When I was a wee one, we used to live right behind a valley that skirted our town. In the summer my friends and I would be out after dark running around the neighborhood, on one condition: we had to take tennis rackets with us. Why you ask? Well, because of the bats, you see; swooping around the street lights with the occasional dive towards an unsuspecting victim, we were forever on the lookout for the winged mammals. Now, we never had to try out our serves; but I’ve always been leery of the buggers (even at the movies) and the interesting sci-fi/horror hybrid Chosen Survivors (1974) does not change my opinion one little bit.
Released by Columbia Pictures in late May and made for under a million, Chosen Survivors did not set the box office on fire nor endear itself to critics at the time, referring to it as a half baked idea better suited for the small screen. This is…fair, actually; except I think what is here is a pretty solid sample of mid ‘70s paranoia cinema mixed with a Nature Gone Wild third biller, which let’s face it could only be made during that decade.
Our film opens with a slow motion montage of a group of ten people, drugged and discombobulated, being led by the military into an elevator hidden on the side of a hill in the New Mexico desert. The credits roll as the elevator holding the ten descends (and descends) to arrive in a futuristic and antiseptic environment, surrounded by giant computers, blinking lights, and hip Ikea furniture. The ten are met by Major Gordon Ellis (Richard Jaeckel – Grizzly), who plays them a video message: they have been selected by the government on the eve of nuclear destruction to hunker and bunker for five years until the ill winds stop blowing and they can help repopulate the new world, or what’s left of it.
This news naturally has everyone up in arms; the wealthy industrialist (Jackie Cooper – Superman), the psychologist (Bradford Dillman – Piranha), the Olympic athlete (Lincoln Kilpatrick – The Omega Man), the entomologist (Diana Muldaur – Star Trek: The Next Generation), the doctor (Barbara Babcock – Hill Street Blues), and the rest react as anyone would do in their situation – panic, fear, rage, and sadness are the order of the day.
But let’s keep in mind that our gang is stuck in a cave 1,758 feet below the surface, and with ventilation not being what it is today, are visited upon by a horde of bloodthirsty vampire bats who turn towards their only viable food alternative – human blood. Can our chosen ones thwart the infestation, and do they need to borrow my racket?
Chosen Survivors wants to be two things at once – a sci-fi sociopolitical dissertation on man’s psyche in a crisis situation, and a killer flying rat movie. The slow motion opening sets up the former very effectively; imagine the fear of being held against your will, taken away from loved ones, who you’ll soon find out will be decimated and turned to dust. It’s quite a creepy start to the film, and one that promises to lean heavily on such topics as loss and regret through the popular sci-fi lens of the day. But this isn’t Testament or The Day After, so I think it’s unfair to lay too much blame for its more surface explorations.
Having said that, there are too many characters to juggle (especially in such a claustrophobic setting) so you’ll essentially end up focusing on Cooper, Jaeckel, and Dillman, who are given the most to do anyway; even with Muldaur and Babcock’s authoritarian roles, the patriarchy settles even before the nuclear dust does. Nor does it really move beyond petty bickering and animosity; the majority of the characters are given little to no (literal) room to breathe, and the film could have benefitted from a touch more insight such as the moment when Jaeckel longingly caresses a photo of his family.
So it comes as a relief when the bats show up 30 minutes in, ready to wreak havoc on the contained and opening up the film a bit; although the footage is augmented with cartoon bats seemingly lifted from Looney Tunes, there are a ton of real ones on display, and director Sutton Roley (a huge TV presence, helming everything from Rat Patrol, Mission: Impossible, to Airwolf) films the attack scenes with a smothering sense of doom, aided by cinematographer Gabriel Torres (The Revengers)’ effective use of blue light when the emergency power kicks in. The hazy aesthetic may recall the medium from which Roley came, but the interesting color schemes (green and red as well) and use of different camera angles give the film a polish that belies the meager budget. At least Roley was trying to break free of the small screen shackles.
The cast is certainly up for it; Dillman gets to ramp up the derangement for the following year’s Bug, and as we know from his portrayal of Superman’s Perry White, Cooper does cranky very well. Of all the characters that screenwriters Harry Spalding (Curse of the Fly) and Joe Reb Moffly (Starsky & Hutch) attach any meaning to, Jaeckel comes off as the most sympathetic.
This would be the biggest criticism I’ve heard leveled against the film: there’s no one to root for. To be honest, they are a fairly unlikeable bunch; some stronger character beats would have definitely aided, and I’m sure a dose of optimism may have helped people accept the situation more.
But Chosen Survivors was made in and for the ‘70s; the Vietnam War, Watergate, and a general distrust between the government and its constituents loomed large during this time (my god am I glad that’s changed); and while the opportunity to really address these issues is ultimately skimmed over, at least you get some icky bat attacks, told with enough style and suspense to glide over any rough spots. Now hand me my racket, would you? It’s getting dark out.
Chosen Survivors is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.Next: Class of 88: Drive-In Dust Offs: BRAIN DAMAGE (1988)