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BATS (1999)

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Bats

Reviewed by Ken Begg of
Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension

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Interminable Background Detail:
Sigh. 1999 seemed such a promising year for animals-run-amok fans. The dividends of 1997’s modestly successful Anaconda were hitting the screen. Summer alone promised us flicks featuring giant sharks and huge crocodiles. Unfortunately, both of these pictures proved disappointing, even by the humble standards set by Anaconda. Deep Blue Sea was annoying stupid for a $75,000,000 film. Cripes, guys, hire a high school student for ten bucks an hour. Then give him a pen and tell him to go through the script circling the more egregiously stupid parts. Believe me, it’ll be a worthwhile investment.

Lake Placid, meanwhile, was a David "Ally McBeal" E. Kelly flick intended to be a comic/horror/character piece. Unfortunately, being ‘quirky’ doesn’t necessarily amount to being a decently written character, as Bats’ infamous ‘opera’ scene more than illustrates. Moreover, the film suffered from a facile New Age-styled Environmental Awareness, meaning that the heroes ultimately felt that the killer croc had to be saved rather than killed. Having the leads concerned about not harming the monster sucks a lot of juice out of your horror flick. How much danger can they be in if they’re farting around like that? On the other hand, it does set up a sequel in a rather lazy and obvious fashion. Not that I’ll be holding my breath waiting for Lake Placid II to come out.

Worse, after all the annoying hand wringing over how to capture the man-eating beast without injuring it, the filmmakers cheat on the issue. So they not only (further) mess up a (potentially) good monster movie, but they lack the courage of their convictions. Then the supposedly audience-pleasing monster-killing scene they do provide is so poorly shot that you barely get what’s happening. In any case, the climax functions like your standard ‘Lethal Weapon’ ending. This is your standard bit wherein the hero proves his moral superiority by refusing to kill the villain, but then ends up being forced to at the last minute.

So with the promise of summer unfulfilled, we headed mournfully into autumn. Even then, however, some shred of optimism remained. While the immediate past had provided only frustration, there was still the upcoming Halloween release of Bats. Almost inevitably, this low-budget flick proved the worst of the lot. Which, however, was to its credit, at least for that certain elite segment of the population to which the B-Masters Cabal caters. While hardly of classic quality, this was easily the worst film to actually make it onto theater screens in quite some time. As such it’s quickly attracted much notice, already being reviewed not only here but at Badmovies.org, Opposable Thumbs Reviews and Jabootu.

Our Feature Presentation:

Right off the bat (har har) you know you’re in for trouble. First, killer bats haven’t been the focus of a motion picture since 1978’s none-too-fondly remembered Nightwing. Meanwhile, the last time Lou Diamond Phillips starred in a horror movie it was the cretinous Nightmare on Elm Street wannabe The First Power. As well, distaff lead Dina Meyer seems to be racking up an impressive list of failed (critically and/or financially) efforts, including Bats, Starship Troopers and UPN’s mediocre spy series Secret Agent Man. Not to mention her screen debut in Jabootu subject Johnny Mnemonic. Nor does the picture’s opening sequence inspire much confidence. This scene involves, that’s right, two youngsters who drive to a secluded locale for a little sparking but end up being horribly slain. Where do they get their ideas?

As the film, well, progresses, I guess, is technically the right word, our fears prove well founded. First, the script, like Frankenstein’s Monster, is awkwardly constructed from pieces harvested from others. To continue the analogy, the stitching is obvious on both as well. Amongst the pictures ‘quoted’ here are Jaws, in the movie’s entirely useless autopsy scene. Such sequences are so much a constant now that I’ve nicknamed them the "This Is No Boating Accident!" scenes. Further elements are borrowed wholesale from, none too surprisingly, The Birds and Aliens. And although I’m sure they’re inadvertent, the film contains numerous bits reminiscent of the kitsch killer bee epic The Swarm.

Meanwhile, we have the standard mix-n-match main characters: There’s the Beauteous Female Scientist. The ruggedly macho but still sensitive hero. The heroine’s wise-cracking black sidekick, who is here provided with the worst array of ‘quips’ in recent memory. Then there’s the goofiest Mad Scientist character I can recall for some time. When he baldly states that he created the monstrous killer bats because "We’re scientists…that’s what we do," you’ll about fall out of your chair. Especially since the character, despite an exaggeratedly hammy performance by Bob "Patch Adams" Gunton, is portrayed by the filmmakers in an entirely straight fashion. All the guy lacks is a mustache to swirl and a railroad track to tie the female lead to.

For me, however, the film’s biggest problem is the hyperkinetic work of director Louis Morneau. This worthy apparently suffered from a deeply rooted fear that if we could see what’s happening we’d figure out how stupid the movie is and stop watching it. He therefore instructs the camera to constantly dolly and pan and track and whatever else he can think of, usually while quick-cutting and skewing the image. In the aforementioned autopsy scene, a simple exposition sequence, they employ fifty different edits in a bit lasting just over two minutes. None of which suggests that Morneau had much faith in either his actors or his script.

Ultimately, Bats is on par with the plethora of ‘70s environmentally oriented animal-attack flicks: Kingdom of the Spiders, Rattlers, Day of the Animals, Frogs, etc. Unfortunately, we are denied the presence of the William Shatners, Leslie Nielsens, and Ray Millands that helped make those films so amusing. While the acting here is mostly serviceable, Lou Diamond Phillips just can’t summon the gusto that such veteran hambones guaranteed. Meanwhile, plot elements that were corny twenty years ago are downright decrepit today. Watch how awkwardly the ‘Evil Government Experiment’ sub-plot is shoehorned into the film’s final twenty minutes.

How The Disc Looks:

As you’d expect with a recent film on DVD, the picture quality is quite sharp. This, however, can sometimes be a bit of a drawback. The foam rubber rod puppets used to ‘realize’ the titular menace look all the more patently bogus due to the crystal clarity of the image. On the other hand, the CGI effects for swarming sequences are often pretty good.

How The Disc Sounds:

The choices include Dolby Surround and Dolby Digital sound. Maybe that means something to you. As for me, the disc sounded fine. Oddly, although the film is in English, only English subtitles are provided. While I find this great for reviewing purposes, I’m not sure as to it’s overall utility in other circumstances. I mean, you’d think deaf people would have enough problems without wasting their time with stuff like this.

EXTRA, EXTRA:

This is where things get interesting. Admittedly, the film is pretty awful. Nor does it wear well, especially given the directorial flourishes that grew more bothersome with each viewing. Still and all, for those interested in the mechanics of low-budget filmmaking, especially of the horror/sci-fi variety, the disc provides some real gems in its supplementary material.

First, just to get the topic out of the way, the disc’s version of the film sports an ‘R’ rating, as opposed to the PG-13 of the theatrical cut. Well, I saw the theater cut twice, and have examined the DVD version at length, and cannot tell the difference. I suspect the only change is a slightly more explicit look at a ravaged corpse prop in the This Was No Boating Accident! Scene. In any case, there’s no noticeable difference in the rather mild amount of gore on display. Those looking for a bit of distracting T&A will be similarly disappointed, as there’s none to be found here. From that standpoint, the film is almost sweetly old-fashioned.

On the DVD menus themselves, there’s a silly cartoon bat that flies at the camera each time you choose an option. While thankfully brief, if you’re intent on running through all the possible selections it can become a tad wearisome.

One extra I just couldn’t imagine using was the isolated music track. In other words, you can watch the film with only the musical score playing, devoid of sound effects and dialog. (Hmm, on the other hand, this may be the best way to watch this particular movie). Such music tracks might work with, say, The Matrix, where some of the phenomenal action sequences gain additional power from being backed solely by music. Here, well, first, the score ain’t that great, and second, neither are the visuals. I suppose someone out there might be interested enough in this sort of thing to sit through the entire film in this manner, but it’s not me. Still and all, it never hurts to toss something else on the disc, so thanks anyway. D.

There’s also a five and a half minute ‘making of’ documentary called Bats Abound. It looks like something meant to play on cable movie channels when they’re between films. It starts with a montage that fully indicates the lame quality of the movie as a whole, followed by an interview snippet with Louis Morneau. Is it just me, or do you get a bad feeling when a director tosses around hackneyed phrases like wanting to create "a visceral experience, where you’re sort of in the actor’s mind"? Thrill to penetrating insights like, "This is sort of The Birds, but with bats." Laugh out loud when star Lou Diamond Phillips explains that the showcase attack on the town of Gallup, Texas was "a direct homage [pronounced in the French fashion, of course] to the town being destroyed in The Birds." Oh, yee-ah…now I get it. (I still think it’s more like Marysville being attacked in The Swarm, but, hey, you say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to.)

Hambone thesp Bob Gunton appears to provide a frighteningly dead-on Paul Lynde impression. Later, they all but come out and explain how his character is the villain of the piece, which would be annoying if it weren’t so obvious in the movie itself. Then we meet co-star ‘Leon’ – one name, like Cher or Madonna – who played Jimmy, the black sidekick guy. He offers such thought provoking tidbits as "It’s the fear of the unknown. We don’t know much about bats." Back to Phillips, who explains that he based his sheriff character on his father, a no-nonsense rugged Texas dude. I have to admit, hearing this made me less inclined to make fun of his acting in this picture. And, in fact, the comment makes sense, as Phillips often comes off like a kid parading around in his father’s too-big hat and shoes and imitating the Old Man.

The pompousness continues. In a funny bit, Morneau explains to the presumably novice viewer the function of a comedy relief character, in this case Jimmy. "When you have this kind of suspense and tension," he postulates, "it’s good to have a character that can break that tension." First, well, duh. Thanks for taking us deep inside the mystic art of screenplay writing, my friend. Second, this theory works better when a) you in fact have "suspense and tension," and b) the comic relief character is, well, comic. Unfortunately, neither is true here.

We then learn that co-star Gunton is also unafraid to reveal some of the magician’s tricks: "The audience really wants to be transported to those really primal fears." Wow. It’s like, there’s the whole appeal of the horror film, right there. Thanks, Bob! Next Phillips appears and slightly steps on his own addition to this cavalcade of clichés when he promises the film will be "a ride." Uh, Lou, the line should be "a roller coaster ride." Thanks.

Documentary rating, based on laughs per minute: B+.

Next up are a couple of photo galleries. Wisely, these are set to advance when the viewer chooses, so as to allow you to view them at your own chosen pace. First is a selection of about ten bat design sketches by comic book icon Berni "The Swamp Thing" Wrightson. While it was an interesting idea to get him to design the bat puppets, especially for the two larger ‘super-bats,’ you can see what went awry here. While the sketches look nasty and menacing in two-dimensions, in three-dimensional foam rubber the bats look entirely goofy. Also interesting is how faithful the film is to the design sketches, even reproducing bodily stances and such. In any case, it’s neat to get such direct insight into what went wrong with the bats. The second batch is of design sketches used by NKB Effects to actually construct the puppets. These I didn’t find as interesting, but those with a head for engineering and mechanics might get more out of them. Grades: B for the first set, C for the second.

Now comes one of the more interesting features on the disc. We get two sets of Storyboard and SFX comparisons. The storyboard comparison consists of two small screens, one featuring the storyboards the filmmakers worked with, the second simultaneously showing the actual finished scene. The two fairly lengthy featured scenes are Phillips and Meyer trapped in a truck besieged by bats and also the assault on Gallup. Ultimately, we see that Morneau tends to deviate a great deal from his storyboards. An interesting bit was seeing that the in-joke movie playing at the town theater was storyboarded to be The Bat, starring "Price" and "Moorehead." In the actual film, they instead used Nosferatu.

The SPX comparisons follow the same format as the above, but one screen shows the scenes without the CGI bat inserts, the other after the effects were added. Here the two scenes are the truck attack, again, and the climatic scene in the mine where the bats roost. It certainly gives you a tad more respect for what actors go through when reacting to events that aren’t really occurring. It also helps you separate which effects were computer generated and which were accomplished by use of the traditional models and puppets. For those interested with the technical end of making this kind of thing, this is way cool stuff. The only caveat I have is that the comparison screens are fairly small even on my 36 inch TV. Those with a 27-inch or smaller screen may have trouble making the images out. Still, a solid A+.

Next up is an especially perfunctory set of ‘talent’ profiles. D.

The obligatory trailer is included, along with trailers for other horror films out on DVD. These include John Carpenter’s Vampires, Fright Night, the modernized remake of Night of the Living Dead and fan favorite The Tingler. Meanwhile, the Bats trailer succeeds in what it should be doing, which is to promise a better film than was actually delivered. (Which is more than you can say for the Bats Abound documentary.)

And, yes, there’s a commentary track, featuring director Morneau and Lou Diamond Phillips. This can be accessed through the ‘audio set-up’ menu, but not from the ‘special features’ menu. Or, of course, you can always use the Audio button on your DVD remote. A fuller discussion of their remarks can be found on our Jabootu Nuggets page. Suffice it to say that it’s quite OK, with insights into low budget filmmaking a definite plus. However, I still search in vain for a commentary for a Bad Movie wherein the participants admit that the film went awry and explain why it did so. Here, both gentlemen seem quite satisfied with their efforts, even if few others were. Still, there’s some interesting stuff here. If you don’t enjoy listening to a lot of these commentaries, however, stick with the Joe Dante/Jon Davison commentary for Piranha, the various Bruce Campbell/Sam Raimi tracts for the three Evil Dead movies and the John Carpenter/Kurt Russell track from The Thing DVD, newly re-released at a lowered price. These provide much more bang for your buck. B+.

In Toto:

A decent disc for Bad Movie fans, and those interested in the technical side of making a low budget horror movie. (Piranha and the Evil Dead discs, however, have better commentary tracks and other add-ons.) Still, unless you’re filling out your Lou Diamond Phillips collection, this seems to me more of a rental title than one you would buy.