The Bat People (1974) The Bat People/It Lives by Night (1974) -**

     Maybe American International Pictures’ bid for mainstream respectability should be understood to have started a little earlier than is generally recognized. I at least have always thought of it as an aspect of Sam Arkoff’s late-70’s project to transform the studio into “the ninth major,” but there’s more to respectability in Hollywood than big budgets. What gets me pondering this is The Bat People, a mid-70’s horror film the most conspicuous feature of which is its abstinence from most of the kinds of behavior that made mid-70’s horror films justly notorious. Apart from its very peculiar ending, which defies placement anywhere on the traditional, monovariate, happy-sad spectrum, there is very little about this movie that would have seemed out of place during AIP’s first heyday nearly twenty years before. By the standards of its era, The Bat People is almost unexceptionably housebroken, in marked contrast to its genre as a whole. Just the thing, then, for a studio trying to shed its reputation as a sleaze factory— if indeed Arkoff was already considering such a move as early as 1974.

     Chiropterologist John Beck (Stewart Moss, from The Tribe and Doctor Death: Seeker of Souls) suffers from recurring nightmares. Oddly enough, considering his profession, they mostly seem to involve bats. The content of Beck’s nightmares doesn’t really matter, except insofar as we might consider it non-specifically prophetic for a man who studies bats to have bad dreams about the things in a movie called The Bat People. When we meet John, he’s on a sort of working vacation with his wife, Cathy (She’s Dressed to Kill’s Marianne McAndrew), somewhere in the Southwest. (There’s a ski resort nearby, so maybe the Sierras?) One afternoon, while the couple are taking a guided tour of one of the local caves, Cathy gets the bright idea to sneak away from the group in search of sufficient privacy to mix business with pleasure even more directly. (Do you want to tell her about guano, or should I?) Naturally their amorous interlude doesn’t last long, for she almost immediately manages to trap them both in a deep, dark hole from which they can’t climb up under their own power. What’s more, the Becks’ hollering disturbs an unusually large and aggressive bat, which bites John rather seriously before Cathy is able to smash it to death against the limestone floor of the cave.

     I’m forced to conclude at this point that John isn’t a very good chiropterologist, because he’s remarkably blasé about the bat bite once he and Cathy have been rescued. It takes Cathy complaining to a doctor whom they meet on the ski slopes the next day to make her husband seek medical attention at all. Mind you, Dr. Kipling (Paul Carr, of Ben and The Severed Arm) is blasé, too, at least until Cathy mentions the weird nervous attacks that have been coming over John at irregular intervals since the incident in the cave. That finally breaches the men’s conspiracy of dumbassery, and Kipling insists that Beck come with him to his clinic at once to begin rabies treatments. This just isn’t Beck’s week, though. He has such a bad reaction to his first shot that Kipling must send him to the hospital, where he spends the next couple days wobbling in and out of deep delirium.

     There’s something much worse and much weirder going on here than a drug allergy, though. Hell, it’s even worse and weirder than rabies. During the night, John has a peculiar episode. He doesn’t become lucid exactly, but he does become active and purposeful. Getting up from his hospital bed, he tracks one of his nurses to a secluded part of the building, kills her, and then feasts on her blood like one of the bats he studies. And at the moment of the attack, Beck undergoes a physical transformation of which we’re allowed to see only a little. The changes are extensive enough, though, to dislodge his patient ID bracelet at the scene of the kill, enabling Sergeant Ward (Michael Pataki, from Sweet Sixteen and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers), the detective investigating the crime, to place Beck there on the night in question. John, for his part, doesn’t consciously remember any of that when he regains full consciousness the following morning. He seems to realize that there’s something to remember, however, and to fear that Ward is on the right track in his unspoken but obvious determination that Beck is the prime suspect in the slaying of the nurse. Beck and Ward alike will only grow more convinced of their shared suspicions as John’s nocturnal transformations become both more frequent and deadlier, even though actual evidence linking him to the murders remains tenuous and circumstantial.

     Meanwhile, Cathy doesn’t know what to think. Her understandable instinct is to resist Ward’s efforts to blame her husband for a series of horrendous crimes— especially once it becomes apparent that the detective envisions setting himself up in her bed once John is safely behind bars. John’s own behavior is undeniably becoming ever more erratic and inexplicable, however, in ways that seem by no means inconsistent with an insane killing spree. Cathy will learn the whole truth eventually, but by then there’ll be a further and yet stranger complication. After all, this movie is (at least sometimes) called The Bat People, and it would hardly do to stick such a plural title on a film with only one bat person.

     Obviously we’ve seen most of this before. “Luckless schmuck becomes murderous monster through no real fault of his or her own” has been the core premise of almost every werewolf movie since at least The Wolf Man, and has driven most of the were-cat and were-snake movies, too. Practically the only reason not to expect more of the same in a were-bat flick is the slight tendency I’ve noticed over the years for cinematic were-whatsits to be more consciously malevolent more or less in proportion to the atypicality of their animal forms. The Bat People throws a few curves, though, that may not be immediately obvious. For instance, although it’s routine enough to pit a sympathetic lycanthrope against an unsympathetic cop, it’s deeply weird to make the cursed protagonist a jerk who is sympathetic only to the extent that he did nothing to earn his supernatural affliction— and it’s even more bizarre to make the cop an authority-abusing bonercreep who inconveniently happens to be right about everything! The Bat People may also be the earliest movie I know of to posit that lycanthropy is sexually transmissible. Those two points then come together in what is by far The Bat People’s most peculiar feature, an ending in which the Becks are reunited in marital bliss due to Cathy coming down with her own case of the flying foxes. What’s more, her first act as an ex-human is to call down a mass airstrike by normal vampire bats on Sergeant Ward! You see how screwy that is, right? Here in what is otherwise just a weary recapitulation of the Larry Talbot story, the seemingly doomed central character lives happily ever after not merely by accepting monsterhood, but by spreading it to his love-interest as well. Meanwhile the evil that gets punished is not the serial slaughter of the innocent, but rather the sexual misconduct of normality’s designated enforcer. The off-kilter denouement helps make this movie worth watching in spite of the limp pace, meandering storyline, drearily unpleasant characters, and crap-lousy monster makeup. (The latter is easily the worst work ever turned out by the otherwise impressively reliable Stan Winston.) You’re still going to be left wishing for something better, or at least for something more inventive, but it’s enough to keep The Bat People from being a complete waste of time.

 

 

Can you believe the B-Masters Cabal turns 20 this year? I sure don't think any of us can! Given the sheer unlikelihood of this event, we've decided to commemorate it with an entire year's worth of review roundtables— four in all. These are going to be a little different from our usual roundtables, however, because the thing we'll be celebrating is us. That is, we'll each be concentrating on the kind of coverage that's kept all of you coming back to our respective sites for all this time. This review belongs to the third roundtable, in which we cover movies which we thought we'd have reviewed a long time ago. Since I've been doing that all along, though, I'm interpreting the theme in a rather more restictive manner, and taking a second (or however-manieth) crack at a couple reviews which I'd already tried to write, but couldn't quite make come together. Click the banner below to peruse the Cabal's combined offerings:

 

 

 

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