Blu-ray: Ben (1972)
While Second Sight’s Willard restoration is a 4K scan of the original camera negative, they are very open in their press release that their upgrade of 1972’s rat horror sequel is instead a new HD transfer, restored using the best-surviving archive print. Ben’s picture quality is noticeably less sharp than on the first disc of this double feature boxset, with occasional grit and grain noticeable on screen. Nevertheless, this is still an honourable tidy up of a 45-year-old film.
With the opening five minutes of this quick-fire follow-up replaying the tragic conclusion to the preceding film, Ben picks up immediately afterwards with a gathering crowd of Willard’s neighbours tensely awaiting news on what has transpired within. As police and reporters are scratching their heads at the carnage and question where all the furry terrors have fled to, we learn that Willard’s diary has revealed his freaky friendship with Socrates, Ben and the rat army.
It’s an overlong introduction, with the new protagonist’s story not properly beginning until the 16-minute mark, but it does better set up the macabre tone than light-footed Willard ever managed. This isn’t to say that when young-and-sickly Danny (Lee Montgomery) does befriend and hide a seemingly intelligent-and-calculating Ben from the authorities that there aren’t moments of sweetness (his composition of the chart-topping Michael Jackson theme song; his marionette show), but overall there is a darker air to proceedings, with Ben presented almost like a Palpatine-esque leader of the horde, orchestrating their attacks from the shadows.
The writers do an admirable job of conceiving a way in which Danny knows his favourite rat is named Ben (Willard’s diaries are – rather dubiously – printed in the local paper), while Danny’s attempt to keep his thick-tailed companion safe leads him to stow Ben away in a storm drain where I was half-convinced Pennywise the Clown was going to reveal himself as a twisted Pied Piper! But the rat-proofing exterminators eventually catch up with the skittering plague and in a storm of fire and water, counteract the threat.
“We’ll get well, Ben.”
Tears streaming down his cheeks, Danny’s climactic assurances to a feeble, flame-licked Ben that the pair will recuperate together is a touching end to a thoroughly decent sequel. I’m tempted to say I preferred it to Willard, owing to the darker and more consistent tone, even if an early attack sequence does glaringly highlight the blue-rimmed rats cut out and composited roughly over the miming human actors.
Regardless of this concession to its age (and budget), it’s still a surprise to me that Ben passed with a “PG” rating for its theatrical run in the US – even if the “15” slapped on the cover of this new boxset does seem equally absurd. Like with Willard, disc two comes with an audio commentary and an interview with the (now adult) lead actor, plus a photo gallery and a raft of standard definition trailers, TV and radio spots – both for Ben and a retro double feature presentation which promises to “tear you up.”
I will end by broaching a niggle I have, not with this splendid new release but the film’s original tagline: “Where Willard Ended… Ben Begins – and this time he’s not alone.” This implies that Willard was a film about one man and his rat, and that Ben ups the ante. But Ben was never alone in Willard and this barefaced fallacy demonstrates that even in the 70s film studios were desperate to imply that their sequels were bigger, stronger and had more teeth than the hits they were leeching off.
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