Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Columbia-TriStar, widescreen 2.35:1/16x9, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC] & Dolby Surround, subtitles: English, single side-dual layer, 28 chapters, rated R, 91 min., $24.95, street date 2/22/2000.
Directed by Louis Morneau. Starring Lou Diamond Phillips, Dina Meyer, Bob Gunton, Leon, Carlos Jacott, David McConnell.
Something is coming in the night. The dark air fills with the sound of flapping wings and menacing shrieks . . . Bats. But these are no ordinary bats. The night has wings, and fear has taken flight. When the dark is alive, there's nowhere to hide.
In Destination Films' thrilling new film Bats, swarms of genetically altered bats blaze a path of terror through a sleepy Texas town. The only hope to stop the growing tide of devastation is a zoologist who studies bats, (Dina Meyer), her assistant (Leon), and the local sheriff (Lou Diamond Phillips).
Dr. Sheila Casper is summoned to the sleepy desert town of Gallup, Texas, where unexplained bat attacks have caused several grisly deaths. When night creeps in, swarming hordes of bats fill the darkening sky and invade the town. The bats swoop down and attack every living thing in their path, turning the town into living nightmare where everyone is a target and there is nowhere to hide.
Sheila and her assistant, Jimmy (Leon), team up with the local sheriff Emmett Kimsey (Lou Diamond Phillips) to try to find a way to stop the bats. They discover that a scientist (Bob Gunton) has tampered with nature and infected the bats with a genetic virus, causing the usually harmless mammals to become vicious killers. They catch and tag one of the bats, hoping it will lead them to their lair. However, these bats are too cunning. Seeking shelter from the dark, the team holes up in an abandoned high school when the bats unleash an unrelenting and vicious assault, seemingly in a coordinated attack.
When the sun gives them safety, Sheila and Kimsey locate the bats' roost inside an abandoned mine. With no way to defeat the bats' sheer numbers and power of flight, Sheila and Kimsey must bravely descend into the mine, where the bats hang from the mine ceiling asleep. If they can't stop the bats, night will fall, the bat colony will grow, the virus will spread, and the bats will take flight in search of more and more prey.
Here's a good rule for you: if a movie that a) comes out around Halloween and b) in any way, shape or form features bats, skip it! Actually, you'd probably be best off avoiding any horror film that appears at that time of year, since it tends to be a dumping ground for cheesy scarefests that want to generate a few seasonal dollars, but the "bat rule" now looks good after 1998's Vampires and last year's Bats.
Vampires at least offered some hot nude shots of Sheryl Lee; Bats possess no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. Formulaic, dull, derivative and completely lacking in excitement or anything compelling - that pretty well sums up the experience of watching Bats
Unlike Vampires, Bats isn't a truly terrible film; it's just a totally bland one. It never shows a single sign of life and it plods along from beginning to end. The story itself is an uninspired mish-mash of Jaws and Aliens, with quite a few stylistic and plot nods to the latter, especially. The character of Dr. Sheila Casper (Dina Meyer) is a clear nod to Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, and the film's climax seems directly stolen from Aliens.
One character, Casper's assistant Jimmy (Leon), exists solely for the purpose of comic relief. It's almost impossible to find a line of his that doesn't aim for a laugh, usually in the "brothers don't be fightin' no bats!" school of stereotypical humor. Unfortunately, not a single quip appears even remotely amusing.
This film's idea of cleverness is to have Nosferatu playing at a local cinema. Sorry, but I think it stretches credulity to have a nearly 80-year-old film showing at what appears to be the only theater in a podunk Texas town. It ain't funny, in any case; it just seems like a lame attempt at wit.
Director Louis Morneau paces the film in a standard action-getting to know the characters-action rhythm; you can easily predict exactly what kind of scene will come up next (and pretty much what will happen, too). He stages the bat attack shots in a ridiculously frantic way that seems to be his attempt to generate excitement. This doesn't work; it just annoyed me, instead.
Finally, even the effects are poor. Actually, the computer generated bats looked okay, but the puppet rodents were horrible. They strongly resembled the characters from Gremlins but appeared less realistic. Considering that those critters were somewhat stiff 15 years ago, that ain't good!
One note: according to the DVD's case, this cut of Bats is the "uncut 'R'-rated version." Apparently, the theatrical version was "PG-13", though a couple of sources (IMDB, Yahoo) erroneously state it was "R"; the official site says it was "PG-13", so I'll go with them! Anyway, since I didn't see them movie in theaters, I have no idea how the two versions differ; I'd assume the "R"-rated cut is more graphic, though even it doesn't seem very gory or bloody. I can't imagine the footage helps or hinders.
However, here's some help for those Bats viewers who suffer from "Who's that dude?!" syndrome: Carlos Jacott, the actor who played Dr. Tobe Hodge, strongly evoked that sentiment in me. Halfway through the film, though, I figured it out: he appeared as Ramon, the pool boy who befriends and then turns on Jerry on Seinfeld! (By the way, IMDB is a Godsend when this happens, since it can tell you where you saw the person, but it's most fun when you figure it out yourself.)
(By the way, does anyone else think the film's logo - which shows the word "BATS" upside-down - bears more than a passing resemblance to the Stab logo seen in the Scream sequels? Maybe I'm reading too much into this; after all, that'd be pretty obscure, referring to a movie-within-a-movie to subliminally interest audiences, but it sure looks like the logo says "STAB" to me...)
Bats isn't the worst film I've ever seen. Actually, I can't even call it disappointing, simply because I didn't expect much from it; it's about what I thought it would be. Unfortunately, I thought it would be a pretty crummy film, and I was correct. Box office earnings and merit don't often correspond, but here they do - there's a very good reason Bats only took in about $10 million.
Happily, though, there is a strong correlation between Columbia-Tristar (CTS) and good DVDs, and despite the low quality of the film itself, this is a very good disc. Bats appears in its original theatrical aspect of 2.35:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. (I'm surprised CTS didn't include a fullscreen version, since they often do so, and there was plenty of room left on the flipside. No loss for me, since I never touch fullscreen editions, but it seemed odd.)
The picture of Bats isn't perfect but it's pretty darned close. Sharpness seems crisp and clear from start to finish, and it does this with few moiré effects or jagged edges; I even noticed fewer anamorphic downconversions problems than usual. The print shows a couple of flaws - a spot or two, and one distinct white streak in one frame - but overall seems as clean as one would expect of a four-month-old movie. The only grain I noted came from some stock footage of fighter planes.
Colors look quite bright and vivid throughout the movie; some of the dusk scenes are absolutely gorgeous. Black levels are dead-on and tremendously solid, and shadow detail seems appropriately thick but not overly opaque. All in all, it's a great-looking picture.
And it sounds good, too! Bats isn't the first DVD to offer Dolby Digital 5.1 encoding with "Dolby EX enhancement" but I think it is the first to mention it on the disc's case. (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and The Haunting are also EX titles, but they didn't advertise this.) Personally, I think the whole EX thing is no big deal, but this soundtrack kicks a fair amount of butt in any case.
It provides a very active and lively soundfield. Not surprisingly, the flapping of hairy little wings dominates the surrounds and side channels, but those aren't the only sounds we hear; a variety of other effects and music also pop up in those areas. The audio truly engulfs the listener and makes the film more exciting than it otherwise might be (which isn't saying much, but you take what you can get).
Audio quality during Bats also seems excellent. Dialogue must have been heavily dubbed, but it seems clear and natural throughout the movie, with no intelligibility problems. Effects are clean and realistic, and music seems full and dynamic. I detected virtually no distortion. The movie may stink, but Bats sure looks and sounds terrific!
CTS have termed Bats a "special edition" DVD. I don't think it quite deserves that title, but it does include a few supplements. First up is a pretty mediocre audio commentary from director Morneau and star Lou Diamond Phillips. Although Phillips tosses in a few mildly amusing anecdotes and does his best to enliven the proceedings, it's a pretty flat affair. Technical talk dominates, and much of the rest of the track hears the participants (inappropriately) praising the production. No one much likes commentaries where the speakers simply talk about how great everything is, but it's even more annoying when the movie is this bad. It's a listenable track, but not a very interesting one.
Another audio feature appears on this DVD as well. We get a track with Graeme Revell's score isolated on it. I didn't think much of the music, but if you're into that, I'm sure you'll enjoy it.
The Bats DVD contains a surprisingly entertaining five and a half minute featurette called "Bats Abound". It's pretty much just a promotional piece, but it's sufficiently light and frothy to be worth watching. Hey, at least it's better than the movie itself!
Also better than expected is the theatrical trailer for Bats; it actually lends the impression that the movie will be exciting and scary. (So much for truth in advertising.) The DVD contains additional trailers for Vampires, Fright Night, the 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead, and novelty horror flick The Tingler
This DVD features a bit of "behind the scenes" material. It provides storyboard to film comparisons for two scenes ("Bronco Attack" and "Town Assault") and also gives us shots of two scenes ("Bronco Attack" and "In the Mine") with and without their effects. I've never been a fan of storyboards, though I must admit I prefer them when presented in this comparison format. However, CTS have a tendency to present photos and other still frame pictures in a much smaller image than is necessary, and they do that here as well. The split-screen storyboard comparison works okay - the boards themselves are decent size while the film image is smaller but big enough for reference - but both before and after shots during the effects sequences are too tiny to adequately watch.
The same fault mars the "Photo Gallery" section. That title's a misnomer, since no actual photographs appear. Instead, one section offers ten pieces of conceptual drawings from comic book artist Berni Wrightson, and the other provides twelve mechanical sketches of the bat puppets from KNB effects. Wrightson's work is more interesting, largely because of the relatively small size of the images; his come through okay, but much of the nuance of the effects art gets lost because the pictures aren't big enough. There's room left on the screen; I don't know why CTS tend to present such small images.
I also don't know why they persist in creating the lamest "talent files" in the business. They used to do a decent job, but the biographies included here - for director Morneau plus actors Phillips, Meyer and Leon - are so brief as to be useless. Also worse than usual are the sparse and blah production notes included in the DVD's booklet. Oh, and the animated menus seem clunky and cheap as well. We see the same jerky movement from a cartoon bat over and over again; this DVD makes a strong argument against full-motion menus.
Despite those flaws, Bats makes for a decent DVD, with terrific picture and sound and some okay extras, but the film itself bites (no pun intended, though it sucks, too). While it's not a horrible movie, it's pretty dull and lacks anything that would make it even remotely better than mediocre. Unless you're just dying to see Lou Diamond Phillips play a Texas sheriff, it's not even worth a rental.
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