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Bats (1999)

The South-Western United States were last threatened by bats in Nightwing (1979), a minor revolt-of-nature horror movie adapted from a superior novel by Martin Cruz Smith, but the model for this lively quickie would seem to be Joe Dante's Piranha (1978), for which John Sayles came up with a script that blamed ravaging monsters on a military program to mutate vermin into 'perfect killing machines'. Like the recent Lake Placid, Bats is content to stick to the ground rules of its genre - the obligatory opening sequence has a pair of young lovers torn apart by barely-glimpsed creatures that dart out of the sky - and get through a story at once predictable and preposterous on an ingratiating lack of pretension.

Though it doesn't have the smart-aleck edge that made Piranha and Lake Placid enjoyable crossover items, this probably plays better to its core audience, as a decidedly lower-case cast cope with sketchy roles to the best of their ability. Dina Meyer has a nice backstory speech about how she overcame her childhood fear of bats by becoming an expert on them, though Sheila's supposed dislike of harming the animals is overcome swiftly during the attack. Lou Diamond Phillips is relaxed and capable as a Texas lawman whose darkest secret is that he's a covert opera buff who plays Lucia di Lammamoor (what, not Die Fledermaus?) as the small band of bat-fighters equip the library with electrified wire screens to see off the next attack. Bob Gunton lurks nicely as the apparently guilt-ridden but actually deeply weird researcher responsible for the unlikely breakthrough in the first place, revitalising the longstanding cliché of the mad scientist by apparently elaborating of the findings of the bat-enlarger Bela Lugosi played in The Devil Bat (1941). Taking the role LL Cool J has recently made his own, Leon is also a throwback, his why-the-hell-am-I-here pragmatism and sensible fear of monsters constituting a strange update of the 'scared black sidekick' role Willie Best or Mantan Moreland took in 1940s chillers.

Director Louis Morneau has been an ambitious direct-to-video hand so far, scoring a memorable minor pleasure with Retroactive, his crossbreed mutant of Groundhog Day and Natural Born Killers. Given a budgetary leg up, though hardly a fortune, he makes good use of widescreen desert locations, flashes of distorted bat POV vision and editing tricks that work round sometimes variable effect. The bat attacks are mostly satisfactory: Sheila is at one point trapped in the ticket booth of an old-style movie theatre as Tippi Hedren was in a phone booth in The Birds (the film playing is Nosferatu, an unlikely choice for a small-town hardtop), and the trashing of the town by toothy chaos recalls Gremlins as complacent Americans find their cherished guns and cars of little use to them when the hordes descend. The lead bats have a rubbery special-effectsy look that is almost nostalgic after a decade awash with CGI creatures (though they show up too), and don't quite work up the fearsome charge they are supposed to, which means that side issues like perilous mineworks and an imminent air strike are needed to rev up the tension in the finale. Full marks, though, for the timely and literal squashing of the but-there's-still-one-surviving-monster cliché punchline.

First Published In: Sight and Sound August 2000

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