Defiantly flying against the current grain of hip slasher thrillers and supernatural melodramas, “Bats” is an unabashedly retrograde horror opus about winged predators with bad attitudes and big appetites. Much like the summer’s slightly more upscale “Deep Blue Sea,” this debut release by indie distrib Destination Films recalls the cheap but frequently potent thrills offered two decades ago by “Jaws” wanna-bes and similar drive-in fodder. Savvy marketing campaign and high-concept subject matter should generate midsize B.O. numbers before pic migrates to vid-rental roosts.
Screenwriter John Logan borrows freely from a variety of sources — there’s more than a touch of 1979’s “Nightwing” here — while cobbling together his formulaic narrative. Predictably, the killer bats make their initial appearance while fatally attacking a young couple parked somewhere outside a tiny Texas town.
Everything about this opening scene is so cliched — the guy actually tells his girlfriend to wait in the car while he takes a look outside — that ticket buyers might immediately assume “Bats” is intended as a fang-in-cheek parody. But this impression is quickly dispelled as director Louis Morneau takes an effectively dead-serious approach to his material.
Shortly after the attack, Dr. Sheila Casper (Dina Meyer), a zoologist with a special interest in bats, and Jimmy (Leon), her wisecracking assistant, are summoned to the desert town of Gallup, Texas. Sheriff Emmett Kimsey (Lou Diamond Phillips) doesn’t know what to make of the two horribly mutilated corpses. And he fears the worst is yet to come when Sheila and Jimmy warn him that the deaths were caused by ravenous bats.
These bats are the work of scientist Alexander McCabe (Bob Gunton, fresh from making life miserable for Robin Williams in “Patch Adams”). While genetically increasing the intelligence — and, more important, the belligerence — of Indonesian “flying foxes,” Alexander let things get a little out of hand. Worse, he also let a few test subjects get out of their cages. Apparently, the experiment was conducted as part of a super-secret military research program. But Alexander offers a much simpler and far more arrogant explanation for his disastrous tampering with Mother Nature: “Because I’m a scientist. That’s what we do.”
Alexander may be perversely proud of his handiwork, but he’s more than willing to help destroy the hordes of killer bats roosting in an abandoned mine near Gallup. Unfortunately, before anyone can organize a counterattack, the bats fly into town for dinner. As hundreds of the ugly critters nibble on frantic citizens, in an excitingly staged and edited sequence clearly inspired by “The Birds,” Morneau manages to suggest a lot more than he actually shows. As a result, the bloody mayhem is sufficiently restrained — though just barely — for “Bats” to avoid an R rating that could have limited its commercial potential.
In the wake of the feeding frenzy, Gallup is evacuated while Army officials consider bombing the area. Kimsey and the three bat experts remain behind, taking over the high school as their command center. But when night falls, the bad bats swoop down on the school in another impressively suspenseful set piece. Alexander learns the hard way that the bats are far beyond his control, leaving Kimsey, Sheila and Jimmy to figure a way to chill the little beasts before the bombs start falling.
Smoothly maneuvering within the limitations of genre conventions, “Bats” emerges as a vigorously paced and surprisingly satisfying piece of work. Gunton has a tricky time dealing with the contradictions of his needlessly ambiguous character, but he and the other well-cast principals do a thoroughly professional job of breathing life into archetypes and resisting all temptations to wink at the audience or indulge in campy excess.
Entire pic could be described as an irony-free zone. Morneau sprinkles a few modestly clever touches throughout the action — the Gallup movie house is showing F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” — and Leon provides some welcome moments of commonsensical comic relief. But “Bats” is almost devoid of self-referential, genre-spoofing humor until the very end, when the pic blithely demolishes the last best hope for a sequel.
Animatronic effects are first rate, even during closeups in which individual bats resemble surly gargoyles, while the full-tilt bat attacks are revved to the max by cinematographer George Mooradian and editor Glenn Garland. Soundtrack includes a few pleasingly eccentric selections, including an aria from Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” (Kimsey is a closet opera buff.) Under the circumstances, however, wouldn’t Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” (The Bat) have been a more appropriate choice?