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Unleash the Savage Instincts: The Bat People (1974)

The Bat People is a quintessential American International Pictures release in that it is an out and proud monster movie that carries on what the company delivered from the beginning. However, because the film is a product of the seventies and influenced by sociological transgressions as well as cinematic tropes such as subdued introspective character development, the film is much more a mood-piece than a warts and all horror show with the featured movie monster being a complicated and traumatized unfortunate continually tormented by fevered dreams and hallucinations. The film employs the horror of circumstance where a curse is bestowed upon a young urban professional who will undergo a monstrous transformation that will eventually have him succumb to a bestial existence, which has him removing himself from human civilization. While the film allows the were-vampire bat to have some traditionally “let’s scare the human populous” moments, the film is far more invested in keeping him alienated from his own personal vendettas and carnal lust. In fact, the film is a representation of a benign monster; a perpetual outsider who learns to understand the solo-route all too well, but is permitted a happy ending when his wife also succumbs to the “curse/gift” and joins him as a were-vampire bat bride.

The Bat People is a quaint and even romantic film with good performances most notably from its two leads, thoughtful direction from Jerry Jameson (his first feature film) and early SFX make-up work by master magician Stan Winston. Winston had developed even more impressive make-ups in the 1972 television movie Gargoyles which thankfully are lit beautifully and have a lot of screen time for monster movie fans to enjoy. Sadly, this is not the case here in The Bat People. For most of the film, the design is shot in extreme close-up and also in near complete darkness. However, the sculpt is impressive and showcases some inspired techniques that Winston will eventually develop and bring to his excellent repertoire. Throughout his career, a lot of the prototypes Winston would work on would end up as variants of design in follow up films, and The Bat People is no exception. Aspects of the look of the bat-man would serve as a basis of the motorcycle riding monkeys in the Motown flavored musical The Wiz (1978) (which would in turn feature sculpts dressing the crows that torment young Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow that would eventually become the basis for Danny DeVito’s beak as the Penguin in Batman Returns (1992)). What is lacking in the monster movie make-up department is made up by the nuanced cinematography which bounces from crisp realism (the lovely imagery of the ski resort springs to mind) to a surrealist dreamscape that most definitely captures a man losing his mind and falling into a vortex of otherworldliness. This inspired and captivating imagery makes up the lack of monster visibility, and marks a distinct commentary on the topsy turvy world of mental decay. Rabies gets thrown around a bit as the protagonist is treated for the bat bite that sends him into a foaming frenzy, and the camera work and angles compliment this scientific explanation by distilling the diagnosis with stark realism – however, because the film is not at all about rabies, and actually fundamentally in essence a werewolf movie where someone is bitten by a beast and goes through changes, the direction takes on a surrealist approach and favors such visual styling during dream sequences as well as transformation scenes. It is a marvel to watch the lead having to deal with a newfound monstrous existence and it’s even more nourishing as we learn that he is accepting such a newly developed state that will be welcomed and honored.

The plot is simple: A young doctor (Stewart Moss) who has recently married, decides to take his lovely wife (Marianne McAndrew) on a romantic trip which includes a visit to some beautiful caverns and caves. While he is there he is bitten by a bat. After being treated for rabies, he insists they continue their romantic getaway and not let the unfortunate attack get in the way. On a skiing trip however, Moss begins to have hallucinations and strange nightmares and begins to feel the effects of the bite. He also starts to believe that he is transforming into a bat. This upsets his wife, but she desperately tries to keep her man sane and stable. When Moss is treated for these delusions and panic attacks, the treatment he receives starts to aggravate his condition and his metamorphosis gradually gets out of hand. But his newfound bestial self is not as threatening or as menacing as that of a local police sergeant played by a loathsome Michael Pataki, who not only takes an instant disliking to the poor bat man but also attempts to rape McAndrew.

Director Jerry Jameson seems to be interested in the notion of human nastiness as opposed to animalistic reflex – he sets up the Pataki character as a sleazy nuisance and has his monstrous hero remain sensitive even in such a perplexed and confused state. What Jameson’s film suggests is that real evil is done at the hands of those who have a supposed intellectual connection to their actions (humanism) whereas the bestial element in the film is the natural order and the pure and comprehensible obligation that comes with being animal. As quiet as the violence is in The Bat People, its politics are vibrantly painted in broad colors that truly remark on the polar opposites of sensitive beasts versus opportunistic men. While Stewart Moss is a soft spoken intellectual, he is also just as sensitive in his vampire bat state, and although there are some deaths along the way, he is a creature of cautionary tales that have been passed on throughout the ages. The true monster of the piece comes in the form of medical malpractice, corrupt policemen and insensitivity. Moss’s relationship with his wife (the two leads would be a married couple in reality) is a strained one, however it is completely reinvented and salvaged once she too becomes a creature of the night.

This important factor of the two leads being able to live as monsters away from the civilized world is a rarity in monster movie history and here it works nicely as it seems to be the only option for a film about sensitive creatures. Rather than have our monster Moss lynched and killed by an angry mob or gunned down by the loutish Pataki, the poor bat-person is joined by his wife into the depths of the cavernous underworld of the Californian deserts. She too becomes a werebat and the two retreat for the day, hiding from the sunlight and ready to reemerge into the night. In many ways, this film could be the precursor to a film like Mike Nichols’ Wolf (1994) where lycanthropes Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer race through the woods at the end of the picture as fully formed wolves free from a world that never understood them as people. Both films – The Bat People and Wolf – permit their monsters a happy ending as long as the monstrous bestial leads live in darkness and outside of civilized normalcy. However, there is a suggested promise that life can be enjoyed in an animalistic state and this is the case at hand for The Bat People as opposed to the doomed animalistic people in Sssssss (1973) and the extremely inventive The Beast Within (1981).

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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