Monday, October 15, 2018

31 days of Halloween day 9: Ben (Phil Karlson, 1972)

Some movies are remarkable for being good, some movies are remarkable for being bad, and some movies are remarkable just for being.  One movie such movie is Ben, Phil Karlson’s 1972 to Daniel Mann’s 1971 Willard.  Willard is most pretty excellent and fairly straightforward 70s gothic about the sort of pleasant but unremarkable young man who populates much American cinema of the late 60s and early 70s, and who either finds himself or finds himself circling the drain somehow.  In Willard, it’s the latter, as the film’s titular character befriends an army of rats who he uses to off his tormentors, and at whose paws he ultimately meets his demise.  Call it a horror film, call it a character study, or a psychological drama, it’s an odd premise but it exists in a consistently realized style that mimics, more-or-less (the day-to-day drudgery of Willard’s life more, his army of rats, less) in am approximation of the real world, or a real world in which this sort of thing could happen.

Ben, this time named after the leader of the rat army, who is about the size of a possum and seems able to communicate, verbally or perhaps psychically, with humans who are pure of heart, has no such pretense of realism.  Ben bounces between genres, tones and stylistic contrivances enough to feel like there are several different movies happening at once, or perhaps one film interrupted by brief invasions of other films or genres or ideas that stick around for a scene or two and then depart.

First off, while Willard is a generally adult film- not especially gory or horrifying, but a movie about grown people and their general concerns, concocted on a level that would probably be mostly appealing to adult or young adult viewers, Ben makes the decision to be a children’s movie.  It’s focus is on little Danny Garrison, a bright eyed young boy with an unspecified disease that keeps the adults around him worried and other kids at arms length, and is depicted as something between asthma and a heart condition.  Now, a movie about a kid doesn’t have to specifically be for kids, but Ben is told very clearly from Danny’s point of view.  Even when he’s not present, the film takes on a somewhat childlike view of the world, with the adults drawn in broad strokes- they’re very concerned about things!  Or scenes of rat mayhem played more or less for laughs, such as an elaborate, and extremely tonally inconsistent, slapstick attack on a lady’s spa, a scene entirely predicated on the stereotype that women scream when they see rats, extrapolated into the idea that if women scream when they see rats, dozens of women seeing dozens of rats would mean exponentially more screaming.

Danny, alienated from other kids and fussed over, but not befriended, by adults, naturally encounters Ben, the surviving rat leader from the previous film, and befriends him.  One of the childlike aspects of the films, and further evidence that it’s told from Danny’s point of view, is that we’re supposed to find this relationship heartwarming, when Danny’s protection of Ben, who leads an army of rats who are terrorizing the community, is heartwarming and admirable, and that it’s not at all selfish of Danny to put the health and wellbeing of an entire community at risk so he can have a rat friend.

In Willard, it’s easier to sympathize with the rats, as Willard is surrounded by people who are cruel and grotesque, and his revenge is cathartic if not entirely justified, and also because, in a way, Willard is victimizing to rats as well, using them to his advantage but willing to kill them when things start to get out of hand.  Here, aside from one Bully who picks on Danny, the rats are mostly terrorizing regular, everyday people.  Maybe they don’t have the childlike wonder and whimsey of the misunderstood and lonely Danny (though his sister, played by Meredith Baxter, later the mom on Family Ties, is kind and self-sacrificing and dotes on him), but they’re certainly not monsters, and some, such as a truck driver driven to tears when an obscene amount of rats invade his truck, are really just working people trying to do their jobs and get home for dinner.

Some animal attack films of the 70s attempt to explain their antagonists’ aggression by pointing to the ecological indifference of humans, wether it’s pollution or indifference, or greed that leads to the destruction of nature.  This would have perhaps grounded Ben in something more tangible, but as it stands, in this movie, there are just tons and tons of rats, and they attack people, but it’s cool, I guess, because a little boy loves them.

The schizophrenic nature of Ben’s tone feels like it’s from the point of view of a child as well, something that might have been brilliant if done with intent, but in all honestly feels like the work of an unfocused filmmaker trying to cast as wide a net as possible.  The result is a movie with kid antics, scary rat attacks, occasionally slapstick rat attacks, some very hokey sentimental scenes and a couple of musical numbers and a puppet show thrown in for good measure (if nothing else, Ben is notable for having an excellent theme song that helped launch Michael Jackson’s solo career, which inspires a silly, but effective scene in the movie where Danny composes the lyrics to the song- Ben, the two of us need look no more, etc.- and later serenades his rat with it).

All that said, Ben is not at all a bad movie, or at least, it’s not not a good movie.  It’s fun and goofy and cute, occasionally gross, and Danny is a likable kid, even if he’s also a selfish little dumbass.  Though it’s not really a worthy sequel to Willard, which is genuinely interesting and effective film, it’s also still a movie about rats, which is cool, and though tonally inconsistent with much of the rest of the film, the supermarket attack is really pretty exciting.  I don’t know that I’d really call it a horror movie, but it’s not really consistently any other kind of movie either, so, yeah, I guess watch Ben.

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