As soon as you say They/Them out loud for the first time, you’ll realize that it’s a wickedly clever play on words. Unfortunately, that’s the last time the horror film displays any behind-the-scenes wit or gumption.
They/Them takes place almost entirely at Whistler Camp, a gay conversion program comprising of creaky and foreboding lakefront cabins straight out of Friday the 13th. The leader of the organization is Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon), a soft-spoken sap straight out of your childhood Sunday youth group who immediately spouts several too-good-to-be-true remarks like “Gay people are A-OK with me.” Shockingly, by night two, it comes to light that Owen was fibbing about his values just a tad in his welcome speech. He quickly becomes irate when he learns that Alexandra (Quei Tann), is trans, and later callously subjects half the campers to a treacherous camping expedition.
But Owen isn’t the only nefarious character at Whistler Camp. His wife/camp therapist Cora (a dead-eyed and creepy-as-all-hell Carrie Preston) makes a habit of spouting wicked abuses at vulnerable teens, all with a placid smile. Then there’s the pretty, bubbly activities manager Sarah (Hayley Griffith), who isn’t above seducing underage girls in order to get them into trouble. Oh, and sorry, I almost forgot: There’s also the mysterious masked killer lurking around in the shadows and stalking everyone.
After what feels like an eternity, They/Them ever-so-slowly starts to metamorphose into something that sort of resembles a horror movie. First, nonbinary protagonist Jordan (Theo Germaine) is afforded the cliched moment of realizing that something insidious is going on via unnerving photographs. And then, after an agonizingly long time, the first kill happens. But alas: Each of the film’s murders is increasingly short, unimaginative and, worst of all, devoid of any real, substantial gore. This is a Blumhouse production; I wanna see some blood and guts, god damnit!
They/Them is a totally unscary, not-at-all bloody slasher movie—sadly the other elements of the film aren’t exactly here to save the day. Both the characters and story fall mostly flat up until the credits roll.
While the campers are unmistakably played by the cream of today’s teen-actor crop—Germaine in particular steals the show as the sensitive yet stoic protagonist—none of them are afforded much dimension by prolific writer and first-time director John Logan, who instead works overtime hammering home the moral elements, making sure that there is no ambiguity that the Whistler Camp employees are the baddies, and the teens are the goodies. As a result, conversations never veer far from the immediate message at hand (conversion camps are bad news). This culminates in a cringeworthy moment where the campers band together to sing the song “Perfect” by P!nk. You really have to see it to believe it.
Similarly, Bacon, who we all know can nail the art of nuance (see: Mystic River) is introduced with the slight hope that he will be more than just a bigoted bible-thumper. His introductory lines seep with genuine compassion and he possesses a modest demeanor that suggests he actually wants to do some good in the world—in his own twisted way, that is. But alas, this turns out to be a red herring, and it isn’t long before he goes full steam-ahead with good ol’ predictable villainy.
They/Them is a clear homage to Friday the 13th and But I’m a Cheerleader, which on paper is bound to make for some compelling material. That is, unless the amalgamation strips away everything that made its inspirations so iconic (Friday’s unapologetic goriness and terrifying jump scares; Cheerleader’s compelling characters). And even when They/Them’s finale comes to a climax, things still move at a sluggish pace, and it’s easy to be confused as to what exactly we’re supposed to care about in the first place. Is it the largely unexplored characters? The dark(er) side of the conversion camp? Or is it the masked killer that, for some strange reason, the film hardly focuses on at all? This confusion makes it so that, when the resolution finally is reached, it’s totally unsatisfying, as the central conflict remains pretty unclear from the jump.
They/Them is an inspired idea to adapt the slasher film for the modern age—especially as the classics tend to retain their sexist, homophobic and transphobic tropes. (The girl getting murdered because she takes her shirt off in the woods gets pretty exhausting, for example, as does the gay couple being the first to get picked off by a diabolical clown, or the murderer going on a killing spree because they are trans.) But Logan’s reimagining of the slasher is far too cautious to make any sort of mark on the genre. From its half-hearted script to its lethargic pacing and confusing plot development, They/Them tragically only butchers its execution.
Director: John Logan
Writer: John Logan
Stars: Kevin Bacon, Theo Germaine, Carrie Preston, Anna Chlumsky, Quei Tann, Anna Lore, Monique Kim, Hayley Griffith, Darwin del Fabro, Cooper Koch, Austin Crote
Release Date: August 5, 2022 (Peacock)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.