[Screen It]

(1999) (Lou Diamond Phillips, Dina Meyer) (PG-13)

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Horror: A small group of people must contend with a swarm of carnivorous and highly intelligent bats that have overtaken a small Texas town.
Wildlife zoologist Dr. Sheila Casper (DINA MEYER) and her assistant, Jimmy (LEON) have been summoned to the small Texas town of Gallup by Dr. Tobe Hodge (CARLOS JACOTT) from the Center for Disease Control to investigate several grisly deaths apparently caused by normally passive bats

There, they meet sheriff Emmett Kimsey (LOU DIAMOND PHILLIPS), and Dr. Alexander McCabe (BOB GUNTON), a scientist who's been doing specialized research on bats. After Sheila and Jimmy confirm that the deaths were indeed caused by bats, they learn that McCabe genetically altered the creatures -- that have a wingspan of several feet -- with a virus that not only causes them to be more intelligent and work together in a communal sense, but also more aggressive and omnivorous.

Realizing the potential for the virus to spread across the country and thus endanger everyone everywhere with lethal bat attacks, the small team races against time, repeated encounters with the bats and a planned military bombing to make sure that doesn't happen.

OUR TAKE: 1 out of 10
All sorts of things can scare kids when they're young. While most don't have a real basis for inducing fear -- a trip to the barbershop, the first day of school, wondering what's under the bed -- no matter what parental reasoning and reassurance is applied, kids are still scared to death of such things.

I can vividly recall often being nervous at my grandmother's old farm house that had creaky floors, other spooky sounds, a dark basement and in particular, the large wooden staircase leading up to the top floor where in the ceiling was the small access panel to the never visited attic. What made that so creepy and generated some childhood nightmares was the knowledge that a number of bats lived in the attic and could periodically be seen flying in and out of a broken attic window.

Years later, such fear of bats turned into entertainment not only due to the Adam West TV version of "Batman," but also because on those warm summer nights when dusk crept over our neighborhood, we'd go out and throw rocks into the sky. We weren't aiming at anything in particular, but instead marveled at the aerial acrobatics of the local bats as they'd zero in on the rocks with their "sonar," do a quick flyby to investigate, and then zip off into the night sky.

Of course, of all creatures that have a bad and undeserved reputation, bats are at or near the top of the list. Whether from their association with literary vampires, the fact that they only come out at night, or due to their generally creepy and mysterious appearance, many people don't seem to like the little critters who help keep the world's insect population in check and receive little or no thanks for that.

As such, it's not surprising that Hollywood has finally brought them out of the shadows (so to speak) of their vampire brethren and given them a movie of their own, appropriately but unimaginatively titled, "Bats." Joining any number of other creepy crawly and/or otherwise menacing critters that have terrorized mankind and moviegoers for decades -- including, but certainly not limited to spiders ("Arachnophobia"), killer bees ("The Swarm"), sharks ("Jaws") and, of course, birds ("The Birds") -- this is yet another story of nature run amok.

Thus, with that and my personal experiences with such creatures, I held at least a glimmer of hope that the film might dredge up some childhood frights and/or entertaining moments, but alas, that wasn't to be. Something of a cross between this past summer's "Deep Blue Sea" (where scientists genetically altered sharks into more intelligent and ferocious beings) and Hitchcock's "The Birds" (where small town residents are besieged by attacks from normally passive birds), this is the sort of film where the most frightening aspect of it is that it ever received the green light to go into production.

About as lackluster and dumb as they come, a great deal of that fault can be directed at John Logan's script (his first to hit the big screen) that's about as simple and unoriginal as can be imagined. In short, it's about the stereotypical small group of people trying to stop the stereotypical swarm of killer creatures. While that's about all there is to it, the film could have been fun if given the appropriate and much needed camp treatment as occurred in the fabulously entertaining "Tremors."

Unfortunately, that's not the case here. Beyond some howl inducing lines that one can only hope were intentionally bad ("Why would you do that?" "Because I'm a scientist. That's what we do"), the film is devoid of any campy fun and the only sign of intelligence is having the town movie theater playing "Nosferatu" (a 1922 vampire flick that only film buffs will recognize).

The film is also lacking decently developed characters, realistic looking special effects or overall logic. As such, we never care about any of the characters (a must for a film like this), the bats look like rejects from those old "Gremlins" flicks, and director Louis Morneau (who's helmed little seen films such as "Carnosaur 2" and "Soldier Boyz") has the characters or the film doing or containing so many stupid things that audiences will question why they were dumb enough to lay down their bucks for this stinker.

Not only are the characters able to outrun the flying bats when they're right behind them, but they also stop to take the time and fire their handgun into the swarm of thousands as if that would stop the collective bunch. Then there are the incredible portable video transmitters that can feed TV signals from the bottom of a mine shaft to the surface, the fact that the characters escape from that shaft in only a fraction of the time it took for them to descend into it, and their decision to hole up inside and fortify a school instead of spending the night in the town's bank vault that obviously doesn't have any windows.

None of this is helped by the performers who get to inhabit these characters. I've often mentioned films having A and B-list stars and this film certainly chose from that second group. Given the role of the resourceful and tough sheriff, Lou Diamond Phillips ("The Big Hit," "La Bamba") is about the closest to a marquee name the film can muster. While he gives the role a go, he simply can't overcome the stereotypical trappings of such a character.

Dina Meyer ("Starship Troopers," "Dragonheart") has similar problems as the wildlife zoologist, while Leon ("Cliffhanger," "Waiting to Exhale") is present as the intended comic relief and to deliver lines such as "You want some of this?" while dispatching some of the little beasts. Meanwhile, Bob Gunton ("Patch Adams," "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil") plays a mad scientist lifted straight from those bad 1950's sci-fi films.

With shaky, disorienting camera work posing as frightening moments, a lack of imaginative or clever material and one-liners, and following a predictable and occasionally idiotic plot line, this is the sort of picture one would more easily imagine debuting on cable TV or residing on the bottom shelf of some video store rather than arriving as a major theatrical release.

Despite the horrifying aspect that the film obviously leaves open the possibility of a sequel, the film is nothing more than a cheap rip-off of the "The Birds" that's lacking any scary, entertaining or otherwise enjoyable moments and is nothing but a dud from the opening to closing credits. As such, "Bats" rates as just a 1 out of 10.

Reviewed October 19, 1999 / Posted October 22, 1999

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