Sunday, May 7, 2017

BEN (1972) (Blu-ray Review)

BEN (1972) 
Label: Scream Factory
Release Date: May 16th 2017
Region Code: A
Rating: PG 
Duration: 94 Minutes 
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: Phil Karlson
Cast: Arthur O'Connell, Joseph Campanella, Lee Harcourt Montgomery, Meredith Baxter, Rosemary Murphy

Ben (1972), the sequel to the rat-revenger Willard (1971), picks-up right where the first left off, with a recap of the last few minutes of the first film, with lead rat Ben commanding his horde of rats to kill the treacherous human Willard. The cops have arrived on the scene and are investigating the strange death of Willard Styles, lead by detective Cliff Kirtland (prolific TV actor Joseph Campanella, Meteor). The case proves hard for him to wrap his head around, but they find Willard's diary which sheds some light on the events leading up to his murder, but it still seems impossible to think that a horde of rats are killing people. It becomes easier to believe when a cop left behind to guard the crime scene is attacked and killed by Ben and his vermin-horde, who the unfortunate cop found hiding within the walls.   

Ben soon makes a new friend, an eight-year old boy with a heart condition named Danny (Lee Montgomery, Burnt Offerings) who lives in the neighborhood. He lives with his mom (Rosemary Murphy, To Kill A Mockingbird) and his protective sister Eve (Meredith Baxter, TV's Family Ties). Because of his heart condition Danny keeps mostly to himself without any friends, playing with his marionette dolls out on the garage, which is where he first encounters Ben. He and the rat become fast friends, and much like with Willard, the two begin to communicate with each other, and soon Ben introduces Danny to his own family, a horde of rats living in the sewers below the city. Danny must keep Ben's existence a secret from his family, as they would never allow him to have a rat as a pet, particularly since the reports of a killer horde of rats have emerged.

As where the first film felt like a character study of Willard and his descent into vermin-madness this movie is something very different, a mash-up of what feels like a Disney movie about a kid with a heart condition, and a exploitative killer-rat flick along the lines of Deadly Eyes (1981), and while the two genres don't actually marry all that well I did have a blast with this silly killer-rat flick. The rats are living down in the sewer where they travel undetected throughout the city, emerging at night to wreak havoc on the growingly alarmed population. They decimate a local grocery store, horrify the patrons of a local euro-spa, and gnaw a cop to death, in addition to causing the driver of a poultry truck to cause a deadly accident, he's left in shock muttering to himself in a scene that surely wasn't supposed to be as funny as it was.

The cops are at a loss to stop the vermin horror, they and the local pest control company are leaving poison and traps around the neighborhood to kill the rats, but they cannot seem zero in on the vermin horde. They come to find out that young Danny knows where they are, but he's not speaking, wanting to protect his new found friend Ben, as a kid might I suppose. A scene of the cops interrogating him is awesome, in a dumb sort of way, as one of the detectives begins to manhandle the poor kid with a heart condition. Eventually the cops and the poor employees at the city water company end up down in the sewers armed with flamethrowers and shotguns, blasting and burning every rat they can find, and 70s killer rat hilarity ensues, with young Danny putting his life on the line down in the sewers to save Ben.

Kid actor Lee Montgomery as Danny is pretty good, a bit bratty but also sympathetic, this is the kid from the house-possession Burnt Offerings who was nearly drowned by Oliver Reed! The only other real familiar face to me was that of his sister, played by Meredith Baxter, Alex P. Keaton's mom from Family Ties, what a cutey! There's also a pair of cops and a local crime reporter on the case, there's a running joke about Kirtland (Joseph Campanella) quitting smoking and how the reporter, played by Arthur O'Connell of Fantastic Voyage (1966), looks like Mark Twain, but these scenes seem to come out of nowhere and go nowhere.  Director Phil Karlson directed a few notable films back in the day, Kansas City Confidential (1952) and Walking Tall (1973), but his work here is just okay, workmanlike, the movie is a bit of mess but as I said, I love this sort of trashy stuff, a bad movie, but a fun bad movie. Having been unavailable on home video for so long the movie is probably most remembered these days for featuring the theme song "Ben" which was performed by a 14 year old Michael Jackson, who went on to produce a hit or two.   

Audio/Video: Ben (1972) arrives on Blu-ray from Scream Factory, unlike Willard the original negatives and interpositives for the sequel have been lost to time, as such this Blu-ray transfer was sourced from the best archival print available to Scream Factory. When compared to Willard it certainly does look lacklustre, the image is washed out, there's white speckling, debris and some minor damage to the print, but considering this has never before been released on digital home video this is not too shabby in my opinion, a perfectly watchable viewing. That being said fine detail suffers, grain is a bit chunky in the darker scenes and shadow detail are compromised, though of not fault to the transfer, this are source based issues. The mono DTS-HD MA audio does the job and not much else, optional English subtitles are provided.
The film features a commentary with star Montgomery, moderated by Nathaniel Thompson from, who speaks about knowing of the film willard and it's success, but not having seen it because of his age. How he was cast, growing-up as a child actor. Montgomery shows up for a 9-min on-camera interview produced by Walt Olsen of Scorpion Films, again speaking about not seeing Willard because of his young age, being a bit starstruck meeting Davidson, working with Meredith Baxter and Rosemary Murphy. He also speaks a bit about working with animal trainer Moe and Sandy DiSesso and how they achieved the burning rat imagery in the movie. Also on the disc  is a selection of radio spots, TV spots and theatrical trailers for the film, including the "Teamed Up To Tear 'Em Up" double-bill, promising  that "if each of them gave you nightmares, together they'll tear you up!". There's also a gallery of images which includes promotional stills, lobby cards, and posters from various territories. 

This release is a dual format BD/DVD Combo, containing both HD and SD versions of the film, each disc having the same feature and extras, two-discs housed in a standard blue keepcase. The artwork is not reversible but features a scene from the film on the reverse side. The 2-disc edition also sports separate artwork for the DVD and Blu-ray which I always appreciate.

As a comparison of the image quality between SCream Factory's Blu-rays of Willard and Ben see the below images of the same scene featured in both films: 


Special Features: 
- NEW HD transfer of the best surviving archive print
- NEW audio commentary with actor Lee Montgomery
- NEW interview with actor Lee Montgomery (9 min) HD
- Theatrical Trailers (4 min) HD
- TV Spots (1 min)
- Ben/Willard Double Feature Trailer and TV spot (2 min)
- Radio Spot (1 min) HD
- Still Gallery (3 min) HD

While the sequel is a steep drop in quality from Willard, and has little nuance or depth to it, I do love it on a another level, as that of a standard-issue creature feature chock full of rodent ridiculousness. The new Blu-ray from Scream Factory looks good and the commentary and interview with Lee Montgomery are entertaining, and this is a fun rat flick and if you love 70s creature features this is worth a purchase. 2.5/5