERN COMFORT, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, DREAMSCAPE, STREETS OF FIRE, ELECTRIC DREAMS ... In particular, they've made a significant contribution to the availability of classic modern horror films on blu-ray. Titles like POSSESSION, BASKET CASE, THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, GHOST STORY, RE-ANIMATOR, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, SCANNERS and FROM BEYOND refer.
And now, director Daniel Mann's 1971 screen adaptation of Stephen Gilbert's novel "Ratman's Notebooks" can be added to that canon. Furthermore, Second Sight are also releasing its 1972 sequel BEN.
WILLARD follows the trials and tribulations of its titular character (played with sensitivity and repressed rage by Bruce Davison), a socially awkward young man who lives under the rule of his widowed mother Henrietta (Elsa Lanchester). Willard turns 28 at the start of the film and he has very little to be grateful for: a group of annoying elderly relatives are his only friends, he's single, and he works for the man who took his late father's business from him, the hectoring Al (Ernest Borgnine).
Henrietta is always on Willard's back to get her house tidied up and, most importantly, kill the couple of rats she's spotted scurrying around near the pond in her back garden. He promises to sort this latter problem out but finds himself rather attached to the little critters upon closer inspection. He starts to hang out with the rats on a regular basis, giving them individual names - Queenie, Socrates, Ben etc - and even trains them to learn the simple word of "food" whenever he brings them treats.
Having told mother that he's smashed the rats' heads in with a stick, Willard's bond grows ever stronger with the little beasts. So much so that when Al pisses him off by refusing to give him a raise and offering to buy his family home at a knocked-down price, he packs his pets into a bag and sneaks into Al's plush house party - something he naturally wasn't invited to. The rodents are instructed by their human friend to enjoy the impressive food spread being offered, much to the guests' collective horror.
This latter action marks a fleeting triumph for Willard. But life soon gets tough again: his mother passes away; money problems are magnified; Al gives Willard his notice at work; potential love interest, co-worker Joan (Sondra Locke), is getting a little too inquisitive about Willard's home life for comfort. By this point, he's moved the ever-increasing number of rats into the cellar of his mother's home, and his sanity is beginning to visibly fray.
By this time, Willard has managed to train his legion of rats to attack on command. Woe be tide anyone who crosses him from here on in. The power is now his, it would seem - if only he could keep the increasingly unruly rats in check, especially the particularly rebellious Ben...
At the start of this review I described WILLARD as a classic of modern horror cinema. It's more accurate to say that it's recognised as a classic of its era - mainly due to its unexpected box office success at the time, and the wave of vengeful animal-themed terror films it consequently spawned.
In truth, it's a film of many flaws.
The pacing is off, preventing events from ever truly escalating in terms of tension. Mann's direction is somewhat lightweight; there's very little in the way of actual "horror" for the most part, and even when the ante is upped during the final twenty minutes, the onscreen action is decidedly coy. Tonally, the film is all over the place: at one moment a brooding character study examining mental illness, the next a comedy, the next a kitchen sink drama - WILLARD seems to be confused as to what audience it's pitching itself at. Alex North's curiously ill-fitting score doesn't help matters: it veers between breezy Disney-esque frolicking and melodramatic genre tropes. The ending is unsatisfactory and abrupt.
Luckily the film has a few plus points. For one, there's the cast. Davison is a likeable lead. He's ably supported by the likes of Lanchester - relishing in the opportunity to be truly irritating and needy for the most part - and Borgnine, who positively delights in playing an unapologetic bastard. He also gets to chew the scenery during the late highpoint of the film (no spoilers). Elsewhere, there's a young Locke who not only looks pretty and acts all sweet, but proffers a sympathetic character who's a lot more fleshed-out than you imagine Gilbert A Ralston's screenplay called for.
The "mouse that roared" premise is always an emotive one and, even though WILLARD is quite timid in its delivery, the main character's arc is a convincing one - and we do root for him to catch up with those who've committed acts of wrongdoing against him.
As an aside, check out the superior 2007 sequel starring Crispin Glover.
The following year's BEN is a clearly bigger-budgeted affair, but is honestly the lesser film.
Phil Karlson directs this time, though the opening five minutes are dedicated to replaying the final moments of its predecessor.
This time around, we follow a young lad with a heart condition who goes by the name of Danny (Lee Montgomery). His lot is not a particularly happy one, just like Willard's before him: for a start, he's bullied by his peers. So, naturally, he takes to friendly rodent Ben...
Of course, before long Danny's new animal pal and his legion of rat followers are getting out of control and violent once more, resulting in several fresh deaths. But as the police determine to burn the rats out of the local sewers, can Danny save his best friend from extermination?
BEN is perhaps most fondly remembered these days for boasting a theme song which is sung by late pop icon Michael Jackson. Other than that, it's saddled with perfunctory direction and camerawork, a lazy script and very little in terms of emotional connection. It's not terrible, but it gives you fresh respect for WILLARD.
Second Sight are releasing both films in a two-disc blu-ray box-set with exclusive new cover artwork from the esteemed Graham Humphreys. They're also giving each film individual blu-ray and DVD releases with much less interesting cover designs; if you can afford it, the double-bill package is undoubtedly the way to go.
In both cases, the uncut films are presented in 1080p HD and in 16x9 widescreen. They're housed on separate discs as MPEG4-AVC files. WILLARD has been treated to a new 4K scan from the original camera negative; BEN benefits from a new transfer and restoration which utilises the best surviving archive print.
Each film makes the most of clean-looking prints, with eye-popping colours, agreeably bright visuals, sharp images and natural filmic grain. WILLARD is clearly the better transfer of the two, with BEN's presentation suffering a little when it comes to muddy blacks, but overall there's little to bitch about here.
English LPCM stereo audio is dependable across both discs. Optional English subtitles are typo-free and always readable.
Each disc opens to its own animated main menu page. From there, pop-up menus include scene selection options which allow access to each film via 16 chapters apiece.
Bonus features for WILLARD are as follows:
"I Used to Hate Myself but I Like Myself Now" is a new 12-minute interview with Davison. He looks well and talks with great enthusiasm about the shoot. He has a decent story to tell of Mann directing him, speaks of sound advice Borgnine once gave him, reveals his love at the time for Locke - who he worked with again a few years afterwards on "something stupid about man-eating plants, or something" and shares Stephen King's favourite line from the film.
Davison also checks in for a new audio commentary track, narrated by Mondo Digital's Nathaniel Thompson. Davison addresses the film's spotty distribution over the decades by describing it as having "disappeared, like it was written in snow". Thompson has a keen eye for detail and is adept at prompting Davison for all the relevant info. There's a good rapport between the two, which results in a fluent, affable chat track. "Everything tickled him", Davison states of Mann's direction - applauding the filmmaker's sense of fun on set.
The film's original theatrical trailer is a nice addition, presented here in a scratchy 16x9 form. Naturally it makes the film look like much more of an intense horror prospect than it actually is. But it's an entertaining way of spending 2 minutes and 25 seconds.
A TV spot and three radio spots are interesting relics, as is a generous 6-minute gallery of behind-the-scenes and promotional photographs.
As for BEN:
First up is a commentary track from Montgomery. Thompson moderates once more, and steers a similarly affable, insightful chat here.
The actor also returns for the 9-minute "The Kid with the Rat", a new video interview. He tells of how there were five Bens on set, the rats were trained used peanut butter as bribery, a primitive form of CGI was employed in the film ... it's all repeated from the commentary, of course, but it's nice to have it all concentrated in this fun featurette.
The film's original trailer runs for 2 minutes and 29 seconds. It's a window-boxed affair and, once again, manages to promise more than the actual movie delivers.
A teaser trailer, TV spots and radio spot follow, along with three TV spots advertising a cinematic double-bill pairing of both films stateside. Nice.
A 2-and-a-half minute gallery concludes affairs on disc 2.
Second Sight continues to impress. Their efforts are to be applauded and the care they've put into these releases of WILLARD and BEN are a solid reminder of why we need to support their endeavours.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Second Sight|