Lucy Lawless vs. Lawless animals

Ah, Lucy… Since Xena: Warrior Princess ended in 2001, Lucy Lawless’s career has been a bit up and down. There have certainly been lulls, between high-profile roles such as her performances in Battlestar Galactica, SpartacusParks and Recreation, and Ash vs. Evil Dead. During these fallow periods between appearances , an actress still wants to work. Though it is probably fair to say, she’s not left in need of a latte since her marriage to Rob Tapert in 1998.

Lawless has always been a small-screen gal. Indeed, her IMDb listing credits her with hardly any leading roles in movies. The fourteen given are dominated by voice work and more-or-less glorified cameos. But on television? There have been a steady stream of parts, both guest appearances on The X Files, Two and a Half Men or Veronica Mars, and more regular roles, such as those mentioned in the opening paragraph. But there are also a pair of TV movies, made in 2005, which had escaped my attention until Tony Lee mentioned them on Facebook. Why had it taken 16 years for me to be informed of these? I will be placing a strongly-worded complaint on this matter.

Still, better late than never. And so, below, you’ll find reviews of these televisual treats. Both of them can, at the time of writing, be found on YouTube, should you be so inclined.

Locusts (2005)

Rating: B-

Dir: David Jackson
Star: Lucy Lawless, John Heard, Dylan Neal, Mike Farrell
a.k.a. Locusts: Day of Destruction

Perhaps the best tribute to this, is the change in Chris’s attitude over the course of proceedings. When it started, she was “Is this a Hallmark movie? Why are we watching it?” But at the end, the first words out of her mouth were, “So, when are we watching Vampire Bats?” Now, do not be under any illusions. I’m not claiming this was unjustly overlooked at the 2005 Academy Awards. But if you have any sensitivity about locusts, grasshoppers, crickets or similar insects, this will dig its mandibles in and pick away at those fears with admirable diligence. And if you haven’t any such sensitivity, there are enough close-ups of their monstrous little faces, to make this change over the course of its 90 minutes.

Maddie Rierdon (Lawless) works for the Department of Agriculture, though her first scene is rather less…well-clad than most civil servants. She is disturbed to find that one of the researchers of whom she has oversight, Dr. Peter Axelrod (Heard), has been engaged in a project, basically to weaponize locusts, e.g. speeding up their life cycle and voracious tendencies. Rierdon orders his scheme shut down, the insects destroyed and Axelrod fired. Of course, it’s never quite that simple, with some of the specimens surviving and escaping. A little later, two gigantic swarms arise on East and West coasts, causing havoc, as well as much, much running and waving of arms. Rierdon needs to find a solution before they merge to form a Locustnado, sorry, super-swarm [it does feel at some points like an Asylum film]. Not helping matters: relationship issues with her other half (Neal), or the military’s eagerness to take off and nuke the site from orbit. Well, at least, use VX nerve agent on American soil.

The insects appear to bear grudges, and take things personally. One of the first things attacked – save for a black couple who have the misfortune to pitch their tent on the ground from which the locusts are about to burst – is a school bus carrying Dr. Axelrod’s little poppet to school. Later on, the farm belonging to the heroine’s father (Farrell, Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt from MASH) comes under siege too. I almost expected them to hang around Maddie’s apartment, or leap out of a closet at her. But all the attacks are more or less similar, with a lot of shots where you can imagine the director yelling, “Flail! FLAIL MORE! We’ll add the locusts in later…” That said, they are fairly well done, especially with regard to conveying the bulk of the swarm. It’s all quite energetic, and there’s definitely no shortage of incident.

Of course, locusts being herbivorous does somewhat limit the threat level. There are later suggestions they’re changing up their diet, and going after livestock and humans. Sadly, this being a TV movie (though originally CBS, rather than Hallmark) limits the scope for gruesome attacks by flying piranha-like creatures. We still get a good scene at Pittsburgh airport. Dr. Axelrod tries to alert the tower to the threat, only to be disbelieved by the supervisor, with a comment about their staff being too busy “trying to avoid flying monkeys”. 45 seconds later, she’s proven wrong, as a cargo plane becomes a giant fireball, courtesy of the locusts. There’s also an attack on the Visalia Citrus Festival, including a brief, surreal shot of a giant orange, the event’s mascot, fleeing the swarm. It’s all helped by a good score from Joseph LoDuca, who composed the soundtrack for the Evil Dead trilogy, and also much of Xena.

A couple of things stand out from a contemporary perspective. Firstly, Axelrod isn’t able to find a job after his dismissal, which seems odd. These days, I’m sure the Chinese would be calling him daily, to discuss exciting opportunities at their Wuhan facility. The other is at the end, where the solution to the plague requires vast quantities of electricity. This requires every individual and business to stop using all non-essential power, so it can be funnelled to the appropriate place. Sadly, I can’t see this kind of national unity prevailing nowadays, where putting a bit of cloth on your face or not, is a divisive political issue. In 2021 America, the locusts would probably win.

Vampire Bats (2005)

Rating: C-

Dir: Eric Bross
Star: Lucy Lawless, Dylan Neal, Liam Waite, Timothy Bottoms

After an unexpectedly decent performance in the ratings for Locusts, and a younger-skewing demographic, a sequel was quickly green-lit. Though its production was not without problems. Shooting for the film in New Orleans was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina, which left Lawless having to flee the city – an experience which helped make her a climate-change activist. The final week had to be relocated to Nova Scotia as a result – and you can tell. For example, the cemetery you see in the opening scene, is not the traditional New Orleans one with the raised tombs as originally planned, but the standard Canadian variety. Other locations seen in the film were simply wiped out by the hurricane.

For this viewer, more of a problem was an apparent pandering to that younger demographic, such as a lengthy opening sequence in which college kids have a party. Excuse me, can we fast forward to the animal savagery? There is way too much of that kind of thing throughout the entire film, and not nearly enough of them dying, terrified and alone. The excuse is that both Maggie Rierdon (Lawless) and her boyfriend Dan Dryer (Neal) are now lecturers at a New Orleans college, rather than a civil servant as Rierdon was in Locusts. This one is also set up as more of a mystery. While we knew the origins of the locusts from the beginning in the first movie, things begin here with a series of unexplained deaths in which the victims are drained of blood. However, there really is little or no suspense about the cause, given the film is called Vampire Bats.

Rierdon shoe-horns herself into the investigation after a couple of her students are accused of the first murder; nice that the police let a college lecturer interview murder suspects in custody. When the truth comes out, it’s right in her wheel-house, and at least here, the animals in question are more of a threat. The attacks are quite well-staged, using a mix of animatronics (for the close-ups) and CGI (when they’re flocking), with a surprising amount of gnawing. The best is a pair of simultaneous assaults, on a faculty cocktail evening and a student rave. Though we were distracted by the remarkably high production values at the latter, especially considering it takes place in a steam tunnel and charges attendees only $10, including all they can drink of ecstasy-laced punch. Sadly, we never got to see a third Rierdon film, exploring the topic of financial management at underground collegiate parties.

There’s a particularly ecological bent here, with the cause being illegal waste dumping into water, which makes its way up the food chain into the bats. But even though it ends with a similarly questionable solution as Locusts, it lacks the loopy insanity which made that such an unexpected guilty pleasure. There’s an earnest quality here, which is at odds with the material, and makes for a less entertaining experience. Though I was amused to discover that bats apparently have about as much of a tolerance for shitty rave music as I do.