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BATS

by: James Berardinelli

Bats. Rats. Snakes. Spiders. Other insects that creep and crawl. All of these things strike a chord of primal fear in the human heart, but what works at generating terror and revulsion in real life doesn't always translate well to the screen. Bats is not the first motion picture to exploit this psychological weakness, nor will it be the last, but it is one of the least successful. About the only thing the movie has going for it is the release date: a certain percentage of the population, craving a theatrical Halloween movie, will probably see the film out of sheer desperation. And the PG-13 rating helps to widen the potential audience. (Then again, who really wants to see a PG-13 horror flick?) But, when it comes to generating scares, Bats comes up short. Without any vampires, there's a lack of material for fans to sink their teeth into.

Early in the pre-production process, someone should have recognized that the underlying concept of Bats simply wasn't going to work. This is the kind of movie that demands a Tremors style - nearly every scene has to be approached tongue-in-cheek. Unfortunately, no one clued in screenwriter John Logan or director Louis Morneau (who was obviously chosen because of the stellar work he did on Carnosaur 2). This material is played straight. Of course, that doesn't completely eliminate the potential for humor, but it shifts the comedy from the realm of the intentional to the unintentional, and ensures that we're laughing at the film rather than with it. And, when it comes to intelligence, at least Bats is consistent: it has a dumb script with dumb characters intended for a dumb audience. Proper enjoyment of this movie undoubtedly requires the ingestion of an illegal mind-altering substance.

The action takes place in Gallup, Texas, where a couple of big, ugly bats are on the loose. These aren't just ordinary bats, however - they have been infected by a virus developed by the devious Dr. McCabe (Bob Gunton), who possesses all the best Mad Scientist qualities except the Diabolical Laugh. (That means he lurks in the background looking shifty until the first opportunity arrives for him to turn traitor.) The virus isn't fatal; instead, it increases intelligence and aggressiveness, and can be conferred from one bat to another via a bite. Pretty soon, the entire bat population of Gallup is infected, and the nasty critters start to attack humans. The first two victims are a boy and girl who have driven to a secluded spot to be alone. When the Center for Disease Control becomes aware of the situation, they call in an expert - Dr. Sheila Casper (Dina Meyer), a zoologist who's "the best in her field." Accompanying her is her loyal sidekick, Jimmy (Leon), whose sole purpose is to utter inane one-liners that are supposed to be funny, but aren't. They join the local cigar-chomping sheriff, Emmett Kimsey (Lou Diamond Phillips), in a mission to eliminate the bats before they can spread across North America and end civilization as we know it. During the course of this operation, they attempt to stop the bats by shooting them - an approach that might be effective against a dozen, but not against several hundred thousand. And it takes three-quarters of the film before someone comes up with the idea of using a flame-thrower. In the end, the military shows up just in time to screw everything up (as the military always does in movies like this).

The quality of the script is reflected in the casting choices. Even a dud like Lake Placid attracted recognizable stars like Bill Pullman and Bridget Fonda. Bats has to settle for Lou Diamond Phillips, who hasn't been big since Reagan was president, and Dina Meyer, who's not exactly a household name (although she gave one of the best performances in Starship Troopers, the science fiction parody extravaganza that no one saw). Of the two, Meyer has the more difficult job.

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