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Ben

Ben(1972)

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teaser Ben (1972)

When Willard, a quirky horror film about a social misfit who trains an army of rats to kill on command, became a surprise box office hit in 1971, it didn't take long for Bing Crosby Productions (yes, that Bing Crosby) to capitalize on its success with a sequel, Ben in 1972. Ben picks up right where Willard left off, with the furry leader of Willard's rat colony, Ben, finding a new human friend in Danny (Lee Montgomery), a lonely young boy with a serious heart condition who lives down the street with his mother Beth (Rosemary Murphy) and sister Eve (Meredith Baxter). Ben quickly becomes Danny's best and only friend, protecting him from bullies and keeping him company through lonely days and nights. As Ben's rat colony continues to multiply in the sewers beneath Los Angeles, however, things soon take a violent turn. When Ben leads the rats on a deadly rampage through the city, it is up to the police to pull out all the stops to annihilate them once and for all.

Rushed into production, Ben utilized the same producer as Willard, Mort Briskin, as well as the same screenwriter, Gilbert A. Ralston. While Willard was based on a novel (Ratman's Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert), Ben featured an original screenplay with an entirely new story.

Child actor Lee Montgomery (credited here as Lee Harcourt Montgomery) was excited to land the plum role of Danny. He had previously appeared in Disney's 1971 film comedy The Million Dollar Duck as well as several television shows, but Ben was the first film in which he had a starring role. Working with a troupe of rats as co-stars was not a problem for the 11-year-old actor. "I went in the first day, and we met Moe Di Sesso, who was at the time a very famous wrangler of many critters," said Montgomery in a recent interview. "My mother was concerned. I was like, oh, come on -- rats! I'm a kid, this should be great! So we met Moe, and they had hundreds of rats in cages, and there were five Bens...So he broke out Ben, and I think I was a little freaked out, actually, in the beginning. My mom, who is very squeamish, said, 'Look! No big deal!' She got the rat and she held it, and I think she actually was more comfortable, because we all thought she'd be freaked out by the rats, of course. I think she was more comfortable than me in the beginning, but I quickly acclimated to them."

Moe Di Sesso, the rat trainer on Ben, was one of the most skilled and in-demand animal trainers in Hollywood. Over the course of his long career, he trained countless animal actors including Arnold the pig on the TV show Green Acres and Sandy the dog in the 1982 film musical Annie, winning a total of 11 PATSY awards (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year) along the way, including one for both Willard and Ben. Established by the Hollywood office of the American Humane Association in 1951, the PATSY awards are presented annually to honor outstanding animal performances in film and television.

Ben marked the feature film debut of actress Meredith Baxter who would go on to find fame in a variety of television roles, most memorably as matriarch Elyse Keaton on Family Ties during the 1980s. In her 2011 memoir Untied, Baxter recalls shooting one of her favorite scenes in which her character Eve follows Danny into the underground sewer and is attacked by rats. "In retrospect, the special effects used in this scene seemed hilariously low-tech, sort of the grand-scale version of something you'd see in an elementary school play today," she says. "The special effects guys had boxes full of stuffed rats in varying sizes and colors. Some looked phony, others were real taxidermied rats. They fastened them to me with varying lengths of string so when I moved, the rats would swing around somewhat. For the big rodent-swarm moment, I was supposed to crouch down and look into the opening of a pseudo-sewage pipe, facing the camera. The sewer, dressed to look revoltingly filthy and solicit 'eews' from the audience when I fall in it, was just peat moss and bits of fake garbage. On 'Action!' a bunch of real live rats were released down the pipe toward me and at a given point the camera found me being attacked by rats, all of them looking very threatening and disgusting. I screamed, thrashing about wildly in terror, which meant my little tethered vermin passengers were thrashing wildly, too. Ah, we could taste the Oscar."

Ben is perhaps best remembered for its haunting theme song performed by 13-year-old future King of Pop, Michael Jackson. The tender ballad "Ben" or "Ben's Song," with music by Walter Scharf and lyrics by Don Black, was originally offered to the reigning teen idol at the time, Donny Osmond, who turned it down. Jackson, who had only recently begun recording solo records apart from his brothers in The Jackson 5, was thrilled at the opportunity. His soaring vocals filled with emotion helped "Ben's Song" become Jackson's first number one hit single as a solo artist. The song went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song and win a Golden Globe. As Meredith Baxter says in her memoir, "Not bad for a love song about a rat."

For Michael Jackson, the experience was a special one. "Ben meant a lot to me," said Jackson in his 1988 autobiography Moonwalk. "Nothing had ever excited me as much as going to the studio to put my voice on film. I had a great time. Later when the movie came out, I'd go to the theater and wait until the end when the credits would flash on, and it would say, '"Ben" sung by Michael Jackson.' I was really impressed by that. I loved the song and I loved the story...A lot of people thought the movie was a bit odd, but I was not one of them. The song went to number one and is still a favorite of mine."

Ben did not live up to the box office success of Willard and critical reviews were mixed. The New York Times called it out for its "dreadful acting by a dreadful cast...and a screenplay that never has the courage to acknowledge its comic impulses," while Variety praised it, saying, "Willard has a tension-packed sequel in Ben...[Lee Montgomery] plays his part to perfection and Phil Karlson's direction is responsible for mounting moments of excitement, well handled by cast headed by Joseph Campanella as a police lieutenant in charge of crisis and Meredith Baxter, [Danny's] sister." Today, Ben remains a cult favorite among horror fans who revel in its excess and flirtation with camp, especially when viewed in tandem with the original Willard.

By Andrea Passafiume

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