John Logan horror double feature: Bats (1999) and They/Them (2022)

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 [2016]), 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.

This entry was posted on Thursday, October 19th, 2023 at 3:11 pm and is filed under Reviews, Horror. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

11 Responses to “John Logan horror double feature: Bats (1999) and They/Them (2022)”

  1. Shit, now I have to find a new title for my project about the giants ants from Them! fighting Wes Craven’s They.

    I don’t know, I’m probably on my own on this, but it seems a lot of this new ‘diverse’ wave of horror (nuScream, Jordan Peele, et al) want to do horror movies with lots of minorities, but then they don’t want to depict any of those minorities actually getting killed. And fine, there are a lot of horror movies that don’t have a ton of kills, but these are specifically slasher movies and a slasher movie without a lot of good kills is like an action movie with shakycam. You’re not showing me what I came here to see, so why should I bother? Fucking… Hatchet may not have representation, but at least it works as a slasher.

    I’m not trying to be mean here, but you look at Blade. It’s not just that it’s an action movie about a black guy, it’s that it’s an action movie that excels at all the standards of an action movie. You don’t have to grade it on a curve; it’s as good as any of the action movies about white guys. And that just appeals to me more than “it’s crap, but it’s crap with a black man on the poster.”

    Sorry I don’t have anything to say about Bats, except that Dina Meyer is a stunningly gorgeous woman and was the best part of Starship Troopers. She really should’ve gotten her own turn as a Saw protagonist, they made ten of the things…

  2. Sidebar, but Logan’s stageplays Red, Peter and Alice, and I’ll Eat You Last are all superb.

  3. I just saw BATS myself! I was sort of rooting for it –it looks way better and bigger-scale than you’d imagine for a chintzy creature feature, with lots of pretty golden hour stuff and some surprisingly big setpieces– and I appreciate its unabashed B-movie tone. But it just never seems to quite figure out an identity. There are multiple ways you could go with this material –corny creature feature, adventuresome buddy movie, special effects bonanza, apocalyptic horror– but BATS never manages to pick a path, and the result is less than the sum of its parts. Honestly it feels more like a disaster movie (specifically TWISTER, with its ragtag team of scrappy, can-do scientists bouncing around Texas) than a horror movie. I’m not sure how much of that is Logan’s fault, but at least some of it; its a rookie mistake, anyway, to write a horror movie where none of your protagonists ever seem scared except in sort of a disaffected jokey way.

  4. Love Carlos Jacott – I was glad to see him show up for a cameo in BARBIE – that Noah Baumbach connection still paying off!

  5. Louis Morneau made Retroactive, one of the great 90s DTV action movies. Bats I think was his next feature and I was super excited to see it, and it is not good. However, I would totally recommend Retroactive, to quote Kim Newman from Empire magazine it is ‘witty, suspenseful and chock full of excellent action’.

  6. I also second RETROACTIVE. Rossco might be overselling it a bit, but it’s a very solid timeloop actioner with a rare villain performance by Jim Belushi. (And he’s good, even if his “I’m soooooooo evil” dialogue lets him down.)

    My BATS story is that back in the late 90s/early 00s my buddy and me used to frequent this huge video store, that not just had all kinds of obscure-ish tapes, but also a bunch of imports from the US and UK. For some reason I was really intrigued by the BATS cover, but sadly not having an NTSC compatible VCR (or later a codefree DVD player) prevented me from getting it. When it went straight to video here a while later and all the bad reviews poured it, it kinda kept me from watching it so I still haven’t seen it.

    Wow, that was a lame story!

    So here is a John Logan one: I was at a Star Trek convention in 2002. NEMESIS wasn’t released yet, but some of the TNG crew was among the guests and they were quite hyped for having a movie that was actually written by an Oscar winner. Not sure how much of it was marketing bullshit (They only talked about it when asked though, so it was not that they went on stage and pulled a Woody-Harrelson-on-RAMPART), but at least LeVar Burton sounded really honest about his excitement. Sadly we all know how that turned out. (What’s this Tom Hardy guy doing these days? Don’t think we’ve ever heard from him again.)

    Anyway, if there is one question that this John Logan double feature makes us ask, its if the BATS John Logan, who obviously wasn’t above scripting a B-movie, would’ve made a more fun THEY/THEM.

  7. Boglins! Deep cut.

    I know John Logan mostly as the Penny Dreadful guy. THEY/THEM has a great premise, but I agree there’s not enough slashing for it to be an effective slasher. I agree with your take!

  8. Kaplan’s right about the way diversity is treated…not to sound like some right wing whiny fuckhead, but have you noticed how many movies with a super diverse characters will definitely have the villain be white? Cause it’s safer. I know people who have told me who work in big productions that for awhile everyone was scared to have a black guy or whatever be a villain because Twitter lefties go nuts. It’s gotten better now and I think people have learned to ignore them.

    There was a spurt like that in the 90s where studios wanted to cash in on rappers so they’d cast LL Cool J in all of these horror movies and even though he wasthe type of minor character who always died and he still didn’t do shit, he survived. Or the next one you better believe Busta Rymes was making it out of that shit alive.

  9. It would never occur to me to tally the ethnicities of who dies in horror movies, much less be upset that not enough of them are minorities.

  10. I watched BATS recently since they covered it on an episode of the How Did This Get Made podcast (and it was on Tubi). I mostly agree with Vern’s takes but I think I had more fun with it because my expectations were very low, and I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of over-the-top mayhem the bats were able to cause.

  11. Speaking of Peacock, something funny is that I signed up under the free tier a couple years ago or whenever, and I’m still there under the free tier, and for whatever reason, I can watch FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S without getting the paid tier. I did not continue watching, b/c I just wanted to prove the principle that it would work. It does make me watch a single three-minute block of adds upfront, but that’s it. I just checked again, and it still works. Pretty sure it’s advertised that you have to do the paid tier (I’m not even sure you can still get a free tier), but not in my experience! I triple-checked, and I’m definitely on the not-currently-premium-subscribed, not-being-charged plan. Am I in the secret SEINFELD “man hands” nightclub illuminati tier of Peacock. I probably just ruined it and turned it into a meat locker again.

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