More often than not, mutant creatures -- from the atomic-age monstrosities of the '50s to the giant crocodile of the recent Lake Placid -- are good for solid scares (or at least serious chuckles) at the movies.
Arriving at theaters just in time for Halloween, "Bats" delivers neither. Its computer-generated images of swarming bats, and the attendant close-ups of animatronic creations that resemble gargoyles, carry a fright factor that's practically nil. The flesh-ripping attacks are shot in a jumbled, rapid-cutting style that's nigh on incomprehensible.
The humor amounts to inane, unfunny one-liners tossed off by one Jimmy Sands (Leon), a scientist's-assistant character who's clearly been created to provide comic relief. It doesn't work. This thankfully short effort from "Made Men" director Louis Morneau can't even qualify as the sort of campy fun that brought Edward D. Wood Jr. to posthumous fame. It's not quite awful enough to be bad-good; it's just brazenly mediocre.
The nonsense transpires in the small West Texas town of Gallup, where genetically altered bats have begun to slaughter farm animals. As the movie begins, the night creatures mutilate a young couple who are sitting and talking in a convertible. "I've never seen anything like this before," a coroner intones, mouthing assembly-line dialogue written by John Logan as he surveys the grisly state of the victims' bodies.
Renowned wildlife zoologist Sheila Casper (Dina Meyer of "Starship Troopers") is flown in to investigate the attacks. She takes one look, pulls a bat tooth from a corpse and offers a learned observation: "This sort of thing is not supposed to happen." Tell that to Dr. McCabe (veteran character actor Bob Gunton), the researcher type who's responsible for breeding a strain of bat that's possessed of heightened intelligence, communal instincts, aggression and a taste for flesh. McCabe gives this explanation for his misguided work: "Because I'm a scientist. That's what I do." Help.
The cute Casper soon joins forces with stoic, cigar-chomping town sheriff Emmett Kimsey (Lou Diamond Phillips) to eradicate the ugly flying mammals. But the final showdown doesn't come until after the deadly pests have had a chance to maul the townspeople, who crash through the windows of bars and stores along the burg's Main Street in a feckless effort to escape.
At one point, Sheila hides out in a movie theater's glassed-in ticket office, perhaps in a limp nod to the phone-booth scene in Alfred Hitchcock's infinitely more frightening "The Birds." On the marquee (shown repeatedly so that we catch the reference) is the title of that evening's selection: "Nosferatu." Get it? (And can someone could explain why the 1922 F.W. Murnau classic is playing on the only screen in a tiny town?)
Emmett, Sheila and Jimmy hole up the following evening in the local school building. They're accompanied by Dr. McCabe, who keeps casting shifty glances at his fellow survivors. Is he to be trusted? As is customary in these kinds of movies, the military botches its opportunity to wipe out the enemy, so it's left up to our hero and heroine to save the local population -- and of course the world.
At the risk of spoiling the suspense, I'll only reveal that the conclusion involves a giant air conditioner and an underground pool of bat guano. "This is like some kind of nightmare," Jimmy exclaims about midway through the silliness. I beg to differ: My nightmares are decidedly scarier and more memorable than anything in "Bats."
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