Reviewed for TheBluFile.com by Dustin Putman(Release Date: May 16, 2017)
A sequel to box-office hit "Willard
," 1972's "Ben" is perhaps best-known for the Oscar-nominated title ballad performed by a then-13-year-old Michael Jackson. The film proper, directed by Phil Karlson, is an oddball blend of the bitter and sweet, told largely from the point-of-view of a lonely, ailing young boy, Danny Garrison (Lee Montgomery), who befriends "King of the Rats" Ben. That's all well and cute, but these rodents are simultaneously going on a killing spree through the town, taking the lives of innocent bystanders as police detective Cliff Kirtland (Joseph Campanella) begins to sniff out the culprits.
Newcomer Lee Montgomery is as sincere and adorable as child actors get, and there is also a nice performance from Meredith Baxter (who would go on to find success a decade later as Elyse Keaton on TV's "Family Ties"), as Danny's protective elder sister Eve. The trouble with "Ben" is in the confusion of what kind of film it is trying to be. Is it a family film? An animals-attack horror pic? Whatever it is, it isn't particularly tense or spooky, and its disarming sentimentality borders on the saccharine. Optical effects, seen most predominately during the sewer-set third act, feel painfully dated when predecessor "Willard
" never felt the need to use them at all. "Ben" doesn't work in whole, but Montgomery's Danny is so innocent and winning as a protagonist it's almost a shame he has to share screen time with people getting their faces eaten off.
For its Blu-ray premiere, "Ben" opens with an understandable disclaimer: "For this new release of 'Ben', we scanned the best archival print available in the vaults. Unfortunately, the negatives and interpositives are lost." The drop in quality is instantly apparent from the film's prologue, a recap of the finale of "Willard" that is noticeably dirtier, more murky, and less refined than the same scenes found on the day-and-date Blu-ray release of this 1971 predecessor. With expectations tempered, the 1080p transfer proves passable but underwhelming. Print damage is apparent throughout, from scratches to specks of dirt to the occasional cigarette burn. Nighttime scenes are awash in black-gray crush, and shadow detail is limited. Image clarity is on the soft side, though much of that may be source-related. On the positive, HD details do reveal themselves here and there, particularly in daytime close-ups of faces, fabrics and fur. Colors are a touch ragged, but the red paint-like blood used comes through bright and clear. The Original Mono 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is a few steps down from the quality found on the "Willard" Blu-ray
, again a result of the archival print used. Dialogue sounds a bit low and hollow within the mix (I had to grab the remote several times to raise the volume), but is nonetheless intelligible. Music doesn't have much oomph to it, either, but at least is consistent with the rest of the aural presentation.
- Audio Commentary with Actor Lee Montgomery
- "The Kid with the Rat: An Interview with Actor Lee Montgomery" Featurette (9:19, HD)
- Theatrical Trailers (3:31, HD)
- TV Spots (0:43, HD)
- Ben/Willard Double Feature TV Spots (1:32, HD)
- Radio Spot (0:29, HD)
- Still Gallery (2:32, HD)
"Ben" scurries onto Blu-ray in spite of its technical setbacks, and if the options are to either receive a flawed HD transfer or no release at all, the choice is clear. Fans of these two films who have clamored for better versions than what was found on their initial VHS release should be bowing down to Scream Factory for giving these long-unavailable titles new life on Blu-ray. A new audio commentary and interview (both with lead actor Lee Montgomery) round out this satisfying release. Recommended.