Another feature of...
So let’s celebrate a real throwback. Bats is a miracle, first that it was made, more so that it was released to theaters. It may be a while before we see it’s like again. While not the worst flick ever -- even in the Killer Animal genre, I could probably rattle off a dozen films that are worse -- it’s inspiring to see such a piece of dreck hit the silver screen. Just like a championship baseball team doing all the little things correctly, Bats pays attention to what a bad movie needs to do to succeed. The acting ranges from uninspired to horrible, the script is excessively moronic and derivative, and the film is (way) over-directed. Frankly, it brings a tear to my eye even to think about it. Thanks, guys.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was reviewing the Piranha DVD for Liz over at the And You Call Yourself a Scientist! site. The strength of Piranha is that it never tries to transcend what it is. Instead, the script is well written, the direction is clean and the acting proficient. The opening of our current subject called that film to mind, because they both start in a similar fashion. If you guessed this involves two youths in a sexually compromising position who get killed, give yourself two points. Of course, in Piranha screenwriter John Sayles was consciously attempting to fulfill genre expectations while still writing a decent script. It was obviously a sort of mental exercise for him, sort of like Gus Van Sant remaking Hitchcock’s Psycho almost shot-for-shot. Can I stay between the lines and still breathe some life into this material? For Sayles, at least, the answer was yes. (David E. Kelly isn’t Sayles, either; compare Alligator with Lake Placid.)
Bats, unfortunately, wasn’t written by John Sayles, or even David E. Kelly. In fact, if I had to guess, I’d say it wasn’t written by a human being at all. Perhaps a computer of some primitive sort was the author. And even if Sayles could do something with such a cornball opening, well, he was doing it twenty odd years ago, and largely before the post-Friday the 13th torrent of Slasher films began. Which means that in the period between which Piranha and Bats were produced, a similar opening gambit was used in roughly 40,000 crummy horror flicks. [Note: The prior figure is an estimate, although one I believe to be roughly correct.] Sayles also wrote interesting dialog for his sacrificial characters. Here the lines amount to little more than the following:
The filmmakers seem – properly – embarrassed by their lack of imagination here. And no wonder. As soon as a car is seen driving to and parking in a secluded locale we in the audience start groaning. So at least they do us the courtesy of speeding through this scene. ("Sorry about this, folks, but it’s a union rule.") Meanwhile, the words ‘Gallup, Texas’ scroll – with the standard ‘typing’ sound effects foleyed in -- across the screen. That’s right, they’re going to rip-off the X-Files, too.
OK, so the guy notices something weird happening outside his car in this deserted place. So, naturally, he rolls up his windows and burns rubber back to town. Oh, wait. No, that’s what any real person would do. Instead, being a movie character, he goes outside to investigate. Finding nothing, he grabs a couple of beers from the trunk and returns to his date. Since the couple doesn’t get around to making out, their drinking stands in as the ‘sin’ that signals their fate. Then a train nearby flashes past, providing ‘cool’ sound effects and a strobing light so as to make the inevitable murderous attack all arty and such. The sequence ends with the riotous image of the boy crashing through his front windshield and coming to rest, dead, on the hood of his car. Since it seems more likely that he would have used the door or open window next to him if he were seeking to escape, we can only assume that the bats are supposed to be heaving him through the glass, presumably for esthetic reasons. ("Dude! Man, when you tossed that guy through the window…that was phat!")
We are also here introduced to the film’s central flaw, the direction of helmer Louis Morneau. (Insert your own "The Film of Dr. Morneau" joke here.) The attack is confusedly portrayed in seemingly hundreds of teeny-tiny edits, with the lens often skewing the image to create a disorientating effect. This latter the film provides in spades, since you often can’t tell what the heck is happening onscreen. It’s like a kid with a super-8 camera who discovers that by twisting the lens you can leap from a blurry image to a crisp one, and so falls in love with the effect that he uses it every time he films something. In any case, this is definitely the picture for those who find the videos on MTV too stately and static. Making the technique even more obnoxious is that it’s used pretty much throughout the entire film. I could see if the idea was to employ it during attack sequences, so as to lend them a kinetic quality. (Although that would hardly be an original device, to say the least.) You might also then grant the filmmakers a certain competence, perhaps theorizing that they are flash-cutting the bat sequences so that we can’t perceive how poor the f/x are. No go there either, though. While the camera keeps leaping around and distorting the action even during simple expository sequences, we are yet given many loving close-ups of the goofy and patently bogus-looking foam rubber rod puppets used to portray our titular menace.
Actually, I think Morneau started off, unsurprisingly, making videos. You know, they just keep looking for that next Ridley Scott. It’s the same kind of thinking that goes, "Hey, if Jessica Lange could go from modeling to acting, why not Cindy Crawford?" It’s along the lines of thinking if lighting struck here once, it probably will again.
In all, the direction and editing seem to reveal an all-consuming fear that if the camera stops moving the audience will become bored and flee the theater. Instead, the audience became bored and confused, and then fled the theater. Still, here’s a hint: Watch the attack scenes on your DVD player while utilizing the ‘slow’ feature, and you’ll actually be able to see what’s happening. You’ll also gain an appreciation of how hard to the editors had to work in order to confuse the heck out of you.
The seemingly obligatory opening sequence accomplished – in a manner of speaking, anyway -- we are now off to, as the chattering type on the screen informs us, Skull Valley, Arizona. (Oooh! Skull Valley! Spooo-ky!) Here we meet Dr. Sheila Casper, our redoubtable Beautiful Female Scientist and Jimmy, her inevitable *sigh* Jive-Talking, Comic Relief Black Sidekick. Aside from getting stuck with such an insulting role, Jimmy is also provided with some the lamest ‘quips’ yet consigned to film.
See, the bit is that she’s a bat scientist who’s loved bats since she was a kid, which we learn in a speech stolen right out of Sayle’s Alligator. Meanwhile, he’s her assistant, but -- get ready! -- he’s afraid of bats. Ho ho! Comedy Ahoy, eh? Still, I don’t want you to think that the proceedings aren’t rigorously scientific. As she clambers through a cave, reporting her findings to him over a headset radio (he’s outside, see, because he’s afraid of bats – get it?), they exchange dialog like "How’s the ammonia levels, Doc?" and "Point zero-nine-eight." Needless to say, they also toss in a little zoological Latin for authenticity sake. Hey, now that I think of it, not only is it zany that a guy who’s afraid of bats would be working for a bat scientist, but it turns out he’s also about to be involved with a giant flock of killer bats! Man! That’s really the last place a guy afraid of bats would like to find himself, I’ll bet. I mean, you know, it’s just kind of ironic, when you think about it.
Time, I guess, for some ‘humor.’ As Our Heroine scrambles through the not-terribly restricted passageway, she ruefully asks Jimmy to remind her to lay off the cheesecake. Yeah, it’s a shame to see a woman balloon up towards the hundred and twenty pound mark like she appears to have. Then, in a woefully telegraphed fake scare, we see a POV shot from something big flying around the rock formations in their area. Is it a giant bat, flying around in the daylight, come to kill off two of our main characters four minutes into the film? Unfortunately, no. It’s a helicopter containing Tobe Hodge, a government health official come to grab the two. (When he identifies himself as being from the Center for Disease Control, Jimmy quips "Hey, I never touched that girl." Them’s the jokes, folks.) In spite of her obvious youth, you see, Sheila’s (naturally) the best in her field. Is there any field of science in which ‘the best’ is someone in their sixties or seventies? Heck, their fifties? Anyway, accompanying Hodge is Dr. McCabe. He’s sort of standoffish, we see. I mean, literally. When Hodge goes to greet Sheila he stands off by himself. He also impatiently looks at his watch, revealing that he thinks he’s better than everyone else. Hmm, an older, rude, white male scientist. I wonder what role he’ll fill in our movie?
As the plane lands outside of Gallup, a police department 4x4 drives up, driven by macho Sheriff Kimsey (Lou Diamond Phillips – how’s the career, Lou?). We can tell he’s macho because he’s wearing sunglasses and smoking a cigar. How’s that for characterization? Actually, I’m not going to make fun of Phillips’ acting in this movie, because he reveals on the commentary track that he based his portrayal on his father, a Texas native. Far be it from me to make fun of a guy who’s trying to pay homage to his pop. And, admittedly, his performance, or what I can see of it through the swirling camera movements and jump-cutting, isn’t really that bad.
Since the Plot-o-Matic 3000™ requires a ‘meet cute’ at this point, Sheila and Kimsey end up driving into town together. While he’s obviously attracted to her (because of the ‘hero and heroine’ thing), they don’t have much in common. He’s a rootin’-tootin’, salt of the Earth Texas sheriff and she’s a dangburned scientist. Why, they’re the original Odd Couple! Making sure that no iota of originality slips into the script, their discussion mainly follows the traditional "I’m a scientist, here’s some Latin – Hey, could you talk American so’s I can understand you?" format.
Next up is the inevitable autopsy scene. This hits, again, all the traditional ‘character’ notes. Sheila passionately argues that bats don’t kill humans until incontrovertible evidence appears; Kimsey stoically shows his deep compassion and manly rage over the couple’s senseless deaths; Jimmy is ‘comically’ nauseated by the mutilated corpse; McCabe reveals a cold fascination with the scientific aspects of the deaths while displaying no apparent concern for these young lives so cruelly snuffed out; and Hodge acts mildly concerned and competent, as befits a character who has no real role other than to provide a tragic death later in the film. (Oops, sorry.)
This is also the ideal sequence for which to vent about the directorial style Morneau employs in this film. Here we have a simple expository scene. It’s entire purpose is to lay the groundwork for the characters’ acceptance of the ‘killer bat’ scenario. In all, the scene last a perfunctory two minutes and ten seconds. In this short period, literally fifty different edits are used to convey the simple info that bats killed the couple and that this is all pretty strange, as it’s not normal bat behavior. Fifty edits! In two minutes and ten seconds! Actually, it’s worse than that, because even during all these teeny one, two and three second clips, Morneau keeps the camera gliding from left to right and up and down and to and fro. It’s enough to make you reach for the Dramamine.
Sheila identifies a rather largish bat tooth as coming from a species that only eats fruits and such. Not wanting to believe what’s happening (because she’s an Idealistic Scientist), she declares bats not to be the culprit and prepares to leave. This forces McCabe to spill the beans, which is that he, duh, has produced a couple of murderous super bats via genetic manipulation. Unfortunately, they escaped and are now infecting the local normal bats with a virus that turns all of them into murderous super bats, too. I guess, you know, that it’s one of those turn-herbivores-into-carnivores viruses. I know that makes no sense, but that’s the plot, as near as I can follow.
As the team plots out the area in which the bats can be found -- basically a hundred miles in any direction -- a call comes in. They hit the road and drive out to a farm where some livestock has been slaughtered by the bats. ("This definitely is not going to look good in the morning paper," Jimmy japes.) They are met by Mayor Branson. Here I can say something nice about the movie, which is that they thankfully don’t trot out the exhausted ‘We have to cover this up!" plotline. Instead, the Mayor and Kimsey agree to immediately warn the locals to spend nights indoors until the bats are exterminated.
Back at police headquarters. The heroes try to get McCabe to be more specific on what exactly he did to the two super bats. He’s keeping mum, though, so Sheila takes some guesses. "You’ve increased their natural intelligence," she begins. On what basis she is making this assertion is left to our imaginations, but I assume we’re to take her speculations as gospel. He also made them aggressive (I’ll say!), she posits, and finally he made them carnivorous. (Through a virus, which can spread and turn other bats into meat eaters…oh, never mind.) Here McCabe reveals the hubris of the Mad Scientist, as he smugly asserts, "No, Dr. Casper. I made them omnivorous." Great, so not only are the town folk in danger, but so are the county’s championship pumpkin crops.
Sheila, representing Responsible Science as she does, asks him why he’s done all this. "Because I’m a scientist!" he replies, bewildered by the question. "That’s what we do!" Now, I want you to understand something. This film doesn’t have an ironic or satiric bone in its body. Yet McCabe’s answer is just short of twirling a mustache and sneering, "Why, for Ee-vil’s sake, of course! Nah-ha-ha!" His answer is so bald that it’s somewhat surreal. At this point they should have just digitally attached signs reading "Good Guy," "Bad Guy," "Victim," etc., to the characters and advertised the film as a work of meta-fiction.
Here’s another question. How come good guys always attack the demented arrogance behind these evil experiments, but never bring up their utter lack of any practical utility. "Are you mad, sir? To create a sentient clothes hamper a thousand feet tall that lives on human blood?! You have transgressed where Man was not meant to go!"
McCabe continues that amongst the things ‘scientists do,’ is to "make things betters." Hmm, yes, I guess that intelligent, super-aggressive flesh-eating bats are better than the standard dumb, meek herbivore ones. This provides all the other characters with a chance to show off their moral superiority ("You don’t see me creating any murderous super-bats!"), as well as to darkly warn that if they don’t stop the two super-bats before a bunch of other bats are infected then they will quite possibly end human civilization as we know it, yada, yada. In fact, according to a nifty computer simulation that Jimmy appears to have set up on the spot, the bats will cover all of North and Central America – everything from northernmost Canada down past Mexico – in six months’ time. At that rate, I’d have to guess that every planet in the Federation would be devoid of humanoid life within two Earth years.
Seeking to avert this apocalyptic crisis, we cut to our heroes doing stuff out in the rock lands. They put up big nets. They climb up mountains. They repel down mountains. They keep each other apprised of their activities on walkie-talkies. I’m not sure what any of them are supposed to be doing, but boy, are they busy. Oh, and let me take this opportunity to introduce Kimsey’s nondescript deputy, Wesley. Three guesses how he ends up by the finale.
Cut to dusk. Sheila and Kimsey share another *groan* character moment on a small bridge. The sides of the bridge has nets draped over them, so I suppose their plan is…uh, hell if I know. Get the bats to fly into the nets, somehow, I guess. Needless to say, even in this scene, the camera jumps from gliding close-ups to panning overhead crane shots to just about anything you can imagine. I’m not sure how many camera set-ups Morneau must have ordered set-up, but I imagine the number would be appalling. Certainly the results are. Still, that's what Directors do. They make films better.
So, yawn, this is the scene where Kimsey inevitably inquires as to Sheila’s "Why I became a bat-scientist" backstory. Equally inevitably, we learn that her love of bats went back to when she was a kid: She was scared of them, daddy made her hold one, yada yada. Here she becomes wistfully introspective as she considers the task before her: "The thought of killing one goes against everything I believe." Now, I’m heard of some lame-ass belief systems, but this pretty much takes the cake. Besides, how did she get through zoology classes without dissecting stuff? Or is that different, since the animals were killed for her?
This scene (thankfully) completed, a motion sensor, or something, starts beeping. "Oh, God," Sheila exclaims after viewing the gizmo, "there’s too many!" I’m not sure what that means. Too many to fool into flying into the nets they’ve attached to the sides of the bridge? Hey, remember the scene in The Swarm where the vengeful young Paul and his friends attack the bees? They throw Molotov cocktails at them, and then flee for the protection of metal garbage cans that they cower under. Only, to make the scene ‘dramatic,’ if noticeably stupid, they have them leave the cans quite a distance away, so that the bees almost catch them before they reach safety. Well, same thing here, only it’s even sloppier. Surprised by the large number of bats -- how many was she expecting, anyway? -- our twosome has left their truck parked an unlikely distance away. Meanwhile, the animated swarm of bats appears in the air and gives chase. Here we first see another regular flaw of the film, which is that the bats move at whatever pace the plot demands. One second, it seems, they’re miles away from Our Heroes. The next, they’re mere feet behind them.
However, as the heroes aren’t close enough to the truck to escape them yet, the next scene shows the beasties to be much farther back than we just saw them to be. So in one medium shot the heroes are shown running towards the camera, and the bats are literally right on their heels. Then we cut to a rear shot of the action, and all of a sudden the heroes are hundreds of yards in the lead. It’s sort of the opposite of the Offscreen Teleportation principle. Since the heroes are the ones being chased, the bats have to slow down every time they get too close to them. This phenomena will occur at regular intervals throughout the movie.Then there’s another issue. Whenever I see a movie involving some sort of flying menace, bugs or birds or bats or whatever, characters always leave the windows of their vehicles rolled down. (See again The Swarm, notably the train wreck sequence.) By which I mean, characters who are aware of the situation. Sure enough, not only have they left the trucks hundreds of yards away, but the windows are gaping open. Again, we can only assume that this is meant to foster suspense, rather than audience belief that the film’s central characters are idiots.
So soon we get the ‘trapped and besieged by CGI and prosthetic bats’ bit. I’m sure you can pretty much picture this in your head, although you should remember to distort the image and constantly change perspectives in an annoyingly frenetic fashion. In one memorably silly bit, which is not exactly aided by the lame effects work used to ‘realize’ it, Sheila burns the face of one intruding bat with the truck's cigarette lighter, forcing it to retreat. Now, you might be wondering why they don’t just drive away. The filmmakers cleverly answer this by having Kimsey yell, "Where did I leave my keys?!" Meanwhile, hearing their distress over the radio, Wesley and Jimmy head over in a squad car. Back in the truck, the actors shout expository dialog meant to further suggest the terrible danger they’re in. "They’re trying to get into the engine," Sheila shouts. As in Deep Blue Sea, apparently, we’re to believe that animals who have had their native intelligence levels raised are instantly able to intuit complex scientific and mechanical systems. Somehow, I guess, the bats have figured out what a truck engine does, and that to disable it would strand their intended victims.
Anyway, one bat manages to get into the truck. Now, we’ve got two able-bodied people inside, including one who’s worked with bats all her life, and one measly bat. So how do they incapacitate it? Simple, Sheila grabs the things, holds it against the window, and Kimsey blows it away with his service sidearm (!). All, I notice, without shattering the window glass into bits and allowing a further horde of bats entrance into their sanctuary. Now, frankly, I’d have to think that grabbing it and bashing it against the dashboard would have done the job. I mean, bats possess hollow bones and weigh like, what, six or eight ounces? Tough to crush they’re not.
Jimmy and Wesley arrive and see the thousands of bats swarming the truck. Proving not to be the world’s greatest strategist, Jimmy suggests that Wesley use his gun (!) against them. Admittedly, this would probably be somewhat more effective than, for instance, firing into a mess of mosquitoes, but only just. Even his amended suggestion to fire in the air, hoping to scare off the bats, seems a little unlikely. (Need I mention, by the way, that in responding to Sheila’s report of an attacking horde of killer bats, their putative rescuers arrive with both of their respective car windows rolled down?) Here, to be fair, we do get a mildly effective shot. The bats swarming the truck suddenly become aware of the new vehicle and come to an abrupt, silent stop. They then turn their heads towards the car and its headlights, so that all their eyes light up a malevolent yellow. This isn’t brilliant stuff, admittedly, but it does work, and is one of the nicer moments in the film.
However, in an action clearly dictated by the script, the bats choose to take off ("Dude, they’ve got back-up! Retreat! Retreat!") rather than to divide their number and attack the other vehicle also. The implausibility of this is emphasized, again, by the film going for a ‘cool’ effect even when it further weakens whatever suspension of disbelief we’ve yet maintained up to now. In this case, the bats fly directly at the squad car, only to peel upwards at the curve of the windshield and fly away. As they do this, we again are forced to notice that both occupants of the car have their windows down, allowing the bats easy, instant access to them were they so inclined.
Sheila and Kimsey leave the truck. They discover a bat whose wing was trapped under a tire when they got the truck to lurch forward a couple of feet. (This after Kimsey remembered the spare keys in the glove box.) Proving again to somewhat hardier than your average bat, to say the least, the creature proves to be unharmed by having a truck resting upon it. They get it free and toss it into a cage. Shortly thereafter, the two main super-bats are seen nearby, apparently spying on them. I guess they’re not so smart after all, since they’re allowing Kimsey a clear shot at them. (As we will learn later in the film, Kimsey is the finest pistol shot in the history of mankind -- except for Sheila. Sometimes.) Or maybe they just know that the script won’t allow them to get killed so early in the proceedings. In any case, Kimsey misses them when Hodge and McCabe suddenly drive up and the bats fly off.
Taking the captured bat to a clearing, Sheila attaches a tracking device to it and prepares to set it free. (I should note that the film’s prosthetic bats look extremely fake. This means that every time they give us a close-up of one we’re going "Fake bat!") McCabe, meanwhile, warns that her plan is doomed to fail. Sure enough, once the bat is released into the air, the two super-bats appear and attack it in a way that causes the bat to fall to earth, neatly cleaved in two. (?!) ("Houston, we got a problem!" Jimmy cracks.) Now, it’s a well known science fiction movie rule that failed plans can never be tried again. So they have Sheila moan that it could take days to catch another bat, and that there isn’t time. Now, is it just me, but what about all those nets they were putting up before. Shouldn’t they check them to see if any of the thousands and thousands of bats maybe got caught in one of them? I guess not.
Sheila advises Hodge to order Gallup to be evacuated. He gives the order, and Jimmy notes that this is a good idea, as his program indicates that the bats have been heading towards that location. (Uh, what kind of program is that, again?) However, it’s almost time for the movie’s ‘blow-out’ mass attack sequence. Needless to say, no one has listened to the Mayor’s orders to stay inside, resulting in plenty of (purportedly) audience-pleasing bat fodder. However, with the bats politely waiting to begin the main assault until the heroes are on the scene, we start with some minor attacks on outlying locals. These occur in predictable tableaus. Woman removes wash from clothesline, and is attacked by bats. (Shades of Creeping Terror!) Diner with a small array of customers, attacked by bats. Fill in the blanks here, people.
Oh, wait, I forgot the most appalling bit, where a wee sleeping baby is shown being stalked in its cradle by a bat. Thanks, yeah, I really needed to see that.
These attacks are mostly shot in extreme (and distorted) close-ups, because otherwise we might notice that people are still bigger than bats and could probably fight back more effectively than shown here. There’s other dumbness, too. For instance, one diner patron is eating away and hilariously not suppose to be noticing the extremely large bat -- it’s one of the super-bats, sporting a four foot wingspan -- awkwardly crawling its way along the counter top. He finally becomes aware that it’s literally two inches away from him when it issues a growl prior to attacking him. As this occurs, a nearby kid continues to play a video game, somehow not noticing the extremely loud skirmish. Apparently, Gallup was founded as a refuge for those cursed with deafness and an utter lack of peripheral vision.
Our Heroes finally make the scene, wondering why so many folks are just walking around the town’s main strip. (To provide victims – duh!) Of course, about five seconds after they leave their truck the mass attack begins. Good thing they made it, too, because who else would yell things like "Move off the streets!" and "Get inside now!" as the thousands of bats begin to dive bomb the citizenry? I guess there’s only so many ways to stage these things, but again, this is shot exactly like the bee attack on Marysville in The Swarm, where Michael Caine ran around screaming pretty much the same lines. And, just as in that film, everyone except the heroes -- who jog around helping folks, natch – screams and blindly runs up and down the street, never thinking to seek shelter. In fact, more people come spilling out, exiting from the local movie house and somehow not noticing all the noise and panic. (The theater is supposedly showing Nosferatu (?), apparently the filmmakers’ idea of an ‘inside’ joke. Wwouldn’t Nightwing have made more sense?) A fleeing Wesley -- he’s not a hero, remember, he’s a Designated Tragic Victim – crashes through a bar window, and the pursuing bats quietly land around him. This, I think, is meant to evoke the silent, menacing array of crows accumulating on the playground equipment behind Tippi Hedrin in The Birds. Anyway, we go to Distort-o-Scope and Wesley is set upon and killed.
After this we cut back out into the street, where, counterintuitively, there are now more people on the street than when the attack began two or three minutes ago. Meanwhile, the bats are doing some rather improbable things, like knocking down an electrical pole. You’d think this would require rather more mass than four or five largish bats could bring to bear, but I guess not. In another bit, a car going maybe ten miles an hour plows into a parked car and, needless to say, both erupt into flames.
Then comes my favorite bit. Seeking shelter for himself and the Mayor, Kimsey pushes her under a truck and crawls in after her. Then, as bats dive bomb their position, he shoots them from the air with his pistol. (Luckily, the bats only approach from the side and angle from which he can shoot at them.) Have you ever seen anyone shooting skeet? They do this in the daytime, and with a shotgun rather than a rifle. The reason for that is that a shotgun fires a number of pellets. These spread out and give you a chance to hit a small, fast-moving flying target, like a duck or a skeet pigeon, as the clay discs are called. Since a rifle, like a sidearm, instead fires a slug, the odds against hitting a flying object of this sort are astronomical. Yet this is what Kimsey accomplishes, at least five times in short order. This, again, would be like shooting skeet, were skeet a sport where a prone person with a pistol attempted to shoot down clay pigeons as they were launched towards his face. At night.
Meanwhile, Sheila has her own rather boring ‘action’ set-piece where she hunts and is hunted by one of the super-bats (I think) in a grocery store. Lamentably, she proves rather less a prodigy with the shooting irons than Kimsey. Even supplied with a magical six-shot revolver that she fires seven times, the bat is able to again make its escape. I only mention the scene since it provides the clearest shots of the movie's rod-puppet bat prop. We are unwisely presented with a couple of nice long close-ups of the thing, and under florescent lighting to boot. With this, the foam-rubber nature of the fiends is undeniable.
Anyhoo, this all goes on for a while, with various acts of none-too-exciting valor being performed by our leads. Bats swarm on stuff, trucks smash into stuff, yada, yada. This is followed by a sterling exception of the Hero’s Death Battle Exemption, as not one, but both of the super-bats attack and presumably maul Sheila until chased away, leaving her apparently unharmed. Needless to say, everyone who’s had anywhere near this much contact with the beasties was quickly slain, but then, that’s the advantage of being the hero. For example, the bats, for no apparent reason other than because they can’t be allowed to kill the heroine, finally leave her in peace when Hodge runs out to her rescue. The bats knock him over – in a silly attempt to portray their power, Hodge flies back like he’s been hit by a linebacker – and play cat and mouse with him. In the end, though, when they really attack him he dies in a right quick fashion. I’d say, meanwhile, that Sheila grappled with the bats, and both at the same time, remember, for at least five to ten times longer than it takes them to finish off Hodge.
The remaining leads examine or tearfully mourn Hodge. Then, reiterating a stupid bit from earlier in the film, they eventually spot the super-bats hanging around, literally, nearby. Upon this discovery, the bats fly off. Again, though, this is the second time that these supposedly intelligence-enhanced creatures have hung around long enough to allow Kimsey, were he more alert, anyway, to take a shot at them. ‘Dramatic’ or no, this isn’t exactly lending credence to the super-bat concept.
We cut to the town at dawn, as the shocked residents survey all the death and destruction. Hilariously, at least two cars are still on fire. Now, I can’t really claim any expertise as to life in your typical small Texas town. Still, I think I can safely assume, given the number of people on the street and the fact that a movie was shown letting out, that the attack occurred at, say, midnight at the latest. Which would mean, to be as generous as possible, that these vehicles have been burning merrily for five hours or more without running out of fuel or being put out by the citizenry. This seems rather unlikely. Anyway, the military starts arriving. Meanwhile, Kimsey finds Wesley’s body, allowing for an ‘acting’ moment. Again, I have to wonder that Kimsey hadn’t in the many hours after the attack organized a search of the surrounding buildings for wounded townsfolk. I mean, this is a smallish town, with apparently the one main street, and such a sweep wouldn’t have taken very long. Moreover, with Wesley’s body spread eagled atop a bar the way it is, well, it should really have been found much earlier.
Cut, presumably, to an hour or two later. The military has started evacuating the town. Meanwhile, cars are still absolutely awash in flames in the street. Nor has anyone cut the power to the downed electrical lines, which are still giving off sparks as they lay in the road. Sheila, down to a cleavage-friendly tank top, enjoys a moment of peace and a shot of whiskey with Kimsey. An annoyed Jimmy, however, is wondering, along with the audience, as to why they are all still there, what with the arrival of the authorities and all. In another indication of someone having gone to screenwriting classes, they here introduce a ‘time element’ plot device. To wit, they (Sheila, Kimsey, Jimmy and McCabe) have forty-eight hours to deal with the bats, or else the authorities will launch a "military air strike." By which, we’re told, they mean firing Hellfire missiles into every possible bat hiding place within a hundred mile radius of Gallup. (!!) All of this, including the part where our heroes get forty-eight hours to deal with things, is stupid on a number of grounds, which I’m sure I needn’t explicate.
The foursome head over to the local high school, which looks oddly huge for this one-horse town. This will be their headquarters, and they've brought supplies along to fortify it before night falls. (During the forty-eight hour grace period, the military has pulled completely out of town [!], leaving things to our leads.) As to why you'd choose a three story building with literally hundreds of windows as your ‘fort’ is left to our imaginations. I think the idea is that the high school is the only place in town where they can hook up their computer equipment, another idea that seems unlikely. Before we begin the obligatory Fortification Montage, however, we get yet another screenwriting class staple, which is the Unexpected Character Trait. See, such a trait makes the ‘characters’ seem more *cough* three-dimensional. This is probably my favorite scene in the movie. Said trait is revealed when Kimsey plays a record album over the PA system. See, the bit is that it’s an album of opera music! As the music starts, the others, especially Jimmy, react with incredibly exaggerated amazement. Because, think about it, we’ve got a tough Texas sheriff who enjoys opera! Isn’t that just too weird?! When Sheila comes in to investigate, Kimsey breaks into a broad grin. "That," he explains, "is Montserrat singing Donizetti’s Lucia."
Sheila, needless to say, is impressed at Kimsey’s transgressive tastes in music. He swears her to silence, though, as the locals would "run my ass out of town on a rail" were they aware of his inexplicable tastes. And who could blame them, what with this tough Texas sheriff playing opera music! Imagine! Have you ever heard of such a thing? Hipster Jimmy, meanwhile, is shown staring at the PA speakers with some horror. Eventually he staggers in and points at Kimsey. "You are a sick individual!" he mutters. (Whew! I'm glad they made Jimmy normal, at least. A tough Texas sheriff liking opera is bizarre enough, without trying to introduce a with-it black man who liked it too! All credibility would have collapsed at such an oddity.)
This moment of tension-relieving hilarity at an end, the Fortification Montage can begin. This is accompanied by the now thundering opera music, and so comes off with a bit more drama and class than it might have otherwise. Basically, rolls of chain link fencing are laid over the windows and chain link barriers are erected to cut off the hallways. The fencing is then connected to the school’s emergency generator, allowing them to electrify it if it comes to that. (Three guesses.) Meanwhile, the computers are being hooked up to a military satellite. This will present them with thermal images of the surrounding area when it passes overhead. The building *cough* secure, Kimsey asks what the plan is when they find the bats. "Poison?" he inquires. This is nixed. "The most popular poison for bats is chlorophacinone," Jimmy explains. "Largely ineffective against them and highly lethal for humans." To which I can only wonder, jeepers, what’s the second most popular bat poison like? Perhaps that’s what McCabe used to create the super-bats. Anyway, bombing the bats is also knocked down. As in The Swarm, you see, any solution with even a vaguely military feel must be scorned, presumably because they just seem sort of icky to the advanced and progressive colony of Artists that make up Hollywood.
Now comes one of those classic "The guy who makes an extraneous remark that inspires a brilliant plan" moments. "This is a nightmare!" Jimmy moans. (I’m with ya, buddy!) "I’ll never sleep again," he continues. (Sorry, pal, but you lost me there. Heck, I can barely keep my eyes open as it is.) "That’s it!" Sheila cries. "We’ll show the bats the movie and put them all to sleep!" Oh, wait, no, that’s my plan. Her plan, which I must point out is much more cumbersome, involves using a huge cooling unit to lower the temperature of the bat’s cave. This will put them to sleep and eventually kill them when it gets cold enough. Jimmy goes off to alert the government as to their plan. Meanwhile, Kimsey is given one of those worried "that sure sounds dangerous" speeches, as Sheila will have to enter the cave to set the device, or something, while she replies with the obligatory "yes, but it’s our only chance," spiel. This exchange is shot in close-ups, with the actors trading significant glances of the "I’m not ready to say it yet, but I love you," variety.
Cut to that evening, as Jimmy reports to the others on the gigantic cooling unit being provided them. "[It] emits a combination of Freon, CO2 and pure oxygen at super-human velocity." I’m not exactly sure what ‘super-human’ means in this exact context, but whatever. Again, to explain why Our Heroes have to do everything themselves, Jimmy reasserts that "That’s as far as [the military will] go. They don’t want to know about us." While I share that particular wish, I should point out that this makes zero sense. So the military won’t provide any direct assistance whatsoever. Yet they’ll stand around for two days doing nothing and then proceed with the most ludicrous plan possible? By which I mean the ‘bomb everything in a hundred mile radius’ idea. Why wouldn’t the military just take over the cooling unit idea?
Oh, and while this is all going on, they keep cutting to McCabe giving suspicious looks. I wouldn’t want you to miss anything.
A helicopter comes by and drops off the gear the team will need to enter the cave. The cooling unit will be dropped off on site. (So…why not drop off all the gear on site?) Oddly, and I’m assuming it’s because they couldn’t afford it on the film's miniscule six million dollar budget, the ‘copter lifts off and flies away without falling to a marauding swarm of bats. We are then given the standard MacGyver speech about the equipment: The protective suits are Kevlar, the breathing apparatus is to protect them from ammonia fumes given off by the bat guano, etc. In a moment to rival Volcano’s Tommy Lee Jones’ having to ask what ‘magma’ is, Kimsey needs be informed what ‘guano’ is. (Insert obvious joke here.) This isn’t the most realistic moment of the film.
The satellite pictures print out, revealing the location of the roost. Meanwhile, Kimsey finally evinces some suspicion of McCabe, probably due to his constant Snidely Whiplash-esque behavior. Kimsey, after all, is a trained police professional. Studying the printout, Sheila is confused as to the bats’ whereabouts since the indicated area lacks caves. However, Kimsey is aware of, that’s right, an old, abandoned mine there. "It’s not on any map," he unnecessarily explains, given how old, abandoned mines are always left off maps. Then, just to make sure we get how gosh-darned dramatic all this is, a big, juicy musical blare greets his naming of them as the Black Rock Mine.
Remember a bit earlier, when I described the ‘blow up everything in a hundred mile radius’ idea as being the most ludicrous plan possible? Well, I forgot we’re dealing with the military as portrayed in a horror movie. So, yes, they have in fact a much stupider idea yet. Which is to install the cooling unit, only to do it at night, when the bats are active. Why, you might ask? Well, and get ready for a big surprise here, but it’s to cover up the fact that the killer bats are, in fact, an Evil Government Experiment Gone Awry. Yep, just like in the Piranha movies, the Government apparently thought it would be way handy to have a living bio-weapon that once released could move around at will and in no way be controlled. We learn all this when the commanding officer asks the resident spOOk why they are attempting to handle the bats themselves. Said spOOk, by the way, seems to have been tossed in as an afterthought. Certainly his existence was never hinted at until his appearance here. In any case, instead of telling the officer to shut up and obey orders, the spOOk reveals the awful – and so unexpected – truth. This despite the quite evident fact that the fellow requesting the info obviously has no ‘need to know’ any of this. Which seems rather incongruous with the whole ‘cover-up’ idea, but, hey, what do I know? Besides, if he wasn’t told, we in the audience wouldn’t overhear it. Thus does bad exposition make fools of us all.
Anyway, we get what I believe is meant to be an exciting montage of the soldiers attempting to get the cooling unit in place before the bats return. Three guesses as to how successful they prove to be at this task. Should I point out that none of the personal here sport protective suits, or that no tents or structures have been provided? Heck, how about transporting them in APCs? They could have retreated to these in case of an attack. Of course, then we would have missed out on the *cough* thrilling, if highly illogical, massacre sequence -- which, actually, we don't get anyway. Hell, how come they’re surprised by the bats at all? Why aren't they equipped with some of the handy handheld motion detectors Sheila used earlier in the picture? Actually, while I’m talking about this, let’s contrast this to Jim Cameron’s Aliens. Remember how the space marines there were also eventually wiped out? Of course, the difference was that you believed that they had been as well trained and equipped as possible. After their initial panic at meeting a foe unlike any they’d faced before, they regrouped and fought in a manner designed to maximize enemy losses at the smallest possible cost. They still died in the end, but only because they’d met up with a antagonist that transcended their available resources. Here, on the other hand, everyone seems to die because of how stupid they are, rather than because they are overwhelmed.
Back to the school, where Sheila and the others are planning their assault. McCabe warns them, however, that the bats will know what they’re doing and try to stop them. Moreover, as he reveals after their motion detector goes off, he has in fact summoned the bats (??) to their hideout. I’m not sure what his ultimate plan is, but he pulls a gun on the others. Perhaps he intends to, what else, rule the world. Outside the bats are showing up. "They’re taking out the power," Kimsey yells, despite that fact that he can’t actually see the bats, being inside the building and all. Meanwhile, this line ranks as perhaps the film’s most naked rip-off of Aliens. You half expect a panicked Jimmy to reply, "Taking out the power? But they’re only animals, man!"Meanwhile, Sheila is given another small Action Hero moment and manages to disarm the distracted McCabe. We here learn that the super-bats didn’t escape but *gasp* were released by their creator, although again we are left to figure out why. Now, under the circumstances, you’d think the Heroes would just shoot McCabe and then deal with the bats. You’d be wrong, of course. See, McCabe, like any good Mad Scientist, for some reason has come to believe that he can control the bats because he created them. (Apparently scientists never meet anyone with a teenaged son or daughter.) I’ve never really figured out exactly what the logic was in that idea, especially since everyone who’s ever averred it is destroyed by their creations. Oops, hope I didn’t blow anything there.
Especially amusing here are the craven attempts to recall other and much superior sci-fi action films. For instance, Sheila is now attired in a T-shirt, boots and khaki pants, her blonde hair in a ponytail. One can only assume that the resemblance to Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 isn’t entirely coincidental. Meanwhile, the bit where the previously cowardly Jimmy lights up a torch and begins burning up bats while screaming "You want some of this? Come on!" is a carbon copy of Hudson’s last stand in Aliens, down to the identical lines of dialog. Unfortunately, though, Jimmy survives to further annoy us with his vapid quipery. You know, if James Cameron had a buck for every time one of the Terminator movies or Aliens was ripped-off, he’d be able to finance a sequel to Titanic out of his own pocket.
So the bats besiege the building, and begin -- I swear -- chewing their way through the steel chain link fencing. Kimsey punches out McCabe so as to render him helpless. Of course, you can only punch someone into unconsciousness on command like this in the movies. Wouldn’t it be easier, and safer for that matter, to just tie him up? The Heroes' next brilliant maneuver is to open fire with pistols upon the zillions of bats swarming the chain link. Of course, given the thousands or even millions of bats on hand, this seems rather pointless. Actually, that’s not true. The most likely result would be to blow holes in their protective fencing and allow the bats easier entrance into their fortress.
Amazingly, our protagonists run out of bullets before running out of bats. Do they run for the school’s emergency generator, so as to start it and electrify the fencing? (Actually, wouldn’t an the electrical current set the wooden boards they used to hold the chain link in place on fire?) No, first Sheila runs to the wall and grabs that all purpose Sci-fi movie defensive weapon, the fire extinguisher. This proves about as effective as you’d imagine. Jimmy, meanwhile, does his impression of Hudson's Last Stand Finally, Kimsey decides to go for the generator. Of course, this ‘dramatically’ doesn’t want to start, and only does so at the very last second. And so the scene progresses, with the quick cuts and trademark skewed camera angles making everything hard to follow. In perhaps the single cheesiest shot of the film, a mechanical flapping bat is mounted to the front of the camera as it chases Jimmy and Sheila down a hallway. The effect is so obviously bogus that you can only laugh in delight. The bat finally attacks Jimmy, but due to the Hero’s Death Battle Exemption™, it only attacks his arm. This is quite provident, as every other bats seem to go directly for the victim’s jugular. Sheila gets the bat off of him and stomps it to death, which again seems to take a surprising amount of time and effort.
Meanwhile, the unsecured McCabe is shown rousing himself, so as to perform further mischief, no doubt. Here the generator finally kicks in, sending huge plumes of sparks (?!) cascading from all the fencing. McCabe, however, has escaped in the confusion. Deactivating the fencing around a side door in a manner sure to get him fried in real life, he runs outside. Here he is met by his two super-bats. The others, being heroes and all, try to get McCabe to return to safety. Needless to say, he ignores them, and then *yawn* pays for his arrogance with the ultimate price. Gee, didn’t see that coming. Their plot function in this scene completed, the bats take off.
Our Heroes drive out to the mine in the morning. Here we see the aftermath of the attack on the army unit. (Where’s the rest of their forces? Weren’t they in contact with anybody?) This is a big Oh-the-Humanity! moment, perhaps meant to compensate for the fact that they couldn't afford to actually show the attack on the soldiers. Conveniently, though, the cooling unit had been lowered into the mine before they bought it. It just needs to be turned on. (I guess a timer or remote turn-on switch would have been too logical.) Furthermore, the sole entrance to the mine has been fortuitously lined with explosives. Although, then couldn’t you just seal off the mine? Can bats dig their way our of a mountain? Also, can I ask a question that occurs to me in what seems to be a solid majority of these things? Which is, why are all the bodies utterly uneaten? Why do marauding animals bother to kill people if they don’t intend to eat them? This happens all the time.
Here they reintroduce the Time Element. Kimsey reaches some other soldiers -- who are doing what, exactly? -- on a radio and informs them that they intend to start up the cooling unit. Major Reid, however, warns that fighter jets with orders to "bomb and gas that mine" will reach their locale in exactly sixty-two minutes. For some reason, this won’t work. "If they bomb that mine, the bats will scatter," Sheila warns. I’m not sure how that would happen, what with the one entrance to the mine being presumably sealed off by the explosions, but whatever. Their course is clear: Sheila and Kimsey will have to enter the mine and complete their mission before the jets arrive. This is an extremely formulaic and moronic scene. Even understanding that the cooling unit is in place and waiting to be activated, Reid refuses to halt or even delay the air strike. This, of course, is because people in the military are always stubborn idiots in these things. Meanwhile, we’re to take it on faith that bombing the mine will cause the bats to escape, despite not being quite able to figure out exactly how this would work. Same thing for just sealing the mine entrance with the explosives already in place. Again, it’s hard to believe that even these bats could dig their way out from under tons of rock.
Montage time, again. Our heroes get power running to the mine. Jimmy gets the explosive controls set to go – good thing he’s a demolitions specialist, all of a sudden. Sheila and Kimsey suit up. Then Sheila and Jimmy have one of those pointless "If we don’t make it back, you know what you have to do" – "It’s not going to come to that, but yeah, I know what to do" exchanges. Yeah, right, like that’s going to happen. Here we get another bald Aliens rip-off, as Jimmy watches and listens to their progress over monitors hooked up to cameras on their helmets. I can only wonder if Cameron realized just how much he’d be aped in the decades after his films came out? Down in the mines, Sheila and Kimsey find an unexpected fork in the tunnel. Which way to go? Kimsey here brings all his detective skills to bear andthe points out the branch with all the animal bones in it. He theorizes that these are remains from the bats’ dinners, dropped along the way. Sheila congratulates him on this blazing insight. "Very good, sheriff. I’ll make you a chiropterologist [bat scientist] yet," she announces. Meanwhile, somewhere Encyclopedia Brown rolls his eyes in derision as he reaches for his copy of One-Minute Mysteries.
Next we get one of the film’s humor highlights, such as it is, when Our Heroes crash through the tunnel floor and land in a waist-high river of liquid guano. Pause here to make all the expected "ooh, yucky!" noises, and then we’ll move on. Meanwhile, in a bit that almost made me cough up my soda when I saw this in a theater, Kimsey lights a flare so as to provide illumination. (Despite the fact that they have spotlights attached to their helmets.) Now, I’m pretty dense, science-wise, but doesn’t guano give off methane gas? In which case our two protagonists should be flambéed right about now. We don’t get off that easy, though. Instead -- I guess it was lucky they fell though the floor like that -- the stream leads them a couple of yards into a cavern containing, I guess, a big mess of bats. At least our heroes make awed noises about how many there are. Lots, I guess, although it really doesn’t seem to be that many. Also lying before them is the refrigeration until. Good luck, what? Luckily, the device appears real easy to start. Unluckily, it also requires a key. They frantically begin to search the, again, remarkably unscathed bodies of the work crew.
As *cough* tension mounts, we wait for the inevitable bat attack. (Plus, the clock is still running.) After an exhaustive twenty-second search – really, I timed it – Kimsey finds the key. Sure enough, the unit starts working. Here finally the super-bats, which have been so unbelievably intelligent up to now, finally they begin to attack. Meanwhile, despite the fact that Jimmy less than five minutes ago said they had a half hour to get topside, he’s now saying they have seven minutes. Luckily those remaining seven minutes will take much longer to pass than the twenty-three minutes before them did.
The super-bats begin attacking in earnest. (Fortunately, the others continue to just hang around.) Cue wonky camera angles and annoying split-second editing. Watching two full-grown, healthy adults wrestle with the -- let’s be generous -- twenty-pound bats for minutes on end strains our credulity somewhat, especially as they are protected from harm by their suits. Then, in a ludicrous bit even for this movie, Kimsey’s bat manages to dislodge his helmet. I suppose the filmmakers thought we would forget the whole 'poisonous ammonia atmosphere' thing, but guess what, we haven’t. Even without worrying about the bat and his newly exposed head, Kimsey should be choking to death right now. Sheila, meanwhile, fends off her attacker by jamming a lit flare into it’s mug, resulting in mild burn marks. (Yeah, right.) Then, and I can’t believe they’re even trying to get away with this, Sheila, in a dark, ill-lit cave, wearing a fogged-up helmet and from a distance of maybe twenty yards, draws a pistol and put a number of bullets into the straining bat Kimsey’s holding mere inches from his face. Remember before when I marveled at Kimsey skeet-shooting the bats down from under that truck? Well, he’s got nothing on Annie Oakley here. Then a stray bullet hits something, the generator I guess, and a cartoon electric arc jumps out and hits the scalded bat (!) and it explodes. OK. Whatever.
Now sparks and stuff are leaping around the cave, resulting in flames and explosions and such. "We’ve got to get out of here!" Sheila yells. Good thing they brought her with! So she and Kimsey – still sans helmet – head back into the guano river. Kimsey, meanwhile, pauses to reclaim his pistol. We’ll see why in a minute. At this the "millions" of bats, which have hanging around in a docile fashion all this time, start off after them. Now follows a, well, several, laugh-out-loud moments. Splashing back down the guano trail, the duo mysteriously finds a ladder leading up to a hole in the ceiling. Where in hell did that come from? We sure didn’t see it as they approached the cave, and we can see about where they are in the tunnel by how deep the guano is. (Where they entered it was waist-high, here, it’s roughly ankle high.) Through the miracle of rewind, I can in fact confirm that such a ladder was not in evidence anywhere in the proceeding footage.
And again it’s quite noticeable that the bats are moving much more slowly than they should be. In fact, given the speed they are flying whenever they cut to them, they should have overcome our heroes literally twenty or thirty or, heck, a hundred times by now. Luckily, though, Sheila and Kimsey are able to take advantage of the Offscreen Teleportation rule, which allows them to magically get far ahead of the bats whenever they are not in the same shot together. This despite the fact that Kimsey keeps stopping so as to turn around and empty a clip of bullets into the established millions of bats (!!). Does he expect them to duck back behind some rocks until he stops firing? "Watch out!" one bat might warn the others. "The bastard got Rusty!"
Needless to say, they make it out of the cave and Jimmy sets off the explosive charges and they call off the fighter jets at just the last second! Whew! What a surprise! Huh? What’s that? Why, yes. Yes, Sheila and Kimsey do fly through the air in slow-motion as gigantic fireballs roll through the air mere feet behind them. Why do you ask? Meanwhile, the charges set off this simply humongous string of explosions, bringing half the hillside down. (Which is strange, as the lone mine entrance was supposedly the only thing that needed to be sealed.) Why this was preferable to the jets-firing-missiles thing only becomes more confusing at this point.
Still, let’s give credit where it’s due. The last segment shows a bat burrowing out of the ground. (Through how many tons of rock? And why hasn’t the cooling unit killed it?) However, just as it breaks free the heroes’ truck comes along and they unknowingly run it over and squash it. So they did have enough wit to make fun of those annoying ‘it’s not over yet’ endings. Uh, of course, since one bat almost escaped, others could too, I guess. So maybe it still functions as a ‘it’s not over yet’ ending. (If we’re spared a sequel, it’ll be due to the desultory box office returns. Still, given cable and video proceeds, and with a paltry six million dollar budget, it’s possible that the film did turn a profit, so…) Also, this last bit is clearly shown to be happening at dusk. Now, the heroes headed out to the caves at dawn. Then the mission took just over an hour, which we know because of the whole jet attack thing. So how could the heroes still be driving around the area they left eight or ten hours ago, at least? Ah well, one more stupidity for the road, barkeep.
-Review by Ken Begg