Halloween is a holiday with many recognizable mascots ranging from Jack O’ Lanterns, to Ghosts, to Witches, and one common creature that gets just as much marketing around this time of year is a bat. We see them with Halloween decorations, their always on October wall-paper, bats are basically a staple of the holiday. You’d think they’d be the perfect creatures to revolve a horror movie around, but for some reason, they don’t have nearly as many monster movies as spiders, snakes or sharks do. Maybe because vampires are so popular, and regular everyday bats really aren’t as lethal as some fear them to be. Well, in 1999 we finally got a horror movie simply titled “Bats”, it didn’t involve supernatural bats or vampires, just plain old bats wreaking havoc where ever they go. It’s a concept with a lot of potential, but unfortunately, if you were to call this the modern day equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”, you’d be sourly mistaken.
Here’s our set up, the government is doing lab work on bats in an effort to transform them into ideal killing machines that can be used as weapons. But an evil doctor wants to control the bats himself, so he releases them, and they spread their disease to other bats across the country, thus conjuring a massive army of rapid killers. Unfortunately for the evil doctor, the bats are getting smarter, are no longer under his control, and begin to wreak havoc in a local town in Texas. With the diseased bats spreading like wild fire, and the death count building up, a local sheriff teams up with a female Zoologist that has an expertise on Bats. Together, they battle swarms of the winged beast and try their best to come up with a plan to stop them. Time isn’t on their side as the military plan on nuking the town, which would only cause the bats to migrate across North America, spreading their disease to even more bats and ultimately over throwing the human race. Sounds pretty extreme, but it’s never as epic or as scary as it should be.
I’ll say this, the movie gives you exactly what you’d expect, bats attack people, and there’s lots of it. Most movies of this sort would spend a lot of time with characters talking, and while there is some exposition in the opening, it’s mostly just a non-stop, action packed ride, with over the top bat attacks, explosions and carnage. That’s all good, but there’s a noticeable lack of suspense or scares throughout the whole film. Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” admittedly had a lot of boring conversations with characters that we didn’t care for, but it helped build up the suspense, and it made the action all the more thrilling. “The Birds” also had a lot more mystery and kept the audience guessing, because we never knew what was causing the birds to act so crazy, and that made the whole situation come off as more terrifying. By contrast, “Bats” hits us over the head with plot exposition right from the beginning, which spoils all the tension, and having a generic evil doctor as the cause behind the killer bats is beyond stupid-clichéd. Also with so many action scenes, the movie never takes the time to establish an eerie atmosphere, or even do anything that creepy with its concept, which just makes it feel like wasted potential. Whenever the movie does aim for something creepy, it results in unintentional comedy. Now there is one effectively creepy moment with a bat crawling into a babies cradle, but it only lasts for a second or two before the situation is completely dropped. There’s also lots of stupid jump scares that you can see coming from a mile away.
Dina Meyer is our star, playing the lead Zoologist, and while none of the actors give outstanding performances, she at least holds her own in the film. Before this movie, she was fighting off giant bugs in “Starship Troopers”, and later she’d star in “Parana 3D”. Admittedly she has a fairly commanding screen presence, delivers the best performance she can with what little she has to work with, and she’s naturally beautiful without being overly sexualized. Lou Diamond Phillips from “The Big Hit” plays the local sheriff, and he has a harder time working with a bad script, and the character is really boring. Then there’s a comedic side character played by Leon, who I remember best as one of the villains from “Cliffhanger”. He has his moments, but he has just as many stupid scenes and occasionally poor delivery on his lines. The evil doctor is as boring and generic as they get, but worse is that he’s played by Bob Gunton who’s a talented actor and deserves better than this. I’ll always remember him best as the evil prison Warden from “The Shawshank Redemption”. To be fair, I don’t think anyone was expecting really great characters to come from a film of this sort, but in all honestly, I’ve seen much worse, even if their just there to be victims to the bats when they strike.
The bat attacks themselves are a mixed bag. They come in a nice variety and do something different with each encounter, which is great. There’s a scene is which our hero’s are all boarded up in a school while the bats are trying to brake in. It’s good stuff and has no shortage of overblown, electrical explosions and fireworks. The best scene of all is when the bats launch an all out attack on the town, resulting in lots of destruction, vehicles crashing into buildings, and people fighting them off with shot guns and other weapons. There’s a moment in which our female heroin is trapped in a glass ticket box, which is a nice little tribute to the classic phone booth scene from “The Birds”. While it’s all exciting and bombastic, the action scenes themselves are shot terribly. The shaky camera is probably the worst I’ve ever seen, and the editing is just a random mess of sped up imagery which makes it impossible to tell what your even looking at.
I will say that the bat effects are very amusing. The swarms of them are mostly CGI, but there are occasionally some real bats, and there’s lots of animatronics and puppets for the individual bats, which are fairly cool. The bat designs are kind of unique too, close up’s of their face make them look like savage dogs with rabies. Their eye’s also glow yellow, which is a silly but a welcome edition. The movie does have some good visuals, for example I love the shots of the bat swam silhouetted against the full moon. One really stupid gimmick in this movie is that the title is always spelt upside down, it’s on the poster and even the opening title screen is upside down. I remember the first time I saw the poster, I thought the title was “STAB”, but no it’s just “BATS” upside down, which is ridiculous. We never even see a bat hanging upside down in the film, their always flying or crawling on all fours, so what were they thinking?
At the end, our hero’s discover that all the bats are roosting in a mine. A plan is soon orchestrated to drop a freezing devise underground, which will kill all the bats. It may sound a little anti-climactic, but it at least leads to a somewhat exciting action scene in which our team is chased down throughout the mines and have to escape before it gets sealed or nuked by the military. There’s a funny little closing scene in which it looks like one bat escaped, only for it to get squashed by a car before it can fly away. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop the Sci-Fi channel from releasing a sequel in 2007 titled “Bats: Human Harvest”, I didn’t watch it, but it looked really bad, which I’m sure it was.
Over the years, “Bats” has become one of those cult favorite films, and while I certainly wouldn’t call this a good film, I can see the appeal some may have with it. The movie plays less like a horror and more like an unintentional comedy. Personally, this film has always been kind of a “guilty pleasure”, I know it’s all around a bad movie, but I can’t help but enjoy it on some level. I guise I’m just easy to please when it comes to cheesy B monster movies. I’d say it’s better than the average animal attack film, but I’d only recommend it to fans of the genera. If you want a really good movie with some real scares, watch “The Birds” instead, but if a mindless creature feature with non-stop action is more up your ally, then “Bats” probably won’t disappoint.
I give “Bats” 2 stars out of 5, which is probably more than it deserves.