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Guano Grief

Bats has horror, for all the wrong reasons

The everyman hero of the horror movie Bats, a small-town Texas sheriff played by Lou Diamond Phillips, is given an odd character trait. After he and some other people have barricaded themselves into a school building and are awaiting attack by a flock of mutant killer bats terrorizing his little desert town, the sheriff drops a record onto a turntable and confesses his secret passion forŠ opera.

The only reason I could think of for including this utterly gratuitous touch would be to get a few bars of Strauss's Die Fledermaus ("The Bat") into the film. But, no. Our hero listens, instead, to Donizetti. This is a pretty good example of the level of wit and ingenuity with which Bats was wrought.

Bats is basically just like The Birds. There are only two major differences: First, The Birds was about birds, while Bats is about bats; and second, The Birds was a flawed but brilliant work by one of the geniuses of the cinema, while Bats is a work of hilarious, nearly Ed Wood-worthy ineptitude, offering not so much as one single scare -- not even a cheap spook or gross-out -- and inspiring nothing more than giggles and occasional sympathy for the actors.

Once associated with vampirism, disease and evil, bats have had their image rehabilitated in the popular mind in recent years. Through such children's books as Stellaluna and in nature documentaries, people have been made aware that bats are a huge, diverse order of mammals, extremely important to many ecosystems as pollinators and controllers of insect populations, overrated as disease vectors and almost never harmful to humans. The makers of Bats take pains to avoid being accused of zoological incorrectness. They make it clear that their bats are deadly as a result of genetic meddling by humans, but they needn't have worried -- no one would ever mistake the rather endearing, little sourpuss puppets that represent the bats in this movie for any creature that occurs in nature.

Shut in that schoolhouse with Sheriff Lou are a pretty chiropterologist (bat scientist, that is) played by Dina Meyer, her wisecracking assistant (León) and the creepy scientist (Bob Gunton) who's responsible for the deadly bats. It's hard to know who to feel sorriest for.

Maybe León, the handsome actor to whom Madonna sang "Like a Prayer," and who later starred in Cool Runnings. There's no reason he couldn't play an action hero himself, but here he's left standing around making jokes outside while the heroine plumbs bat-infested caves and mines; the character so pointedly keeps himself out of harm's way that after a while you may begin to wonder when he'll start saying, "C'mon up outta dat mine, missy. I'm 'feared o' dem bats."

On the other hand, Meyer, the lovely actress from Starship Troopers and Johnny Mnemonic, doesn't fare much better. The closest she gets to a seductive romantic line is, "Very good, sheriff. We'll make a chiropterologist out of you yet."

Maybe the choicest line in the picture, however, goes to Phillips, after the sheriff falls into a deep pool of guano. It's probably the actor as much as the character who exclaims, "Don't tell me I'm up to my chest in bat shit!" Afraid so, Lou.

 
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