Troma Pictures acquisitions execs take note! From the Saul Bass homage of its opening titles to its highly authentic, comic evocation of 1950s’ grade-Z moviemaking, first-time writer-director Kelly Greene’s “Attack of the Bat Monsters” is a light-on-its-feet gem ripe for discovery. With proper niche handling, this could become both an enduring midnight movie attraction and a video fave for aficionados of le bad cinema.
Shot in south Texas, but set in a rock quarry meant to suggest Hollywood’s Bronson Canyon (a staple location of low-budget horror and sci-fi films), pic follows schlock moviemaking impresario Francis Gordon (Fred Ballard), as he and his intrepid crew attempt to shoot an impromptu monster movie (complete with cheesy rubber creature) in the space of three shooting days left over from the film they have just wrapped.
Like Roger Corman (after whom the character is noticeably patterned), Gordon is equal parts gifted vaudevillian and conniving shill. He sees an opportunity and seizes upon it, giving the moviegoing public what it wants (and coining such quotable credos as “When the monster’s dead, the movie’s over”), even if it means duping his own surrogate family into working double and triple shifts to get the picture done on time.
Pic cleverly segues between color depictions of on-set mayhem and completed, black-and-white scenes from the film being made (titled, appropriately, “Attack of the Bat Monsters”). And while there’s not much room left to grow in the whole self-reflexive, movies-about-moviemaking genre, Greene perfectly pitches the tone of the pic somewhere between syrupy nostalgia and flat-out mockery.
Like “Ed Wood” and “The State of Things” before it, “Attack of the Bat Monsters” is made out of enormous affection for both the silliness of low-budget horror and fantasy films and the welcome innocence of those same films when compared with the overblown Hollywood spectacles of today. (Who wouldn’t take “It Conquered the World” over “Battlefield Earth” if given the choice?) But unlike those films, Greene’s pic lacks known actors and studio gloss — its production values mirror those of the very films it references — and that is to its distinct advantage.
And unlike “Timecode” and other recent movies about the business of making movies, pic does not operate under the oppressive assumption that a certain profundity is inherent in films that reference their own industry. Rather, the film has an ebullient comic freeness that belies the intensive research Greene conducted into genre films of the ’50s while writing his college thesis. There are two “Attack of the Bat Monsters” movies here — Gordon’s and Greene’s — and both are generously funny, the one as a result of its dire earnestness, the other for its precisely conceived and executed gags. The film’s comic set-pieces — the set caterer’s son turning a bit part into an excruciating exercise in method acting; the veteran “scream queen” instructing her riveted disciples in the finer points of feigning terror; the busty extras having a nasty run-in with some extra-strength grip tape — buzz by at a frantic clip.
Greene’s timing is usually right on the money too, but the sharpness of his writing is such that a number of big laughs come off in spite of slack handling.
“Attack of the Bat Monsters” is further enriched by a series of deft parallels and dichotomies between Greene and Gordon’s films. Just as Gordon’s actors come to rely on each other as a way of keeping their sanity throughout the grueling shoot, so Greene’s ensemble of unknowns playing unknowns affects an esprit de corps that seems transported from another filmmaking era.
Likewise, as Gordon’s much overachieving and under-appreciated assistant, Chuck, keeps the show running on schedule — anonymously rewriting the script and maintaining on-set civility — so Michael Dalmon’s highly appealing performance in the role forms the emotional center of Greene’s film.
And make no mistake, in addition to the hilarity, “Attack of the Bat Monsters” also builds to a wonderfully poignant and vulnerable scene in which Gordon’s drunk and exhausted leading lady (Casie Waller) turns to Chuck for trust and comfort as she prepares for an exploitative nude scene. Comedy’s hard, but it’s even harder to be this funny while maintaining a fundamental respect for the film’s characters, and it is that humanity that turns out to be Greene’s greatest trump card.
Crisply shot in Super 16mm by Tom Hennig, pic was presented via video projection at its world preem at the Dances With Films festival, which may have exacerbated editing glitches and wind-noise heavy sound recording that could easily be remedied with a negative cut and final mix.
But to an extent, that only adds to the extant charm of the film’s minimal locations and spartan sets. It’s a spoof of 1950s independent filmmaking that itself could have been made in the 1950s.