D: Louis Morneau; with James Sie, Bob Gunton, Dina Meyer, Lou Diamond Phillips, Carlos Jacott, Leon. (PG-13, 90 min.)
If there's one thing Austinites know, it's that the bat is a cute little sucker whose most annoying trait is his mountainous guano output. For this reason alone, Bats is likely to die an unnoticed death at the local box office. Precious few Cap City residents are likely to flock to the multiplex to catch what is essentially a bat-oriented remake of Hitchcock's The Birds, done with ham-handed solemnity and all the subtle nuance of a gushing jugular. Granted, the bat/vampire crossover audience might find something here, but only, I think, if they're tremendously bored and Nightman isn't on the WB that night. Set in the fictional West Texas town of Gallup (isn't that New Mexico?), Morneau's film begins with an obligatory slaughter scene in which a pair of randy teens are gutted by oversized flying foxes while debating the pros and cons of necking. Cut to wildlife zoologist Sheila Casper (Meyer) and her field assistant Jimmy (Leon, [very] late of Madonna's Like a Prayer video) who are called away from mapping a bat cave to assist the CDC in tracking down a new species of killer bat genetically engineered by mad scientist Dr. McCabe (Gunton). The bats, it seems, have escaped and begun to mingle with the local West Texas populace of Mexican Freetails, creating a sort of eugenically pure strain of nationalistic über-fledermaus. Scary, I know. As things turn out, McCabe and the military-industrial complex are in bed on this one, having teamed up to engineer these bizarre warrior bats for use as a biological weapon of sorts. This is the kind of thing we get when we let species like the carrier pigeon die off, I guess. Phillips, as the town's sheriff, takes to wielding a Colt .45 (the sidearm, not the malt beverage, though frankly, I wouldn't be surprised) to knock those swooping suckers out of the air, but to no avail. With a PG-13 rating, it's all in good fun, I suppose, but the bottom line with Bats is that it's relentlessly bad in a way that just makes those theatre seats plain uncomfortable. Morneau's direction is admirably fast-paced, but even at a light 90 minutes the film drags, chiefly because outside of the occasional bat attack, there's not much else going on. Echoes of such classic nature-run-amok films as Them! are apparent, but even these weak homages flit by mostly unnoticed. Morneau shoots all his violent sequences by using a Panaflex attached to some sort of spasm-rig, which results in a wildly shaky image that blurs the action and presumably saves on the genuinely shoddy prosthetic effects (courtesy of Greg Nicotero of KNB Effects -- usually a reputable gore-slinging outfit). Phillips, Meyer, and the clearly deranged, eye-rolling Gunton admirably attempt to claw their way past some wretched, clichéd dialogue and characterizations but it appears to be a lost cause. Given the choice between Arthur Hiller's 1979 bad-bats-bite-back vehicle, Nightwing, and this disaster, I'm going to have to side with the former, if only because good old Strother Martin provided at least a lick of goofball humor to the proceedings. Bats? Bad.
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