Film Review: They/Them
Director: John Logan
Streaming on Peacock 08.05
As much as it pains me to admit it, I have a longstanding prejudice, and I’ve struggled with my tendency to judge a certain group of people whose proclivities just feel icky to me: people who think slasher movies are entertaining. While I’ve worked over the years to be open minded on this, They/Them, the latest release from Blumhouse Productions, didn’t exactly help in changing the way I think.
In They/Them, we meet Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon, Footloose, Apollo 13), the charismatic owner and operator of an LGBTQIA+ conversion camp. Whistler prides himself (no pun intended) on creating a different atmosphere than you expect at most camps for the campers, who are greeted with open arms. Somehow, this feels all the more ominous, especially to Jordan (Theo Germaine, Work In Progress), a strong-willed, nonbinary camper who made a deal with their parents that if they attended the camp willingly, they would let them become an emancipated minor. Jordan has a sense that the other shoe is about to drop at any moment, and they couldn’t be more right. After the first day, the atmosphere and tone at Whistler Camp becomes progressively creepier and more abusive, and the group of campers find that they must come together work to stay safe, not only from Owen and his staff, but from a psychotic axe murderer who has seen too many Friday The 13th movies—one is too many—and decides that Whistler Camp needs its own murderous mascot.
Writer John Logan makes his long-awaited directorial debut with They/Them. Logan’s prolific career has included Gladiator and The Aviator, as well Skyfall, perhaps the best of the James Bond films, and Star Trek: Nemesis, perhaps the worst of the Trek films. Given this wildly varying filmography, it’s somehow fitting that the defining characteristic of They/Them is that when it’s good, it’s very good, and when it’s not, it’s both embarrassing and infuriating. The young cast is marvelous, with Germaine and Quei Tann (Dear White People), who plays Alexandra, a young trans woman, and Tann stands out with serious star potential. Bacon makes a convincing and formidable villain as always, and Anna Chlumsky (Inventing Anna) is great as Molly, the new camp nurse.
When the movie is focusing on the teens and their struggles with their own doubts, fears and struggles with who they are, it’s often sensitive and occasionally even joyful; when it’s focusing on the toxic ideas and practices of Owen and his staff, They/Them is disturbing and deeply upsetting, and not always in a productive way. There’s an uneasy mix of unflinching portrayal of the perverseness of conversion programs and cheap exploitation/torture porn.
I’m really at the end of my patience with supposedly “empowering” lesbian sex scenes that are blatantly aimed at titilating straight men, and it’s even worse when the the sex scene between two men is used for shock value and so one of the characters can be horrifically shamed. Then there’s the fact that the more literal horror element, the mad killer on the loose, is never remotely scary. Admittedly, as someone who eschews the genre, that’s not entirely new to me, though the difference here is that there’s a feeling that Logan may not even be trying for it. Certainly, he wants audiences leaving saying that Owen Whistler and his methods were scarier than the masked axe murderer, which is one thing, though it begs the questions as to why the latter even needs to be here. Worst of all is the unmistakable feeling that the killer crosses the line into antihero territory far more than is even usual for this type of film, which is irresponsible and wrong headed. They/Them also troublingly equates proficiency with firearms with strength among the non gender-conforming characters.
They/Them keeps you hooked most of the way simply because you’re rooting for the kids, and that’s a strength I can’t entirely dismiss. I will argue that even some of those sequences are so mired in the kind of clueless stereotypes that have ruined better films—as the kids bond by singing “Fuckin’ Perfect” by Pink, the self-loathing football jock suddenly becomes one with his inner gayness and, inexplicably, a professional-qualifty dancer—yet they are still the only reason to watch the film. As a slasher movie, it’s far below average and will likely bore my dear friends who love the genre (and whom I accept and love as they are). The major failure, however, is that as a psychological horror movie, it simply paints with strokes that are far too broad to be truly effective. –Patrick Gibbs