Another feature of...
Commentary Track Commentaries:
Bats with Director Louis Morneau and Lou Diamond Phillips
The first thing we notice is that director Morneau is prone to ‘ahhhhh’-ing and ‘uhmmm’-ing pauses in his sentences. These are so long they would embarrass William F. Buckley, Jr. Luckily, they become less prevalent as the commentary continues. The second thing is that he and Phillips, as with the film they are examining, seem to be having more fun here than we are.
Even knowing how films are actually shot, it’s always revealing to hear ‘backstage’ info. For instance, while the picture takes place in Texas, it was shot in Utah. The scene that introduces female lead Dr. Sheila Casper (Starship Trooper’s Dina Meyer) was, in fact, shot on the last day of filming. As well, the scene sports the only real life bats to be seen in the film. Both of them.
I know there are reasons why you’re unlikely to find such stuff on a commentary, but I really wish you’d hear some dirt on some of these things. Not who’s-sleeping-with-who dirt, but rather candid takes on co-workers, especially when they didn’t work out so well. Here, surprisingly, the commentators are full of praise for co-star Bob Gunton, who portrays the villainous Dr. McCabe in a rather over the top fashion. Of course, it’s quite possible that Gunton was merely giving Morneau what he wanted, and that the director doesn’t realize that the approach doesn’t at all work. (See my similar thoughts on the Holcroft Covenant Commentary piece.) In a film that seems to lack a single satirical bone, Gunton’s overtly sinister and twitchy Mad Scientist serves only to draw apparently unsought audience laughter. Again, I’m not blaming the actor, but the performance is seriously off-base for this movie.
Speaking of not getting it, Morneau relates how he kept the camera moving during the autopsy scene to keep the scene lively. Well, duh. As I mentioned in my general review, this roughly two-minute sequence contains fifty edits. His use of this technique during simple expository scenes would seem to indicate a lack of faith in the material. Yet Morneau utterly fails to realize this. He still talks of how the roving camera adds to the "suspense" of the scene. Well, guess what. There is no suspense in the scene. It’s there purely to show the characters beginning to realize what’s going on. Save the suspense for the bits where something, well, suspenseful is happening.
An interesting anecdote concerning low budget filmmaking is recalled during discussion of a rain delay. (Phillips maintains that he’s never worked on a picture that had more weather-related problems.) Scheduled to shoot a scene out in a field, a torrential downpour forced the production inside. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a back-up location scouted. However, a nearby town’s community center had been examined for one of Morneau’s previous movies. Viewing a suitable empty room through a window, they called the town mayor who came by and let them inside. Then, as the set dressers spent forty-five minutes creating a set from scratch, Morneau rehearsed the actors outside in the pouring rain. Once the set was ready, the actors came in, dried off, and shot the scene. This kept them from losing an entire day of shooting.
Then it’s back to the ludicrous over-praising thing. Morneau and Phillips start riffing on co-star Dina Meyer. They begin by talking about how attractive she is, which is certainly true. But then Phillips goes on to suggest that her performance here recalls such feminine action icons as Sigorney Weaver in Aliens and Linda Hamilton in Terminator. This is wishful thinking taken to an extreme. Maybe if James Cameron had shot this film, Meyer would have hit such heights. Maybe.
Here, though, definitely not. Morneau’s directorial technique doesn’t allow for much thespian nuance. With the camera seldom standing still, it’s difficult to concentrate on what the actors are doing. Which is why only Gunton’s exaggerated, tick-ridden performance really registers here. I’m not saying that the other actors in this film are bad, because they’re not. (Although Leon as Jimmy comes close. Still, the part as written is so awful that I hesitate to lay the blame at his doorstep.) However, the performers seldom rise above adequate. Which, again, might be the best one could do under the circumstances. Even an actor like Anthony Hopkins couldn’t cut his way past Francis Ford Coppola’s intrusive directorial style in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. So, really, what can one expect from Lou Diamond Phillips and Dina Meyer under similar circumstances?
During the "Bronco Attack" sequence, where the leads are besieged in a truck, Phillips and Morneau talk about working with the animatronic bats. They maintain that seeing how creepy the props appeared during the shoot was what first convinced them that this film was really going to be scary. I must admit to feeling vaguely embarrassed on their behalf here, because I don’t think many people found the film to be at all frightening. I suppose kids who’ve never seen a really effective movie like Jaws or The Birds in a theater might have been marginally spooked. Even so, I can’t imagine anyone really being frightened by the film. Also, no matter what the puppet bats looked like on set, onscreen they look quite phony. (To be fair, the CGI bats often look pretty good. However, they constantly have to play rather obvious camera tricks to explain how the bats are failing to catch up with the heroes, which reduces even their effectiveness.)
As we approach the film’s big set piece, the mass attack on the town of Gallup, a number of smaller attacks are spotlighted. Morneau notes that they were added later, which when I thought about it made sense. These small singular attacks don’t really mesh that well with the sudden all-out assault that follows, although it took a number of viewings for this to become really noticeable.
Rather than being a credit to the film’s skill, however, this may partly be because the film’s time elements are rather incoherent. The Gallup attack, for example, starts well before midnight. Yet what seems like an hour later we’re watching the sun come up. Then at the end of the movie, the heroes destroy the bats’ roost before, presumably, noon. They then leave to head home but are shown still driving around the area at dusk. And so on.
Despite their essential incongruity, the producer thought that individual spotlighted attacks would add some frisson. This is fine, as far as it goes. Still, what is one to make of Phillip’s next comment? "This is the sequence," he opines, "I think that a lot of people will point to and say ‘This is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds.’" I frankly find it difficult to believe that many viewers would make such an assessment, unless the word ‘reminiscent’ is being used as a polite euphemism for ‘blatantly ripping-off.’ Even more oddly, after using the scene to compare the movie to The Birds, Phillip’s following comment seems to directly contradict that idea. "I think this [sequence] makes it very much your [Morneau’s] film, and original to our movie." Huh?
Next up is one of the film’s more ludicrous moments. A diner patron is eating at the counter, unaware that a terrier-sized bat is creeping towards him until well after it would have entered his peripheral vision. Then he’s attacked and noisily struggles with it, all without alerting the kid playing a video game maybe ten feet away. While watching the guy pretend to fight the bat, Phillips makes one of his more insightful comments. He recalls thinking of the scene in Ed Wood where they recreate the filming of Bride of the Monster. Martin Landau portrays Bela Lugosi and is replicating Bela’s obviously contrived struggle with an inert giant rubber octopus. Flashing back on this, Phillips remembers thinking in astonishment, "I’m a grown man!" whilst likewise attempting to simulate a realistic skirmish with the film’s rubber bats. Sadly missing the point of the anecdote, Morneau laughs and recalls how the current tussle appeared on the set. "Oh, my God, that looks real," he remembers thinking at the time. Well. Too bad we all couldn’t have seen it on the set, then.
Next we get Morneau’s rather tortured explanation of why he never considered the film to be a rip-off of The Birds. He also describes shots that look, shall we say, familiar as being intended as -- of course -- ‘homages’ to that film. One can only compare this unfavorably to Joe Dante’s candid admission that his film Piranha was an obvious Jaws knock-off. Of course, Dante was commenting on a film made twenty years earlier, and in the wake of a successful directorial career. One wonders whether Morneau’s comments here would be the same were he looking back at the film decades later.
After the attack sequence we get an especially clueless piece of commentary. Phillips starts commending Morneau for the fact that the film boasted what could have been "stock characters." Instead, he opines, "you gave us enough license to create original characters." This in a film that my colleague Liz at the And You Call Yourself A Scientist! site declared to be perhaps the single most predictable film she’s ever seen. Moreover, the statement accompanies footage of Phillips’ sheriff tearfully standing over the body of his slain deputy, hardly an "original" character moment. "There are other films I’ve seen in the genre," Phillips continues, "where unfortunately I think the characters are a bit interchangeable." Luckily, he maintains, Morneau "allowed us to be real individuals in this." One wonders of whom he’s speaking. The tough-yet-sensitive sheriff? The beauteous female scientist? The jive-talkin’ black sidekick? The Mad Scientist with a secret agenda? The Evil Gov’ment SpOOk behind it all?
Recalling this thread, we eventually arrive at the movie’s big "character" moment. This revolves around the tough sheriff (guffaw, guffaw) starting up an opera record as the main four characters barricade the building they’re headquartered in. Because this is considered so strange (because he’s a sheriff in Texas for heaven’s sake!!), the rest of the characters are shown reacting with exaggerated gawking amazement. Sure enough, Phillips now returns to his earlier theme. "Again, one of the things that really attracted me to the character," he explains, "was that you thought you knew the guy…and then the more you got to know him, there was this facet of the character, you know, the opera and his sense of humor." Yeah, a hero with a sense of humor. Wow. What’ll they think of next? Meanwhile, the opera thing is such an obvious and artificial bit of ‘characterization’ that you can only roll your eyes. I mean, is it really that strange?
Another odd and inadvertently amusing story revolves around Leon (no last name), who plays Jimmy, the black sidekick. Following venerable method acting tradition, he apparently demanded to be called ‘Jimmy’ during the shoot. Now, Leon has some solid acting credits, according to the "talent file" provided on the disc. First of all, he’s appeared in a number of films. More impressively, though, he’s been on the acclaimed HBO cable series Oz and was nominated for an Emmy as Lead Actor in a TV Movie for The Temptations. So it’s quite possible that he’s a fairly talented actor, this film notwithstanding. Still, it’s a point against you when you do that ‘one name’ thing. (What’s next? "The Artist Formally Known as Leon"?) And doing the method thing on a film like this, and with a part like this, seems somewhat pompous. I know you’re not supposed to say this, but sometimes you don’t really have to bring your ‘all’ to a part.
I also like (in my own warped way) how they "motivate," as Morneau says, the attack on the electrical pole that precedes the siege on their headquarters. "[I]n the early screening, people thought [the bats] were just sort of bumping into [the pole], so we added Lou’s line of ‘They’re taking out the power!,’ that it was intentional." Morneau seems unaware of two problems. First, the line comes off as a blatant steal from Aliens, wherein a similar exclamation leads to Hudson’s classic rejoinder, "Cutting the power?! But they’re just animals!" Second, even in hindsight, Morneau doesn’t seem to realize that Phillips couldn’t possible tell what the bats are doing because he wouldn’t be able to see them from inside of the building. Unfortunately, we in the audience tended to be a bit more astute.
As the commentary continues, we realize how lucky it is that Phillips decided to join Morneau on the track. He does most of the talking, keeping things moving along, if less than completely engrossing. The director, meanwhile, is often reduced to laughing at an anecdote and saying, "Rii-iight." Still, it’s somewhat disconcerting to hear of how hard they worked to make the movie as good as they could. Despite the fact that their efforts failed (and they don’t realize this to be the case), they really seem to have given it their best. Phillips, especially, is poignant as he describes what he attempted to bring his rather prosaic role. And, again, he’s at least solid in the part, if unspectacular. If Morneau had done as well, the film would have at least been fairly decent.
We end with a half-joking Phillips wondering when he’ll
receive the script for the sequel. All I can tell you, Lou, is if you make
it, I’ll be waiting, cash in hand.
Ah, to find the holy grail, a DVD commentary track that would admit a Bad Movie has been produced and candidly examine what went awry. Sadly, the search goes on. Still, those interested in the amount of work and adaptability required to make a low-budget movie will find some meat here.
-by Ken Begg