An engaging young cast & a timely premise is wasted on a plodding script that stretches the definition of a “slasher film.”
It’s well past time for a mainstream horror movie that addresses the very real dangers the LGBTQIA+ community faces. Self-proclaimed “allies” in particular need to see what it’s like to have your bodily autonomy, your right to love, and even your right just to live peacefully put at constant risk, by people who think they’re acting on the side of righteousness and virtue.
Unfortunately, John Logan’s They/Them is not that movie.
The bones of a good movie are there, make no mistake about that, and solid performances from a largely unknown young cast keep it mostly watchable. Yet so much potential is squandered when it tries to be two, even three movies at the same time, and only one of them comes anywhere close to working. A glacial pace and distinct lack of suspense only hinder it further.
It’s a new season at Whistler Camp, a conversion therapy camp for teens run by the disarmingly paternal Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon), his therapist wife Cora (Carrie Preston), and a small group of former camp “success stories” working as staff. A busload of campers arrive (most of whom, curiously, get off the bus and are never seen again, not even in the background), and greet the bucolic but isolated setting with unease. Some of the kids are there because they genuinely want to be converted and feel “normal,” others are there mostly just to get their parents off their backs and have no real intention of changing, while others, like Alexandra (Quei Tann), are facing disownment. All of them are greeted warmly by Owen, however, and even the particularly skeptical Jordan (Theo Germaine) is temporarily swayed by his message of inclusion and acceptance.
It doesn’t take long for that mask to slip, though, as it becomes clear that, despite all the talk about learning to accept themselves, much of the “therapy” the campers receive consists of Cora digging into their lingering doubts about their identities, and what’s touted as a “safe space” means demanding that trans campers “dress appropriately” and depriving them of hormone treatments. Mundane camp activities like tug-of-war competitions and crafts are mixed with reinforcing of stereotypes, like teaching the girls how to bake a pie (and subsequently serve it to the boys), while Owen pushes some Jordan Peterson-esque nonsense on the boys about embracing the natural manliness of learning how to fire a weapon and eating meat.
When there seems to be no sign that any of the campers are changing, the therapy they’re made to endure quickly becomes just flat-out psychological torture, as when one of the kids is forced to shoot an animal, and then physical abuse. However, just as things seem to be spiraling even more out of control, a new menace arises when a masked killer begins haunting the campground, putting not just the campers’ lives, but everybody else’s in immediate danger.
The best moments in They/Them are when the campers are just regular teens, bonding, having emotional heart to hearts about their struggle for acceptance both from themselves and others, and falling in love with each other. At those moments, it’s endearing and empathetic. The problem is that it’s being sold as a slasher movie, while forgetting to actually feature any slashing, for very long stretches of time. It’s more than 45 minutes from the opening kill to the next, and then it continues that leisurely pace up until the last fifteen minutes. Even then, the kills are split-second and uninteresting, committed by a killer who doesn’t really need to waste time wearing a disguise, because we barely see them in the first place. Considering there are two fairly explicit sex scenes, the lack of any real gore doesn’t seem to be an issue of ratings restrictions, but rather a deliberate, curious choice on Logan’s part.
The scariest parts are the “therapy” sessions the campers have with Dr. Cora, who smiles menacingly at them while feasting on their insecurities. “You’ll never be man enough. You’ll never be woman enough,” she tells Jordan in one scene. “You’re not even a freak. You’re nothing.” Perhaps this is intentional in a “these are the real monsters we have to fear’ way, but it makes the moments that veer into slasher territory feel clumsy and superfluous. Whatever minimal action there is stops for a musical number, which is undeniably charming, but seems weirdly out of place with the rest of the film. Or, more accurately, it works fine, but further gives the impression that the brief forays into Friday the 13th homage seem like they were edited in from an entirely different movie.
So much potential is squandered when it tries to be two, even three movies at the same time, and only one of them comes anywhere close to working.
None of this is the fault of the actors, all of whom do the best they can to keep things moving. The younger actors in particular save it from completely going under, playing characters who feel authentic, rather than a collection of stereotypes who do little else but squabble with each other. The problem lies solely with Logan’s script, which feels like like he workshopped a clever combination of a heartwarming coming of age drama and a psychological thriller about conversion therapy, was told to try adding a masked killer to it as a writing exercise, and then took that terrible advice and ran with it.
With the brief addition of a creepy handyman (who lives in a shack decorated with creepy dolls), it seems like Logan’s going to play with slasher tropes, but then doesn’t really do anything with them. Numerous characters are set up as red herrings, but they’re so openly sinister that at no point is it ever believable that one of them might be the killer. The dramatic stakes are lowered even further when it becomes apparent what the killer’s motive is, and whose lives are actually at risk. Though Logan has done much better work writing the scripts for Gladiator and Hugo, and is the creator of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, slasher movies are clearly not a genre he’s comfortable with, or even likes much.
And yet, one hopes that, for all its flaws, They/Them manages to find an audience, if for no other reason than so the door is further opened to more queer and trans characters in genre movies that don’t feel like afterthoughts or tokenism. LGBTQIA+ actors, writers and filmmakers are out there waiting to make horror in which they’re treated as people rather than curiosities to be either fetishized, or mocked. Hopefully it will work better than They/Them.
They/Them premieres on Peacock August 5th.