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Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Celluloid Zeroes present Adult Onset Lycanthropy: The Bat People (1974)

Written by Lou Shaw
Directed by Jerry Jameson

Stewart Moss:  Dr. John Beck
Marianne McAndrew:  Cathy Beck
Michael Pataki:  Sergeant Ward
Paul Carr:  Dr. Kipling

American International Pictures, you sat there and you lied to my face. I understand that posters and titles that a movie can't live up to are part of the B movie game, yeah, but this is beyond the pale. How in the hell can you justify making a movie called The Bat People when there's only one Bat Person in it? I realize they're not all going to be as good as Sugar Hill, know...Sugar Hill actually had a character named Sugar Hill in it! The Fog has a ton of fog in it! You owe your audience the courtesy of not completely ripping them off and in this case you have not done that.

The first shot in the film is a solid black screen with bat squeaks on the soundtrack, that eventually resolves itself into a human eyeball and some shots of bats doing bat things. A voice on the soundtrack whispers to "John" and then we get to see the lead doing Movie Nightmare Face Acting in bed next to the actress playing his wife. He's been having some kind of stock-footage-themed nightmare. He tries to go back to sleep as "Angel of Fear", the love theme from The Bat People, plays over the opening credits. Those credits also give us a view of the <Arizona?> desert and a car driving down a lonely dirt road.

Goofing around in the desert, John and his wife Cathy are apparently doing science or stopping for lunch or pondering the bleak uncaring nature of the universe or something. John can hear a noise that he refers to as coming from "them", but doesn't know what it is. Cathy doesn't hear anything but does notice a bat crawling over their picnic blanket in the middle of the day (which doesn't make a huge amount of sense to me; I thought bats were nocturnal). Cathy's terrified of the bat and finds it hideous. John digs bats and keeps forgetting that other people find them nasty. John chucks a rock at the bat, which flaps away (I like to think it's offended at its shabby treatment) and Cathy asks her husband if they can't avoid going to "the caves" today and go do something else.

Assuming John's a caveologist of some kind, he should probably know that his wife hates caves and bats by now--perhaps it would be smarter not bringing her along on his expeditions. As some clunky Seventies style expository dialogue lets the audience know, John's planning to spend all weekend doing work-related Science Stuff in the caves. Cathy refers to other things in life that are not work (or cave-related) that she thought would be happening this weekend. The Beck marriage is apparently reasonably new, and this weekend was supposed to be their honeymoon--which means either the Becks both need to work on their communications skills, or one of them is a thoughtless jerk who won't let the other one have their way in how to spend their time together.

John says he can put his job-related tasks off because Cathy's right, and they were planning to spend time together. Apparently his wife can't take "yes" for an answer because Cathy immediately says John should go on the last cave tour instead (either out of genuine love or a pretty toxic amount of passive-aggressiveness). I'm going to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and say she loves her husband enough that she wants him to go have fun in the cave and do whatever it is for his job that can be done while taking a tour-guide-managed look at the place. The cave is probably pretty interesting, but since the director went for a location shoot and didn't opt for directional microphones instead of some poor sucker toting a boom mike around the tour guide's dialogue is completely unintelligible. Everyone's footsteps on the metal staircase are crystal clear, though.

The Becks decide to sneak off the approved path for a quickie at Cathy's insistence. She scampers away feeling naughty until she falls down a crevasse and lands in a part of the cave where the floor is crawling with mealworms and beetles. Then she just feels panicky and sick. John slides down the stone chute and finds his wife, then says the smart thing to do is just sit tight and wait to be discovered; they don't have a way to get out and don't have equipment to get out of there, so wandering further away from the spot where they fell could be suicidally stupid. Then, of course, John starts hearing the same noise he did back when he was outside in the desert. Now that he's closer to the source of that noise he deduces that it's a flock of bats (one of which divebombs his wife's hair in a manner that real bats probably do not do). Looks like Cathy's having a pretty terrible honeymoon / vacation / research trip.

Another bat--or perhaps the same one, since the scene appears to have been lit with a 40-watt desk lamp and details are hard to come by--attacks John, who knocks it to the ground and curbstomps it to death. It turns out the bat drew blood from his forehead but like all men in Seventies movies he's got a handkerchief with him so he can tidy himself up. Seconds after the bat attack someone starts yelling down to the trapped couple and they are rescued offscreen (after Cathy kicks the bat corpse away, just before John can tell her that he wants to take it up to the surface with them so he can have it tested for rabies). While driving away from the mine, the scenery outside is suddenly snow-covered pine forest rather than scrub desert. I like to imagine the continuity editor shrugging, saying they give up and opening a bottle of Boone's Farm.

Those snowy mountains turn out to be host to a ski resort, where Cathy wanted to go before the ill-fated cave tour. John goes out for a ski himself but winds up having a migraine / psychic flash / bat squeaking hallucination in the cable car, freaking out his wife quite a bit (and getting a pretty good reaction shot from the other people in the ski lift). He doesn't remember experiencing anything so it's time to pad the film a little bit with skiing sequences. I don't care about skiing sequences that much. Maybe we'll get lucky and there will be an avalanche.

The day of skiing turns into a night in a hot tub (surrounded by snow, which another vacationer flops into in some kind of ill-advised sauna experiment). John sips a cocktail in the hot tub and almost chokes to death. He doesn't want to see a doctor (because he's in deep denial) but Cathy insists. Dr. Kipling, the sawbones they consult, says that it's not utterly crucial that John take a series of painful rabies shots that very moment, but that as soon as he finishes his vacation he absolutely needs to start one, since they don't have access to the body of the bat that attacked him so he can either take the injections or risk a painful death from rabies. The disease can take a month to get rolling, so one week before treatment supposedly won't hurt anything. Cathy can't believe that a pair of doctors would shrug and say "Sounds legit" to something like that, but they do until the voice of reason convinces them to do something smart.

That's a wicked big needle that Kipling uses to shoot John up for his first anti-rabies treatment, and literally seconds after the injection the poor sucker starts convulsing. The doctor thinks it's an allergic reaction to the anti-rabies serum, but we viewers know better, don't we? When Cathy runs into him on the slopes she raises her concerns about what's going to happen to John. Kipling says not to worry her pretty little head over it and then drops a massive list of side effects on her. Cathy says the whole laundry list of symptoms were already happening to John before he was given the shot and Kipling takes her back to the hospital.

Since the plot was in danger of moving forward some, it's time for another nightmare / flash-forward / hallucination of bats and a screaming woman being attacked by bats. It turns out that bat-on-a-string effects were still quite dire in 1974, but I find that kind of endearing. I'm taking the fun where I can find it in this one, dear readers. Back in the hospital, John's busy sweating in his sleep and breathing like he wants to make an obscene phone call. BUT SUDDENLY! he starts developing blotchy grey skin, webbed fingers, lots of hair on the backs of his hands and other symptoms of early-stage Kirk Langstrom syndrome. His face remains human as he looks into the mirror but maybe he's supposed to have gone more monstrous because when he leaves his room he scares a nurse into stumbling through a window and slashing her throat (I think). Have I mentioned that the editing in the movie makes it tough to determine what's going on some of the time? Because it totally does.

The next morning John's in bed getting his temperature taken when a nurse finds his wedding ring on the floor of his room. It won't fit back on his post-bat-mutation finger, which is actually a really neat touch and I would like to credit the screenwriter for it. The nurse taking his temperature says the night nurse's death was some kind of horrible accident (but, in keeping with the way people talk in horror movies, can't quite get all the words out before she flees under the stress of all the terrible things happening). Cathy comes in to see John struggling with putting his wedding ring back on and he says he wants her to find a psychiatrist, and then snaps at her (mood swings! One of the rabies symptoms as well as reaction-to-the-vaccine symptoms that Kipling talked about!) when she wonders why.

It turns out that John's been discharged from the hospital when he wasn't looking, but he's suspicious and scared enough of what's happening to him that he wants to stay. But as soon as he tells his wife that he wants to remain at the hospital he changes his mind and declares they can go to the hotel. As a way to apologize for being such a rude, thoughtless asshole to his wife John buys a nice blouse at a clothing store in town--at least he realizes what he's doing and wants to make some amends. I prefer my unwitting lycanthropes to be remorseful rather than joyous. At the store John has an episode and Sergeant Ward, a deputy with the sheriff's department that happened to be walking by comes in to express his concern for Dr. Beck. Beck, in a lot of pain and trying to conceal his Bat Hand, is pretty short-tempered with the guy.

The conversation tapers off after Ward compliments the loveliness of Cathy Beck, which at least gives John an excuse for wanting to get the hell away from that dude as possible. He exits the shop, surprised to see that his left hand is completely normal. Ward pursues him and it turns out that the officer wants to know how Beck's hospital ID bracelet wound up next to the dead nurse; Beck decides not to go with the "I am turning into a Bat Person, please lock me up" response that I was halfway expecting. Sergeant Ward also points out that the plastic bracelet--which is still in one piece--won't fit over Beck's hand so there's two questions with no easy answers about how that bracelet wound up next to the body.

But enough of that "narrative progression" shit, it's time for the Becks to have a candlelit dinner and retire to bed so John can sweat, thrash and have another nightmare. Cathy sleeps through her husband getting out of bed and running out to beat up a mannequin to steal its jacket. A couple hanging out in a truck are sharing a doobie, which by the prevailing morality of the time means they're dead people walking. Sergeant Ward, on hour seventeen of his shift, has found the mannequin but doesn't really know what to make of it. The two people necking in the truck decide to call it a night; the guy leaves and the woman is seriously less than impressed with his skills. She gets chased by were-bat John to her trailer, screaming (but being ignored by everyone around her), and her screams as Man-Bat takes her down transfer to John's ludicrously overwrought Terror Shrieks as he sits bolt up in bed, covered (again) with sweat. Cathy tries to soothe him, but I think her husband is starting to put two and two together re:  deaths, his nightmares, the bat bite and his mutated hand.

Once the body is found, Sergeant Ward goes to the hotel to wake Cathy up so she can wake her husband up and talk to The Man. Ward decided to bother Dr. Beck at three in the morning because the most recent murder victim (who had her throat torn open by a mystery assailant) knocked a bandage off of the hand of whoever killed her. And, wouldn't you know it, Beck doesn't have his own wound dressing on right now. The sergeant doesn't have the bandage in an evidence baggie or anything so he's getting his own fingerprints on it and disrupting the hell out of the chain of custody if he ever wants to use that bandage in court.

The next day, John talks to Kipling about how he wants to be sedated. Kipling (as a doctor in a ski resort town might well do) decides to give him the good stuff, promising that it'll knock him out like a light. He also gives John a really good weird fake alibi for why he wound up being near the night nurse's body but can't remember it (and for the previous night's Murder Jaunt as well). Apparently Kipling thinks all the weirdness and fragmented memories that John had can be explained by a combination of stress, guilt over not being able to help the night nurse after her "accident", nightmares and adverse reactions to the rabies shot. He's actually really good at plausible deniability and I think his talents are wasted in the ski town. Washington, D. C. needs someone with his bullshit-spewing abilities. He also says that Cathy needs to back her husband up with whatever he wants or needs, which sounds about right for the mid-Seventies.

Back at the hospital, John has another episode (and, humorously enough, tries to tell Cathy he's just tired while in the middle of a seizure). It appears that another Bat Person episode is coming on and he stares into the mirror to see if he starts changing while people go nuts playing a trumpet, harp and chimes on the soundtrack. John locks himself in another room in the hospital and bugs out, stealing an unattended ambulance and zipping off with the lights and siren going. Of course it's Sergeant Ward who hears the call over the police radio to find the thief (with the dispatch officer saying twice over the air that the orders are to capture Beck without shooting him). The car chase goes past some spectacularly ugly and buildings in town, but is otherwise not worth commenting on. Beck eventually drives off the road and rolls the ambulance after ditching Ward in his patrol car.

Beck runs off into the desert (and I can see snow-covered mountains in the background, so I take back the nasty things I said about the continuity editor earlier and transfer my ire to the cinematographers that took fifty minutes to establish the local geography of the place their film was set). He winds up hiding out in an abandoned barn or huge shed, apparently not planning any farther than "the sun is hot and I want to be inside". Back in town, Sergeant Ward is questioning Cathy about whether or not John was in the hotel room all night when the local woman was killed. Cathy says her husband never did anything violent in his entire life, and Ward counters with the on-point observation that Dr. Beck probably never wrecked a stolen ambulance before either, but something's obviously up with him over the last couple of days.

And back in the barn-shed-whatever building, Dr. Beck gets startled by a homeless guy, who he almost clocks with a shovel. The homeless guy is a Comical Drunk(tm) of the kind that movies didn't really use much past the early 1960s or so, offering a nip from whatever rotgut he has in his paper sack and yet also referring to himself as a free spirit untethered by square concerns. So a combination of wino, hobo, and hippie, I guess. He rambles for about the same timespan as it takes for a field of barley to sprout, ripen, be harvested, baked into bread and then fed to an orc. But he's also broken his hand in his hobo adventures and Dr. Beck wants to take a look at him to make sure everything's okay--he's in a more rational frame of mind right now, it looks like.

Beck does what he can for the homeless guy's hand with the available materials (not much), and while rambling about all sorts of stuff I didn't pay attention to the homeless guy offers his benefactor a sip of Osco Scotch from his ever-present bottle. John tries it but can't bring himself to swallow it (either he's having another rabies-like episode or he got a good taste of the bottom-tier booze and can't bring himself to consume it). Maybe he's a Night Train man. But when he experiences that triggering stressor, he has another Bat Squeaking Visionquest and starts to change again. The film cuts back to Sergeant Ward calling out an APB on the doctor before we can get anything more than a look at his hand, which is going kind of greyish.

The doctor turns into a POV camera to attack the homeless guy, who is the first male victim of the Bat Person. Dr. Beck wanders around somewhere else while Ward winds up at the crime scene in the barn as the body is hauled away. It sure does look like the law will eventually wind up finding Beck, but at this precise moment he's sneaking into a cave, having heard the squeaking of some bats inside. That night, back in town, Sergeant Ward drives by Cathy, who is out on foot trying to clear her head and possibly stumble across her husband's path. Ward, for his part, seems genuinely concerned for Mrs. Beck but does ask her to leave the ongoing search to the professionals. He's also sharp enough to go into the hotel first rather than let her open the door just in case John is back there.

Ward isn't averse to drinking on duty, and helps himself to a little of the top-shelf liquor in the room while asking Cathy about whether or not John is a psychopath. She breaks down crying during the interrogation and Ward gives her a comforting hug (which, this movie being from 1974, made me wonder if he was going to put the moves on Cathy, and he does--and she's utterly repulsed by it). Which means I'm now rooting for the Bat Person rather than the forces of law and right. If I'm really lucky I'll get a good look at the full-body werebat makeup when it happens.

Speaking of the Bat Person, he's hiding in the same cave where Cathy fell down the stone slope in the first act. And when he sneaks up on a tourist and pulls her away from the group while everyone else is paying attention to the tour guide, it sure does look like we're going to get an actual look at his transformed body. But we don't, since the next thing we see is the fully human John looking around in the cave complex's parking lot to see which car belongs to the person whose keys he swiped. It turns out to be a rather hideous brown station wagon (parked next to another brown station wagon, because the film was made in 1974). John sneaks into the town hospital wearing a white lab coat and searches for the anti-rabies vaccine--a helpful night nurse lets him know where it's stored but he has another pre-transformation seizure before he can inject it. The nurse doesn't know he's a Bat Person, but does know something's up (especially when Dr. Beck clamps a hand over her mouth, telling her not to scream, and gives her a terrified and terrifying rictus that probably started life as a friendly reassuring grin).

In lieu of killing the nurse Dr. Beck makes an unauthorized withdrawal from the hospital blood back and drinks a pint of Type B straight from the pouch. He can't keep hold of the nurse while doing that, though, so she runs out into the hallway...and straight into Sergeant Ward. He zips back to the sheriff's station, where it turns out that Beck has left a taped confession that he realizes he's turning into a Man-Bat. There's a pretty neat transition of Ward listening to the tape in the sheriff's station, then in his car, and then in Dr. Kipling's office with Cathy (which means that the film doesn't need to show all the scenes of those characters getting together to listen to the tape). Cathy doesn't think that there's any such thing as Man-Bats, of course, and rightfully so. She thinks that her husband is losing his mind and will die in the desert while in the grip of his hallucinations.

Ward's question to Kipling after hearing the tape is more pragmatic:  Does Dr. Beck really think he is turning into a Bat Person out there in the desert? Because whether or not lycanthropes are real, people who think they're turning into homicidal bat creatures are (and are psychotic, and possibly rabid to boot). I bet if Ward sees Dr. Beck out there in his jurisdiction he's just going to shoot the guy four times and claim it was self-defense. And then try to put the moves on his widow, just 'cause he can.

Cathy goes back to the hotel room after the confab with Kipling and Ward, and John is there waiting. He tells her not to turn the light on (which means we still don't get a look at the goddamned Bat Person makeup). She is terrified both for him and of him, and all we see is one of his eyes while he hides in the shadows and tries to tell his wife that everything's different now and she needs to flee wherever it is that they are now so he can live in a cave and be a Bat Person. Ward interrupts their conversation but doesn't enter the hotel room, so he doesn't find Dr. Beck there. And when Cathy finally does turn on the light it's a complete letdown because John hasn't gone Full Chiroptera on her. Or even Full Big Creepy Grey Hand. Just another shot of Stewart Moss and his sweaty face. Cathy kisses him and tries to tell him everything's going to be okay, which leads to them tumbling into bed for some soft-focus closeups on John's back. Ward is parked out in front of the motel, and leaves just before the lovemaking starts the change in John--when his wife opens her eyes and looks up at her husband she's going to have quite a shock. Especially if she sees his nicotine-stained teeth (and fangs). They get their own closeup and they're the nastiest thing in the film so far.

When Cathy does open her eyes and look at her husband we get a Monster Movie Scream out of her that rates about a C+ and the hotel manager runs over to the room to see if she's all right. He opens the door and finds her alone in bed; he tries to reassure her but she's disoriented and naked and probably would just like the guy to leave, please. She probably thinks it might have been some kind of nightmare except that she finds a necklace on the nightstand (that I don't remember seeing before, but who cares at this point) and weeps. She leaves a message for Sergeant Ward about her husband and the caves outside of town; Ward goes looking for Dr. Beck--who is fully human when the lawman arrives and starts waving a flashlight around.

I guess the next scene is supposed to be suspenseful, but it's mostly just shots of actors walking towards the camera in the cave and then walking away from it. I'm amazed that Ward took as long as he did to find Dr. Beck considering all the noise the transformed man was making, but when the sergeant starts beating John down with his flashlight it triggers an instant metamorphosis and we finally get a brief look at Beck in Man-Bat mode. It's nothing special, but at the very least it means we're getting a damned monster in the monster movie, finally. It's a very early Stan Winston effect but we don't really get a good enough look at it for me to say whether or not it's anything more than a decent bat mask on an actor, filmed in the dark in a cave. Beck does deliver a full-strength beatdown on Ward before fleeing (sure, don't kill the one guy in the movie who sorta has it coming). A tedious stalking / fleeing sequence follows, where the sergeant goes out to the light and John hides in the darkness of the cave.

Back in town, some nameless deputy is treating the bruises and lacerations on Ward's face while Cathy asks him what the heck is going on and whether her husband is safe. Ward testily responds that he doesn't know either answer. Ward gets ready to go out into the cave and kill John, but Cathy hears something just like her husband did during the first act (which means that turning into a bat monster is a sexually transmitted disease, and that if the movie ran another hour or so we might get two actual Bat People in it). Ward drives off to...well, I assume he's going to find John and kill him, but he didn't really say. And then there's lots of stock footage of bats. Because once you finally have some narrative momentum built up you want to kill it with stock footage as soon as possible.

Night falls and lots of bats wipe out on the patrol car windows as Sergeant Ward drives to the caves. Because confronting the monster on its own turf in the dark is a survival strategy. Ward gets frightened as he realizes the bats are attacking his car (or at least trying to) while Cathy sounds like she took a few of her husbands tranks when she talks to the sergeant. Ward can't see anything with all the bat blood on his windshield and drives off the road (but just onto some scrubland, not off a cliff or anything). He gets mired in the sand and calls in an emergency without explaining his situation or anything. Cathy opens the door and a bat swarm attacks Ward in the car (so we don't even see the monster defeat his antagonist). Ward fights as many of the bats as he can but blows his own head off rather than succumbing to a profusion of tiny bite wounds. Maybe he thought he was infected too and didn't want to become another Bat Person. Cathy walks off towards the cave, I think, but the shot is so dark all I know is that she's in it and walking. The end titles appear seconds after she fades into the darkness, so the film is officially over.

Well, that serves me right. I picked up a few four-movies-on-one-DVD sets in April of 2015 at the Riverside Drive-In, located in scenic Vandergrift, Pennsylvania. I've gone to more than half a dozen horror movie marathons there and that time bought the cheapest DVD sets from Creepy Classics, who bring hundreds of discs down to sell them in an environment full of their target market, with the most movies so that I could pack the archives with as many B movies in as cost-effective manner as possible. Which means I knew that the distributors figured nobody would spend more than $2.50 on this film and they were completely right. The movie never really goes anywhere or does anything for huge stretches of its running time. If you've ever seen a "man turns into a beast" horror movie before you're fully aware of every plot point before it arrives and there's nothing to do but be bored by the plodding narrative until the next obligatory scene takes place. We never really get a good look at the bat makeup, which is a real shame because people watch monster movies to eventually see the monster.

It's just sorta there--the kind of film that AIP made to release to drive-ins and fleapit theaters all over America. Now, of course, the bottom-feeding ecological niche for world cinema is occupied by SyFy Channel originals like Sharknado (which has a much better title than The Bat People, which was also released--and used in a late-season episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000--as It Lives By Night). 1974 was the year that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre upended all the rules for horror filmmaking (and made a ton of money to boot); releasing this movie--which repeats all the story beats from a werewolf movie made three decades earlier--at that point had to seem like much too little, far too late from AIP. It's too bad that things worked out the way they did, but this is one of those films that is more a product than a work of art. It's just at thing meant to sell tickets and separate some teenagers from their allowances.

I just don't think anybody involved with this one wanted to say anything. Everyone just sorta showed up and did their jobs, and the people who filmed the night scenes were utterly unequal to the task (which might well have happened thanks to the limitations of the equipment and film stock at the time, but that doesn't make the onscreen action any more legible when it's the fault of the actual film rather than the lighting crew or the cinematographer). 


This film is part of a celebration of people turning into animal monsters, courtesy of me and my friends in the Celluloid Zeroes. The other participants have things to say about their own selections for this genre.

Cinemasochist Apocalypse checks out werewolves in the land of the rising sun with Kibakichi.

Las Peliculas de Terror joins the Celluloid Zeroes for their first roundtable by reviewing The Beast Within.

Micro-Brewed Reviews tunes in a made-for-television movie and examines the Curse of the Black Widow.

Psychoplasmics partakes in their first CZ roundtable by tracking down An American Werewolf in London.

The Terrible Claw Reviews hits one key on the keyboard repeatedly for Sssssss.

The Tomb of Anubis returns to the Celluloid Zeroes fold and digs up Romasanta.

The Web of the Big Damn Spider goes to Summer School, also joining us for their first  Celluloid Zeroes roundtable.


  1. Do orcs eat barley bread?

    I think I might have to skip this one.

    1. Of course they do. My joke wouldn't make any sense if they didn't.