“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.