Monster Movie Monday: Bats (1999)
Matthew Turner | On 04, Jan 2021
Director: Louis Morneau
Cast: Lou Diamond Phillips, Dina Meyer, Bob Gunton, Leon
Watch Bats online in the UK: Amazon Prime
In the mood for a creature feature? Amazon Prime has a veritable menagerie of monster movies, so we’re working our way through them, one killer beastie at a time. Welcome to Monster Movie Mondays.
Directed by Louis Morneau, this 1999 creature feature is notable for being one of the fastest produced 35mm feature films ever made, taking just five months between the sale of the script and the film being released in cinemas. With that in mind, you could forgive Bats for feeling rushed, but it actually holds up surprisingly well, even if the climax is a little disappointing.
The plot centres on chiropterologist (that’s science for “bat expert” – if nothing else, the film actually teaches you something) Dr Sheila Casper (Dina Meyer, hot off Starship Troopers), who’s contacted by the CDC to help with a bat-related emergency in Gallup, Texas. Together with her assistant Jimmy (Leon) and local sheriff Emmett Kimsey (Lou Diamond Phillips), Sheila discovers that Doctor Alexander McCabe (a suitably shifty Bob Gunton) genetically engineered the bats and that some of them have escaped, transmitting a virus that turns every normally innocent bat into a rabid killer.
The bats in the film are a combination of superb animatronics (with a surprising amount of personality in their crinkled facial expressions), pretty decent CGI (especially for a rapid turnaround in 1999) and two real-life bats, imported from Indonesia. As such, they’re occasionally reminiscent of Joe Dante’s Gremlins, particularly when they attack our heroes in a car and keep managing to get through the various car bits, popping out of the glove compartment and so on.
It might have a few flaws, but Bats has a lot to recommend it, especially in the first half. For one thing, Morneau doesn’t mess about when it comes to jumping right into the bat-action – the opening scene has the flappy blighters attacking a pair of teenagers, the afore-mentioned car attack happens shortly after Sheila arrives in Gallup and there’s a full-on bat-attack on the terrified townsfolk before the film has even reached the 35-minute mark.
The attack on Gallup’s main street is followed by a similarly entertaining set-piece whereby the bats attack a school that the four main characters have fortified with electric fences. There’s even a half-hearted attempt at quirkiness with an A-Team-style montage of the characters rigging up the fences, set to opera music because Lou Diamond Phillips’ Texan sheriff just loooooves opera (don’t tell anyone).
Meyer makes an appealing lead, but all the characters are badly underwritten and there’s very little emotion in the film as a result. Even a tiny romance subplot would have gone a long way here – as it is, there are vague hints in that direction but they go nowhere.
On a similar note, the supposedly funny bits – chiefly Jimmy’s wisecracks – never really land. In fact, according to the IMDb’s trivia section, the film originally had much more humour in it, but it was cut from the final footage on the instruction of producers Destination Films. That would certainly explain the blatant missed opportunity with the local cinema showing Nosferatu – you just know that Joe Dante would have replaced it with Dracula and had a scene where bats burst through the screen just as Bela Lugosi turned into one.
There are a couple of other misfires. For one thing, there’s an attempt at “bat-cam”, where the image stretches and distorts at certain points, presumably to indicate a bat’s-eye view. That would be fine, except a. bats “see” with sonar and b. the effect is used inconsistently, so it just ends up being a frustrating distraction. Similarly, the climax is badly handled compared to the rest of the film. First, it bungles a supposed race against time and ends up dragging when it should be maximising tension. Second, having established that the bats are super-smart and will be able to tell what the heroes are up to, the script completely fails to deliver in that respect. And third, it doesn’t even pull off the expected moment where all the bats wake up and attack at once. It does give you some pretty impressive explosions, though, so at least Bats goes out with a bang.
Bat (1999) is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.