The Bottom Shelf: Willard, Ben, Street Trash and The Wonderful Worlds of Ray Harryhausen

This month's round up of genre DVDs and Blu-rays features Ray Harryhausen, Willard, rats on the rampage and more...

The underappreciated ‘nature gone wild’ porn horror movie subgenre has a somewhat patchy history, with a viewer’s search more likely to end up in some SyFy channel Megapterranoshark Versus Crocosaur cul-de-sac than something of the calibre of a Jaws or Arachnophobia. Sharks, spiders and gators are all well served, though (alongside the glaring lack of a movie adaptation of Guy N. Smith’s glorious Night Of The Crabs books) rodents have had something of a raw deal.

Fear not, though, faithful readers: we’re not going to drift off into Stuart Little territory just yet (that’ll be next month’s Stuart Little IV: The Rattening), as this month brings with it not one but two seventies rat-themed monster movie classics (well, one classic, one not so) in the form of Daniel Mann’s 1971 release Willard and its plain weird sequel, 1972’s Ben, both getting a nice Blu-ray restoration just in time for Halloween.

Willard sees Harry And The Hendersons and X-Men star Bruce Davison take on a kind of ‘Hamlet With Rats’ (if only that were the RSC’s latest quirky gimmick) as his titular outsider is troubled by his boss, played by the great Ernest Borgnine, looking never-more pug-doggian as he and Willard’s widowed mother join forces to dominate Willard’s life. Sadly eschewing the lighter tone a barrage of ‘your mum’ jokes could have provided, Mann’s dark slow-burner follows our increasingly disturbed hero as his only friends, the cute lil’ ratties he trains in the garden (everyone needs a hobby) stand up for their human pal in increasingly outlandish ways.

Despite a great, bloody denouement and an agreeably twitchy performance from a young Davison in only his third film as he talks to his squeaking allies (what would you do with your own rat army by the way? I’d put them to work on Brexit negotiations), this could have done with some of the 2003 remake’s dark comedy and Crispin Glover weirdness rather than Mann’s almost minimalist build-up.

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Not being weird enough isn’t a charge that can be levelled at director Phil Karlson (the man who brought us Elvis musical Kid Galahad) regarding his follow-up, Ben. Rather, it’s just the whole film that’s the problem here. Curiously, a young Michael Jackson kick-started the whole boy-and-rat musical subgenre with his theme song recorded for Karlson’s film, and don’t we know it, as the ditty permeates every single moment until flooding the viewer’s skull, permanently, horrifically.

Still, good song that it is, it isn’t helped by our really creepy child protagonist Danny (Lee Montgomery) filling the gaps between putting on dodgy puppet shows and dancing fucked-up jigs by playing it constantly on his piano. Who would have guessed that that combination would make for a disturbed kid? Anyway, you know the deal: boy meets rat, rat introduces him to his gang, rats go on murderous rampage, keeping city hostage, the usual. Sewer hijinks follow (albeit with nary a turtle, mutant or otherwise) as our titular bad attitude rodent proves himself to be the greatest rat actor (ractor?) since Rattigan in Disney’s Oliver And Company in this terrible, must-watch curio.

Less must-watch and more only-watch-if-you’re-a-Ray-Harryhausen-obsessive, up next we have Indicator’s first volume of its nicely packaged series of boxed sets, The Wonderful Worlds Of Ray Harryhausen. Showcasing the special effects of the acclaimed stop-motion movie pioneer’s early work (before the classic likes of his Sinbad and Jason And The Argonauts films), this first volume features the sci-fi B-movies It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955) and 20 Million Miles To Earth (1957) as well as yet-another Gulliver’s Travels lark, The Three Worlds Of Gulliver (1960). With all three productions put together by Charles Schneer to highlight Harryhausen’s still-impressive knack for a distinctive visual effect that really brings out the fantastic in his films, the films are ultimately vaguely forgettable, though have their great effects moments.

Robert Gordon’s It Came From Beneath The Sea tells the tale of a giant radioactive octopus that decides to chew gum and kick ass. Oscar-winning art director Nathan H Juran’s 20 Million Miles To Earth features a cool slowly-growing space lizard from Venus who also decides to kick ass. Jack Sher’s The Three Worlds Of Gulliver, the more family-friendly of the three, features the oldest still-existent Harryhausen model, a shit-scary evil squirrel, who coincidentally also decides to kick ass. By far the best of the bunch, 20 Million Miles To Earth’s cheesy-moralising lines such as “Why is it always so costly for man to move from present to future?” offer something other than a lumbering green gadabout for the discerning viewer.

Now, it almost feels like sacrilege to move so swiftly from a genuine cinematic legend to Street Trash, but sadly that’s what’s about to happen. J Michael Muro, strangely enough, the cinematographer on such mainstream fare as Kevin Costner western Open Range, as well as James Cameron’s go-to Steadicam operator on Terminator 2, The Abyss and True Lies, brings his 1987 cult debut to Blu-ray this month in its full splatter-tastic glory, if you can call it that.

Telling the tale of various Brooklyn low-lives whose stories are interlinked due to their shared appreciation for the bootleg booze acquired by the local offie, known as Tenafly Viper, Muro’s shall-we-say colourful movie sparked a series of ‘melt’ movies, the splatter sub-genre themed around people disintegrating. This happens here both physically and mentally as the mostly-unpleasant (though not without a few chuckles) plot sees Frankenhooker’s David Lorinz as a smartass car valet getting into hot (fluorescent) water with the mob, Bill Chepil’s (think of a kind of chunkier Marc Singer) cop taking on various junkyard dogs and said junkyard’s just horrible ‘comedy’ rapist owner throwing his significant girth around.

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If you can, though (not sure if you really should), forget all of the above and just revel in some ridiculous, wonderfully gaudy effects as the demise of unfortunate recipients of the deadlier-than-poteen booze is rendered garishly in high definition. If that’s not enough, consider the even lovelier spectacle of a wretched soul, playing piggy-in-the-middle as his detached schlong is slung around like a gone-off frankfurter. If that doesn’t float your boat, there’s something wrong with you.

There’s no such phallic tomfoolery at work in this month’s final film, Herk Harvey’s only feature, the 1962 arthouse horror favourite Carnival Of Souls, making its way onto Bluray in its own haunting fashion. Harvey, who never quite directed another movie after Carnival Of Souls’ commercial failure, nonetheless created with his debut the template for what would be the Lynchian nightmare brand of film-making.

All creepy images and ideas rather than brutal shocks and gore, Harvey’s story unfolds as a church organist, Mary (Candace Hilligoss) is the sole survivor of a car crash, who finds all sorts of unusual things happening to her after she is pulled from the waterlogged vehicle’s wreckage.  With Gene Moore’s brilliantly sinister organ score nicely inverting the purpose of our atheist protagonist’s work, this at times Bergmanesque journey sees Harvey himself turn up to haunt Mary as a memorable ghoul on his own lost highway.

Full of uncanny images that are only slightly tarnished by Hilligoss’ really, really bad acting, this remains an endearingly distinctive effort that was way ahead of its time. A bleakly eerie foray into monochrome desolation, Carnival Of Souls richly deserves its strong cult following.