• Benji

    Released by: Mill Creek Entertainment
    Released on: February 13, 2018
    Director: Joe Camp
    Cast: Patsy Garrett, Allen Fiuzat, Cynthia Smith, Peter Breck, Frances Bavier, Terry Carter, Edgar Buchanan, Tom Lester, Christopher Connelly
    Year: 1974
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    The Movie:

    44 years ago, of the most absurdly enduring franchises in cinematic history was kickstarted with a $500,000 budget, a few locations in and around Dallas, and an adorable puppy named Benji. The brainchild of an unknown filmmaker from Missouri just crazy enough to bank his movie’s success on a dog in the starring role, the original Benji was released late in 1974 – a year dominated by the masterful likes of Chinatown, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Godfather Part II, Blazing Saddles, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to name a few – and grossed $45 million at the box office, making it one of the decade’s most profitable features.

    Benji fever soon swept the nation (which couldn’t have been too pleasant for the many people who were allergic to dogs), spawning a series of theatrical follow-ups and television specials, including a big-budget studio release titled Oh Heavenly Dog which surrounded the dog with equally prolific co-stars Chevy Chase and Jane Seymour. The franchise ran out of steam late in the 80’s, but recently Camp’s son Brandon spearheaded a Benji reboot for Netflix with the backing of modern horror giant Blumhouse Productions. This might sound corny, but the scrappy little pup isn’t ready for Dog Heaven just yet. Apologies for that last line, but maybe it will get me a pull quote on a future release of Benji …. or perhaps I’m a delusional psychopath and that will never, ever happen.

    So how exactly did a movie with virtually no plot, a handful of human actors only recognizable from their television work, and a star who could little but eat, sleep, and rub his nose in the groins of other dogs become one of the biggest smash hits of the 1970’s? Honestly, I think it had a lot to do with the fact that it happened during the 1970’s. Lest we forget, this was the decade of the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair responsible for bringing Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency to a deservedly screeching halt. It was also the decade that birthed the films that would set the template for the modern blockbuster tentpole. Audiences were hungry for an escape from the harsh realities of a world gone mad, and they made surprise hits out of The Godfather, The Exorcist, Jaws, Star Wars, and Superman, among others.

    Camp constructed a simple enough family film for Benji to headline, with just the modest makings of a plot to string together a repetitive series of scenes where the dog travels around a small town, getting into harmless adventures, making friends, and annoying a fussy old woman played by that icon of fussy old woman, Francis Bavier of The Andy Griffith Show. Yes, our sweet ol’ Aunt Bea is about the only person in this sleepy Southern burg who refuses to fall bouffant-topped head over Sunday church service heels for the charms of Camp’s picayune pup. Of course, the three deadbeat crooks Benji runs afoul of in what passes for a story in this movie – among them Christopher Connelly, best known to fans of Italian exploitation for starring in Lucio Fulci’s Manhattan Baby and Ruggero Deodato’s The Raiders of Atlantis – aren’t too fond of the lovable mutt either.

    You see, dear readers, Benji is a dog without a home. He desperately wants to be taken in by the family of Cindy (Cynthia Smith) and Paul Chapman (Allen Fiuzat), the two children who love him dearly, but their father (Peter Breck) won’t allow it. When the Chapman spawn are kidnapped by the hapless criminal trio under orders from their not-so-intimidating boss Mitch (Mark Slade), Benji unpredictably helps to save the day through a chain of absurd circumstances while the kids are in no real danger from their crappy captors.

    That’s it for the story of Benji’s first feature, and I’m surprised there was even that much. Kids of the early 70’s might have found the movie to be ideal escapism for a sleepy weekend, but the adults accompanying must have found it a test of both their nerves and moral fiber as I did. Until I received this Blu-ray for review, I’ve never actually watched a full Benji movie. Growing up in the 1980’s, I was certainly aware of the dog’s existence, but only as afternoon programming filler on one of my local television stations. Watching the original Benji today, I’m able to understand the appeal of this most unlikely franchise movie star, but you will never count me among his fans. I love dogs, but I don’t believe them to be captivating film leads unless they’re defusing bombs, ripping out throats, or battling a slumming Jon Voight in a CGI-assisted martial arts showdown.

    The original Benji may be lazy and repetitive on the storytelling front, but Camp keeps his bare bones plot uncluttered and uncomplicated and manages to draw levelheaded performances from a cast mostly compromised of experienced TV actors. In addition to the aforementioned Bavier and Connelly, we also have Patsy Garrett (Room 222), Edgar Buchanan (Petticoat Junction), Tom Lester (Green Acres), Mark Slade (High Chaparral), and Terry Carter (McCloud). Cast as the Chapman children’s disapproving doctor dad was Peter Breck, a veteran of several classic western series and best known to cult movie lovers as the star of Sam Fuller’s lurid insane asylum psychodrama Shock Corridor. The actors, including the youngsters playing Cindy and Paul, all perform at the level the material demands, and that suits Benji just fine.

    How does the title star fare? He’s a well-trained dog who knows how to act on command and won’t insist on back-end participation before bathing himself on camera. Most directors would sacrifice their own mothers to Satan himself for such an actor, or so the right-wing media would tell you. Camp’s writing and direction are competent and professional, the cinematography by Don Reddy (who also shot the rest of the Benji movies before spending the rest of his career as a camera operator and second unit director on films like The Last of the Mohicans, In the Line of Fire, and the 2009 Friday the 13th reboot) keeps the action in frame and is warmly inventive in getting Benji’s actions on film, and the sleepy blues music score by industry vet Euel Box fits the pacing and tone of the movie like a comfortable slipper Benji turned into his favorite chew toy.


    For Benji’s Blu-ray premiere, original 35mm film elements were sourced for an extensive restoration, and the result is presented here in full 1080p high-definition and in the film’s original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Given that it was produced on a low budget in the early 1970’s, the picture quality is bound to not dazzle your senses. Having gotten that out of the way, it’s impossible for the film to look any better than it does here. The transfer is mostly clean – except for a few moments near the start of the feature – and retains a healthy filmic appearance thanks to the preservation of a consistent grain structure and a warm color scheme that favors greens and browns.

    The film’s basic, undemanding mono sound mix has been recreated here via an uncompressed, 16-bit English PCM 2.0 stereo track. Nothing exciting here, but dialogue and music are strong and crisp. Distortion is not present on this track, and the volume levels are solid and consistent. English subtitles have also been provided.

    The Blu-ray disc contains an excellent audio commentary with director Camp and his son Brandon, an original theatrical trailer (6 minutes) that leans heavily on critical quotes and audience praise, and a photo gallery. You can find these supplements on the DVD copy along with two vintage television specials - “The Phenomenon of Benji” (27 minutes) was first aired in 1978 and pays tribute to Benji and his unlikely franchise with a little help from a few familiar faces, and “Benji at Work” (27 minutes) was produced in 1980 to help promote the forthcoming release of Oh Heavenly Dog. The latter featurette looks the best of the two thanks to being shot on film (as opposed to “Phenomenon”, which was videotaped), and Benji’s Heavenly co-star Chevy Chase is the most notable guest star to appear in this special, unless you’re a fan of Omar Sharif. This set also comes with a digital download code.

    The Final Word:

    Benji is perfectly inoffensive family movie fare that probably played better at the time of its release than it would now. Young audiences of the 21st century would doubtlessly be less than impressed by a slow-paced flick starring a dog who doesn’t even have a big-time celebrity voice. I would however recommend this Blu-ray release from Mill Creek to nostalgic viewers who grew up with Benji on the strength of its excellent high-definition transfer and archival supplements confusingly spread across the Blu-ray and additional DVD.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!