Bats

Don’t shoot the beef jerky!
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1999
Director: 
Louis Morneau
Starring: 
Lou Diamond Phillips, Dina Meyer, Bob Gunton, Leon
The Setup: 
Genetically-engineered super-bats attack Texas town.
Discussion: 

There’s little that can bring joy to the heart like killer mutant animals, something I realized anew when facing the prospect of watching Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, and decided instead I’d better make a move to avert that fate by buying this used DVD for $5. Now I own it, and I never want to watch it again!

We open in Gallup, Texas [is this where the Gallup Poll comes from?] with a young couple parking in the remote plains to have some relationship talk. The guy hears something, there’s an attempt at suspense, then both kids are attacked. We see at once that these are some serious bats, capable of propelling a man forward through the windshield with blood flying everywhere. Holy Bat-Strength, Batman!

Meanwhile, in Arizona, Dina Meyer, the totally tedious chick from Starship Troopers, is one of those supermodel bat-ologists exploring a cave for some reason, her wacky black sidekick outside. They make the most painfully poorly-written banter while something flies at them from outside. What is it? Killer bats? An ozone cloud? The International Space Station? No, it’s a helicopter containing Chester Imadork [not his real name] who whisks Dina, her name is Sheila, off to Texas to assess the impending batocalypse.

There she meets Lou Diamond Phillips as, well, we’ll just call him Lou. I mean—like it matters, right? They have acrimonious banter as required by the intergovernmental dialogue arc treaty of 1973, then go examine the bodies. We see that the bats go for the jugular, eyes, and have eaten this fellow’s chest cavity. I was a little surprised at the gore, but then I recalled that I was watching the R-rated director’s cut. I suspect this one shot is the sole difference between this and the theatrical version. Anyway, we find out that some scientist, also on hand, created the bats and they escaped from his lab. He made them smarter, omnivorous [otherwise they’d only be interested in fruits and vegetables, although for omnivorous creatures we never see them attacking dumpsters or grain silos]. He also enhanced their sense of community, surely by showing them reruns of The Electric Company. But upon hearing that they have come together as a mutant community, the black guys says “Yeah, we could all use a little more of that!” Right on, brother! Fight the power! Now why, you ask, did the scientist create these killer genetically-modified super-bats? “I’m a scientist, that’s what I do.” Oh! Well I guess all those dudes working on stem cells are really barking up the wrong tree.

Then Lou and Dina are parked outside the cave at dusk, and find their truck suddenly surrounded by the bats. We see some of them up close and—they’re puppets! And come on, you gotta love any movie that’s using puppets. The bats crawl up the exhaust pipe and, my favorite, pop out through the air-conditioning vents! That got a big laugh out of me when I saw this at the theater. Yes, I saw this at the theater.

In here Dina has informed us that she used to be afraid of bats, then her dad took her out one day and showed her a bunch of them and what cute little munchkins they are. Surely it would reveal more about me than the movie if I were to reveal to you what my first thought was upon hearing Dina say “Then he asked me if I wanted to hold it.” Anyway, the deputy shows up in another car—please note that the black sidekick suggests that they just leave his close buddy Dina there to die. Hey, what was that you said about community?—and the bats fly at the windshield if the police car in a symbolic show of power. You know, these ARE super-intelligent bats if you think about the concept-based thinking that goes into organizing a non-verbal STATEMENT. Oh, and these bats’ eyes DO indeed light up like the famous cartoon cliché where a dark cave suddenly fills with the glowing eyes of many creatures.

In here Dina captures a bat and puts a tracking sensor on it, but two other bats, being set up as the leaders [before the whole idea is summarily dropped] kill it rather than have it reveal the location of the roost. Now, the thing is that these bats’ intelligence, omnivorousness and sense of community is transmitted via VIRUS [let’s not go too deeply into the “science” behind this] and their nastiness is being spread throughout the entire bat community! This does indeed provoke the old line about playing God and “millions of years of evolution.” Curse man’s hubris!

Okay, this just in! The annoying, poorly-written black sidekick in this movie was the guy Madonna freed in the Like a Prayer video! His name is LEON. That's it, just: LEON.

Okay, so it's time for the major attack on the town! First they order the town to be evacuated, but no one listens. Why? Cuz they're TEXANS! They ain't a'gonna listen to no know-nothing scientists about no giant killer bats! Probably just a black plastic bag got caught in the wires out by the old Wlkins' place! Amazingly, the one cliché this movie does NOT contain is the mayor or whoever saying that they can't evacuate the town because they're counting on all the tourists for the rhubarb festival or whatever. So the brainy, headstrong Texans are just a'strollin' through town where the one theater in town is showing a revival of Nosferatu—which I think is supposed to be some sort of joke. That isn't funny. Then the bats attack. There are several things to say about this. One is that the movie makes the interesting decision to have a number of different types of special effects—and widely varying levels of quality—and jumble them all together through really quick edits. So you'll have some CGI bats, then cut to puppets, then cut to pieces of cut-up construction paper [I'm serious], back to CGI…. With the idea being that the CGI effects will elevate the whole thing and make you not notice the really shoddy effects, while also stretching the CGI budget. As an idea, it's admirable and inventive, but the effect is not necessarily all that successful. It's a little confusing and distracting, because it makes you start to pay close attention to the mechanics of the special effects and not get very involved in the story. Especially because the effects vary from pretty decent CGI to something that wouldn't be out of place in a Bela Legosi film of sixty years prior. You'll also notice that the attacks contain a fair amount of distorted-lens shots. At one point Dina is in the convenience store with a bat and, well, let's just say there was one part that had me saying "Well don't waste all your bullets on the beef jerky!" Their guns rarely seem to run out of ammo, and one can't help but notice that Lou is QUITE adept at picking bats out in mid-air. Which, if you've ever seen a bat fly in real life, is really quite remarkable. Then Dina gets trapped in the glass-enclosed ticket booth for the theater and that gets surrounded by bats in an explicit homage to The Birds. You can just hear Hitchcock in the grave shouting "Thanks, but I don't need your SHITTY film's SHITTY homage!" The distorted lens and the way the camera circles around Dina in there make it seem as though she's having some sort of psychological trauma—I thought we were going to have some flashbacks to when her daddy let her touch it and she came home and mom was gone and there was a fresh pile of dirt in the backyard and a wedding dress laid out on her bed—but no, it's just shabby filmmaking. Anyway, eventually the bats just decide they've eaten enough Texans [they say Texans are tough] and head off for no reason.

SPOILERS, I SUPPOSE > > >
So the next day they hear that the military is on its way to blow up the whole town, which Dina thinks would be, like, totally wrong, not for the cost to human life, but because it would scatter the bats and they would go on to sire new bat-ettes all over the country and all of North America could be a bat-disaster zone! So they hole up in this school [I don't really know why] and one of them says "We'd better get this place secured before nightfall!" and then Lou puts on a opera album and they stand around talking and flirting and you're like "Uh, I thought you had to get the place secured?" They finally get down to it, accomplishing several day's worth of work in just about an hour [by working TOGETHER!], outfitting the school like a fortress while also setting up a pretty handy little science lab. During this time Dina has the genius idea: they could simply FREEZE the bat's roost! In the middle of the Texas desert, yeah. They also need to freeze every single one of the bats, or the virus will just continue to spread. During this time we have several shots of the scientist shifting suspiciously, until he finally confesses his full guilt, saying "I designed them to be perfect killing machines," to which the black sidekick responds "WHAT?!" But that's what he does; he's a scientist. No wonder HIV is taking so long to cure, if every scientist is spending all their time trying to develop the perfect killing machine for use as a military weapon. And with all these scientists working on the same thing, maybe they could have some kind of contest? Anyway, turns out they've turned the entire school building into a giant bug zapper, which was like the one cool idea here. Then the mad scientist goes outside and, well, let's just say this time, it's personal. Maybe that's what the two bats who are always hanging out together were all about; we're supposed to understand that these were the two original bats that the scientist tortured. We TOTALLY should have had a flashback—a bat's-perspective flashback—of the horrible experiments that made them so angry. If they really wanted it to be hot they could make like the two bats are married and we could have shots of one getting tortured while the other goes "Skree! Skree!" Then we would TOTALLY need a shot of tears running down one bat's face as the other has passed out from pain or whatnot. You see how much better movies would be if I made them.

So then you're like "Whew, it's over!" but the filmmakers aren't ready to let you go that easily. The airstrike is on the way! They're going to blow the place up, but Dina and her faithful Sheriff are going to go in the cave and try to work the air conditioner that will freeze the bats—which has conveniently been delivered directly into the very epicenter of the bat-cave. This requires Dina and Lou to put on spacesuits and wade through shoulder-high guano—although I've always seen guano on nature shows as being much more solid. Maybe all that genetic engineering gave these bats the trots—and they turn on the giant air-conditioner. Then the bats' eyes start to glow again, and they all fly and Dina and Lou. Please try not to think [at all] about the plausibility of Dina and Lou outrunning the swarm of flying bats, which they do. Then Lou stops to turn around and shoot single shots at the swarm of hundreds of bats and you, the viewer, are like "You IDIOT! Exactly how useful do you think that is going to be?" But wait, a few seconds later he does the same thing AGAIN! What a fucking moron. Maybe that ostentatious love of opera is a skill he learned to divert attention away from his seriously low IQ. Anyway, they get out just in time and the entire place blows up, trapping every single bat inside! Not a ONE escaped. A few seconds later the military have "satellite confirmation" and you're like "Of WHAT?!" It's just ludicrous. Next time I want to persuade someone of something they don't believe I'm just going to pull a scrap of paper out of my back pocket and say "I've just received SATELLITE CONFIRMATION!" So they call off the firebombing. Oh, by the way, the stock footage that represents the impending fighter jet attack is recycled from Iron Eagle II.
< < < SPOILERS END

It's not the world's best killer mutant animal attack movie, but it'll do in a pinch—like, say when your other movie prospect is Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. It walks the line between knowing cheese and straightforward cheese, never dipping its toe too far over in either direction. Personally, I would prefer that it try to be as scary as possible, and let any cheese be unintentional, but you know, the thought just hit me: maybe it was trying to be. Nah. This should be a lot more Deep Blue Sea and a lot less Grizzly. Actually it could be a LOT more Grizzly, but that would mean it would have to be made 25 years earlier. There WAS an old killer bat movie back then, called Nightwing. I wonder whatever happened to that one [It's not on DVD and a used VHS is $50]. By the way, the director of this cinematic gem also directed Carniosaur II and is currently at work on a direct-to-video sequel to Joy Ride.

Should you watch it: 

The question YOU need to ask yourself is: How desperate are you for killer mutant animal action? This certainly could be a lot better, but it could be a lot worse, too. It's at least pretty fun. Drink and friends will enliven your experience.

Comments

For some reason Dina Meyer has become, like, the go-to player for roles that are "chick who is attractive but not SO attractive that her apparent physical ability and mental competence at completely implausible". Which usually means that she's either the spunky broad scientist or the tough second-in-command who gets eaten by monsters to show the audience that this is some serious business going on.

Like in Starship Troopers, where she's the kind-of-attractive-but-no-Denise-Richards best friend who's in love with the hero who doesn't love her so she nobly dies to show that she was a "great gal but yeah, glad I dodn't end up with her" kind of thing.