Are you familiar with the screenwriter John Logan? He’s been nominated for three Oscars – for GLADIATOR, THE AVIATOR, and HUGO. He also wrote THE LAST SAMURAI, SKYFALL and ALIEN: COVENANT, among others. But his first movie and his most recent one (which was his directorial debut) are both sorta lowbrow horror movies. So let’s take a look at those.
First up is BATS. (Note that I did not, and would not, write “first up to bat is BATS.” So give me some credit.) I remember this coming out in 1999 and I’m surprised I waited this long to ever see it. Not that it has aged well. Other than some KNB puppetry and a few other signs of production value, it’s hard to distinguish from hundreds of SyFy Channel movies* in the ensuing decades. But I will try.
*the 2007 sequel, BATS: HUMAN HARVEST, was in fact made for the Sci-Fi Channel
Director Louis Morneau (CARONSAUR 2, THE HITCHER II: I’VE BEEN WAITING, JOY RIDE 2: DEAD AHEAD) brings us the story of a swarm of genetically altered bats terrorizing the small town of Gallup, Texas. It opens with the funny idea of two teens getting batted to death in a car at a makeout spot, but to be honest the chaotic shots and editing left me totally unclear what was supposed to have happened. We don’t even get a funny skeleton.
But there’s some pretty great gore when the bodies are later shown to Dr. Sheila Casper (Dina Meyer, JOHNNY MNEMONIC), a respected chiropterologist flown in by the CDC, along with her wisecracking computer screen looker Jimmy (Leon, BAND OF THE HAND), in the enjoyably JURASSIC-PARK-like set up scenes. I wish Dr. Ian Malcolm would just be in all these scientist adventure movies, they always bring him along to see what he has to add.
Instead they have Dr. Alexander McCabe (Bob Gunton, BROKEN ARROW), the motherfucker who created the bats, who pretends to have had a legitimate reason but can barely hide that he’s an evil mad scientist who’s gonna make a funny evil speech at the end and go outside and get eaten by his own creation (spoiler) in what is a pretty funny scene despite not being as gleefully gory as it would be if this movie was the real deal.
Also present is Sheriff Emmett Kimsey (Lou Diamond Phillips, who deserved so much better than this after his great turn in THE BIG HIT) and CDC expert Tobe Hodge (Carlos Jacott, “Dog Walker,” THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO). When they’re told they have to find and kill the bats, Sheila says she’ll help find them but absolutely will not kill them, then they pretend like they’re on the same page and get to it. And later she seems to have forgotten she wasn’t going to kill them.
They catch a bat and put a tracking device on it, but the other bats kill it. Genetically altered bats hate a snitch. Obviously Jimmy is able to tappity tap on his laptop briefly and come up with an animated map showing how the bats will spread and destroy humanity or whatever. The National Guard reluctantly allows 48 hours to stop the bats before they’re gonna blow up the whole town to be safe. Our guys are given satellite infrared photography of a swarm of bats in a nearby mine and luckily they have the expert, Sheila, on hand to look at it and say yes, those bats are the bats that we’re looking for.
They set up in a small school, which they fortify for a siege. They decide the way to kill them is to get them cold, but there’s a heatwave, so (in my favorite part) Sheila tells Jimmy to “get on the phone with Langley,” and next thing you know they’re being delivered an industrial cooler that will kill all the bats. I imagine he called and said, “CIA? This is Jimmy. Sheila’s assistant. Look, what do you got for freezing bats? And how fast can you ship it?”
In the finale, the National Guard troops all got killed by bats before turning on the cooler thing, and bomber jets are on their way to RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD the place, but our guys have decided that for sure one of the bats would get away and still spread it so they heroically stay to try to turn on the machine. Even Jimmy stops joking to be a hero and stay nearby looking at his laptop somehow knowing how many minutes away the jets are.
I’m always happy to see Leon, star of the Seattle-filmed BAD ATTITUDE, so no disrespect to him, but this is about as straight up a version of the Funny Black Sidekick stereotype as you could have. Yes, he has some expertise that comes in handy, but it never seems to be his primary reason for being there. He does contribute a MacGyvered electric fence system but it doesn’t work or they forget to use it or something so he has to switch to a blowtorch.
I got a mild kick out of this movie, but I’m sure I’ll never want to watch it again. They obviously knew it was ridiculous, and were wise enough to play it straight anyway, but it just feels low rent and bland compared to other similar movies of the era like DEEP BLUE SEA or HOLLOW MAN. The murky transfer of the DVD wasn’t helping, so I probly should’ve checked what the streaming options were. I do appreciate that other than, obviously, the swarms of bats, it doesn’t resort to crude CG like some of the other late ‘90s movies did. The highlight is when you get closeups of the little guys, which do not appear to be sophisticated animatronics, more of a Boglins rubber puppet type look. They kinda reminded me of ghoulies.
Another highlight is that the title is written upside down. Like a bat. That was cool.
BATS came out October 22nd, a week after FIGHT CLUB. It opened in 7th place and was hammered by fellow new releases THE BEST MAN and BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, but made more than THREE TO TANGO, CRAZY IN ALABAMA and BODY SHOTS. The next week HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL opened in first place, so they did a better job of riding that Halloween spook wave, I guess. But a month later the Logan-scripted HBO movie RKO 281 came out, and a month after that his Oliver Stone movie ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, and five months after that his Ridley Scott movie GLADIATOR, which was a huge hit, got him his first Oscar nomination and won best picture, so I doubt he was thinking too much about killer bats by then. Unless it’s an obsession of his, that’s totally possible but not something I can confirm.
Decades later, Logan wrote and directed the Blumhouse-produced slasher movie THEY/THEM, which went straight to Peacock in the summer of 2022. At the time I tweeted an honest observation that if it had been in theaters I would’ve seen it on opening day, but I wasn’t going to sign up for another streaming service to see it. A generous friend immediately gave me a login on his Peacock account, and I proceeded to watch other stuff instead.
Maybe it was good to stay out of its very brief, very small moment of discourse before disappearing into the mists of forgotten streaming exclusives. It’s set at a gay conversion camp, so most of the characters are gay or trans, and related issues are always upfront. It got pretty bad reviews, for horror-movie reasons I Iargely agree with, but it was also (at least according to this Bloody Disgusting editorial) “almost universally rejected by the queer community.”
It wouldn’t be my place to defend how the movie handles LGBT issues (or really to object, if I did, because Logan is gay and telling an obviously personal story). What I can say is that I come to it as an obsessive viewer of slasher movies for around 35 years, and I think it plays very interestingly within the context of that lineage.
Kevin Bacon is the marquee name, and his presence has a double meaning to horror fans. Number one, obviously it’s cool in a meta way for a guy who was in the original FRIDAY THE 13TH to come back and do another summer camp slasher. And #2, he has that Ethan Hawke thing – a major mainstream movie star who has a pretty good eye for interesting genre material, and respects it enough to treat it just as seriously as his classier works. He’s never content to just be the name that gets the movie made. He wants to do the job.
Bacon stars as Owen Whistler, proprietor of Whistler Camp. When the campers arrive, mostly against their will, they stand skeptically as he gives a too-good-to-be-true welcome speech, swearing that it’s not what they think, they won’t hear any “homophobic bullshit” or anything about God, and he won’t try to convert them, he just wants them to be who they are. He introduces the staff: his wife Cora (Carrie Preston, MERCURY RISING), the buff athletic instructor Zane (Boone Platt, “Masked Man,” THE GRAY MAN, “Checkpoint Mercenary #2,” BLACK ADAM), social director Sarah (Hayley Griffith, SATANIC PANIC), and nurse Molly (Anna Chlumsky, MY GIRL 1-2), who (notably) he mentions is new, so she’s an insider-outsider character who could be on either side.
Owen directs them to the boys and girls cabins, which of course creates a problem: when the crowd parts, they leave one person standing in the middle. Jordan (Theo Germaine, NIGHT’S END) explains that they are a trans male who uses they/them pronouns and identifies as non-binary. Owen politely admits he needs to consider these things, says “I respect your transition” and proposes staying in the boys cabin for now, if it’s okay, and thank you for understanding. He seems to continue this attempt at supportiveness when they sit for a group therapy session and explain what brought them all there.
Jordan comes from a military family, which is used as shorthand for both “my family is tough on me” and “I have ample experience with guns.” From the beginning they squint more suspiciously at all this than anyone, exhibiting the classic Final Girl quality of being the most observant, noticing danger before everyone else. I thought holy shit, are we getting a Final Non-Binary Person? But I don’t think that’s accurate, mainly because we never get to a point where everyone else has been picked off. Instead I see Jordan as a gender fluid take on a James Dean rebel type character, or an action hero, fearlessly standing up up to authority, investigating what’s really going on, until eventually cracking and showing emotional vulnerability, but ultimately taking charge to protect the others.
Those others include the effeminate Toby (Austin Crute, “Justin Bieber” from Atlanta), handsome jock dude Stu (Cooper Koch, SWALLOWED), gender ambiguous Gabriel (Darwin del Fabro, DANGEROUS LIAISONS ), sarcastic bisexual Veronica (Monique Kim, LOOKS THAT KILL), naive rich girl Kim (Anna Lore, “Stephanie Brown,” Gotham Knights), and lanky trans woman Alexandra (Quei Tann, How to Get Away with Murder).
This set of characters is clearly designed to not be a monolith. Stu is openly transphobic. Kim is not but admits she’s never met a trans person. She lives in a suburb where she’s afraid to come out and says that back home she’d be afraid to talk to Veronica just because of her shaved and dyed hair.
We seem to be getting into FRIDAY THE 13TH territory when Alexandra is taking a shower at night and the camera movement suggests someone sneaking up on her. She turns and screams in terror… at a staff member who apparently sees her genitalia, and reports to Owen that she hid being trans.
That’s the first proof that Owen and staff aren’t the enlightened pals they purport to be. Owen accuses Alexandra of lying and makes her stay in the boys cabin and wear boys clothes (which she has to borrow). Jordan is kind in this upsetting situation and there’s a sort of camaraderie between the two of them. It’s obvious, but needs to be mentioned, that the most famous non-FRIDAY-THE-13TH summer camp slasher movie is SLEEPAWAY CAMP, which caught on almost entirely on the basis of the shock ending where little girl Angela is not only revealed as the killer, but as having a penis. It might be wrong to call Angela trans, as she’s been forced to live as a girl by an abusive aunt. But I think we can all agree that this aspect of the character was meant to be (and accepted as) grotesque, monstrous, freaky. Therefore I just think it’s great that we’ve gotten to the point where it makes perfect sense to have a summer camp slasher where two of the main characters are trans and the movie is 100% on their side and on the side of them being able to be themselves and be treated with respect. And without that even being the main topic.
I have to tell you not as a complaint, necessarily, but more as a description, that THEY/THEM spends more time on creeping discomfort about what the fuck the camp’s problem is than with slasher movie scares. One of the scariest parts is actually the cold open, when a woman’s tires pop on a dark road in the middle of nowhere and then she realizes there was a strip of spikes in the road. Not a good sign. She’s killed by a masked killer who’s mostly absent until the last act – an exception being when the campers are abruptly forced to spend a night in the woods. Jordan and Alexandra see somebody watching them and they stare in fear for a bit before Jordan firmly yells, “Who is that?” and causes the figure to leave, which actually struck me as a realistic way to react to that situation.
In the longstanding slasher tradition there’s an exaggeratedly creepy handyman (Mark Ashworth, “Bartender,” LOGAN) on site to leer at people and make them uncomfortable. In the SLEEPAWAY CAMP mold he’s not only a red herring but also an actual pervert; his computer has a feed to hidden cameras in the showers. In the same scene that reveals this we also see that his cabin is lined with a huge collection of ventriloquist dummies. I love that random and unnecessary character detail.
I think the movie is strongest when the camp’s agenda of promoting traditional gender roles comes out in the open. The “boys” are taken to shoot guns while the “girls” bake pies to then feed to the boys. A ridiculous view of the world slides into real perversity while the campers have to stand there and watch. Some real queasy stuff.
Kim is I think the only character who’s so mistreated at home that she actually hopes to somehow become straight, so it’s a happy moment when she decides instead to kiss Veronica, and I like that they have a moment for Veronica to hesitate to think about whether or not it’s right to go along with it. Kim has just joked that she keeps expecting to see Jason Voorhees (Veronica doesn’t know who that is) and then all the sudden Veronica’s going down on her right there on the dock. First I thought “You can really just do this out in the open at a gay conversion camp and nobody will see you?” Then I thought “Well, I guess there’s pretty public sex in some of the FRIDAY THE 13THs,” which led to “Oh shit, sex = death. They’re gonna get killed.”
But the music (by Italian trip hop group Drum & Lace, NIGHT TEETH, COBWEB) goes for sexy, not scary, and in fact nobody kills them. It’s fine.
Shortly after that Gabriel joins Stu in the water and the next thing you know they’re fucking in a barn, and this one has a full on sexy needle drop, no horror tone at all. (spoiler) But it’s a trick. There’s a horrific turn when one of them turns out to be seducing the other as a cruel setup for Owen to then do electroshock aversion therapy. A complaint I’ve read is that most of the villainous characters are not straight (Zane looks at stolen muscle selfie’s of Stu while dry-humping Sarah), that these are more negative depictions of gay character in horror. I won’t argue but will point out that all the other characters are gay or trans also. Maybe it’s not the empowerment you wanted, but it’s not the same thing as SLEEPAWAY CAMP.
The mysterious killer from this opening – whose mask is two halves stapled together – does return, but relatively briefly, for reasons I will have to go into BIG ASS ENDING SPOILERS to discuss. So here they are. The killer is not Owen or some other homophobe, it’s in fact a former camper out for revenge. That means the characters who get killed are not the campers who you like, but the staff, and once Jordan finds out the identity and motive of the killer their dilemma is not how to survive, but whether or not to try to stop this person.
So it gives you something different from the normal slasher movie thrills you’re instinctively anticipating, and it feels a little off. Also it could be seen as one of those Killmonger type “you started with good intentions, but you’ve gone too far” villains that encourage staying in the middle of the road. But again, I think you gotta consider it in the context of slasher tradition. Whether or not they were right, many people took FRIDAY THE 13TH and imitators as having a conservative message, pointing a scolding finger at the youths who break the rules and enjoy drugs and sex. Stop being naughty or Jason will kill you. This one says stop being a bigot, leave gay and trans people alone. (Sex is fine though. Have fun!) Also, so many movie slashers are explained as being stunted by witnessing some kind of deviant behavior when they were young; here’s a character broken by zealots wrongly treating them as deviant and trying to force them into a different life.
The problem is THEY/THEM is better as a conversation with slasher movies than as a rendition of one. Its big moments aren’t really the kills, and the killer is kind of the side villain, not the main one. During the climax you should be worried about these characters you’ve grown attached to, but you realize the killer isn’t after them. Which is more interesting than effective.
Also there’s a part where they start singing a song I guess by P!nk and it basically becomes a musical number. I didn’t really think that worked but I guess it was worth a try.
I get why this one didn’t really hit with many people. It’s not a must-see for horror fans or a transcendent experience to appeal to everybody else. But I definitely recommend it for anyone who’s as interested as I am in the ongoing evolution of the slasher subgenre and its meanings.
Speaking of meanings, I read that the title is meant to be pronounced THEY SLASH THEM. I like that.