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BEN (1972)

Directed by Phil Karlson

Starring Lee Montgomery and Meredith Baxter

This sequel to the slow-paced psychological thriller "Willard" is definitely an inferior movie, but is more entertaining as far as seventies camp goes. Willard is now dead, but the rats he helped train to kill are very much alive, and are laying siege to his hometown, attacking health spas, shopping markets, hardhat workers and psychologically bonding with a lonely boy who's recovering from surgery.

After singing a song "Start Your Day" while performing a puppet show, young 11-year-old David (child star Lee Montgomery) is spied by Ben, the evil intelligent rat who survived the events of "Willard." Not surprisingly, the boy befriends the satanic little critter, and a new wave of rat attacks can begin. Actually, to call it a "new wave of attacks" is a bit of an overstatement, since Ernest Borgnine and Willard himself were the only victims from the first film. Unlike "Willard," however, "Ben" features more rats and more dead human bodies. The attacks are also all pretty random.

"Ben" feels less like a real movie than "Willard" more like a made-for-TV production or even a freak episode of "The Brady Bunch." It gets especially ridiculous when, after befriending lead rat Ben, Danny sits in front of a piano and begins writing a song about him: "Ben, You've Got a Friend in Me." The song actually would be performed by a pre-nose job Michael Jackson for the soundtrack and become an early hit for the psycho soul star. Danny also creates a rat marionette and puts on a puppet show for his new furry friend, "Start the Day, Ben!"

Like "Willard," "Ben" is a PG horror film, free of gore or any nudity. It probably could have been helped by a little sleaze, but it does have a kind of Brady Bunch charm that makes it an endearing cheesy artifact from the decade. All in all, an outstanding bad movie. Director Karlson also directed the classic revenge film "Walking Tall." This film marked the first role for Meredith Baxter (playing David's older sister), who would go on to star in dozens of films.

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