“Willard” (1971) and its sequel, “Ben” (1972), were another pair of 1970’s movies that got plenty of airtime on 1980’s television. I read both books when I was a kid too.
First I picked up Stephen Gilbert’s Ratman’s Notebooks at a yard sale, because that’s how you found cool horror books during summer vacations when you were too young to drive. (Sometimes adults had few compunctions about what they sold to minors too. I bought a vampire book in gradeschool that was full of nude photos, for some reason, and that led to what I’m sure was an interesting conversation between my parents and the neighbor-proprietor down the street.)
Anyway, I absolutely loved Ratman’s Notebooks (despite its lamentable absence of nude photos) and I finished it in a day or two. The novelization of the “Ben” film by Gilbert A. Ralston was somewhat less impressive, but I still enjoyed it.
If you’re a comics fan, like I am, then it might occur you that “Willard” and his army of trained rats seem to inspire a villain in Batman’s rogue’s gallery — Ratcatcher. Ratcatcher has been a minor league villain since he debuted in DC Comics in 1988, but he’s a pretty neat bad guy when placed in the hands of the right writer.
I feel certain that anyone will recognize Ernest Borgnine in the first trailer below– his face and voice are impossible to confuse with those of another man. If the disaffected, spooky, eponymous Willard looks familiar to you, that’s none other than a young Bruce Davison. He’s a good actor who’s been in a lot of films, but I think a plurality of my friends will know him as Senator Kelly from the first two “X-Men” movies (2000, 2003).
You’ll note the presence of flamethrowers in the trailer for “Ben.” Flamethrowers were a staple of 70’s and 80’s horror films; it was just part of the zeitgeist. They were handy for heroes fighting any nigh-unstoppable nonhuman baddie — think of “The Swarm” (1978), “The Thing” (1982), “C.H.U.D.” (1984), “Aliens” (1986), and “The Blob” (1988), for example. Hell, 1980’s “The Exterminator” featured a vigilante using a flamethrower to kill criminals. It was a weird time.
“The Poseidon Adventure” (1972) and “The Towering Inferno” (1974) were two seminal big-budget disaster action flicks produced by Irwin Allen. They were both based on popular novels, they both had all-star ensemble casts, and they both found their way to network television fairly quickly. They were both pretty decent flicks, too, I think … although I admittedly only saw them broadcast when I was very young. (My best guess is that I caught them sometime around 1979 or 1980; I’d have been in the second or third grade.)
They both made a big impression on me. Although “The Poseidon Adventure” is probably the better known of the two, it was “The Towering Inferno” that truly got under my skin. It had its share of frightening sequences — at least by 1970’s standards.
The one I remember the most is one of its two famous “elevator scenes.” After the plot-driving fire breaks out to create the titular burning high-rise, some panicking partygoers try to take an elevator directly to the street, past the burning floors — even after they’re warned not to try such an escape route. The result (which you can see in the third video below) was pretty scary stuff, at least to a kid my age, just before 1980’s action films would thoroughly desensitize me to this sort of thing. (It was not a decade known for nonviolent movies.) The outcome of the scene sent a pretty big message to me about the importance of following the authorities’ instructions during a disaster.
Both “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno” were also among the paperbacks that littered the backseat of my father’s car. (Cars and closets and coffee tables in the house where I grew up were veritable small libraries; my father wasn’t reading Joyce or Dostoevsky, but lord knows that man read a lot.) In the case of the latter film, “The Glass Inferno” was the name of the original book by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. Believe it or not, I can remember asking my Dad what the word “inferno” meant. And I remember being fascinated, for some reason, by the idea that filmmakers could change the name of a story when adapting it. (The people who made movies could do anything they wanted!)
They actually remade “The Poseidon Adventure” a few years back … I saw it, and I might have even reviewed it for this blog. I can’t say that it was memorable, though. Indeed, the only thing I can recall about it was the presence of the priceless Kurt Russell.
Or maybe it was terrific, and I just don’t remember that. I am getting old — after all, I was a second grader in 1979.
I was surprised when I recently discovered that “The Swarm” (1978) was a feature film; I remembered it as a made-for-television movie from my childhood. (After its theatrical release, it debuted on NBC with a hell of a lot of fanfare in February 1980.) I was also surprised to read that it was both a critical and a commercial flop, and is often named as one of the worst films ever made. I was in the second grade at the time, and — let me assure you — this was THE movie the kids in school talked about. We were in awe of it.
The people behind “The Swarm” had high hopes for it in 1978. The internet informs me that it was based on a best-seller by famed novelist Arthur Herzog. And it was helmed by director Irwin Allen, who gave us two classic 70’s film adaptations of disaster novels — “The Poseidon Adventure” in 1972, and “The Towering Inferno” in 1974. (Those were a pretty big deal back in the day.) And just look at the cast named in the trailer below. It’s like a who’s who of 1970’s cinema. Yet it all apparently just didn’t pan out … contrary to my memories of second grade, “The Swarm” went down in pop culture history as a train wreck.
Check out the bee-proof suits worn by the guys with the flamethrowers. Talk about an excellent G.I. Joe toy that was never made. (Of course we had “Blowtorch,” but he was 80’s rad, and these guys in white are 70’s kitsch.)