Right from the jump, They/Them was set up to be an exciting entry into the slasher genre, not just because of its clever title, but because it nailed the tired “bury your gays” trope. Writer and director John Logan want to put control and power back into the hands of young queer people who have been exposed to the harshness of heteronormative society. However, Logan’s ambition doesn’t necessarily make for an effective slasher.
They/Them: Movie Review
They/Them follow a group of young teenagers who, for various reasons, attend Whistler Camp, which is run by the camp director Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon), who is too cold. His easy-going personality and shocking gay “acceptance” is an immediate red flag for Jordan (Theo Germaine), who is trans and non-binary. Little by little, the insidious nature of the camp and its staff is revealed, perhaps the scariest elements of the film, but the staff and campers have another horror on the horizon — a masked killer is stalking the camp and has some interesting targets.
Logan uses the horror genre to illuminate the dark and depraved manner of the all-too-real atrocities of the conversion therapy camps, but in the process loses the ability to create an effective slasher. While Logan’s intentions are valid and meaningful, the shock and horror of the slasher genre fade away when the film stops being unexpected in favor of protecting the young campers.
However, Logan has a clever trick to add to this shock and increase the uncertainty of the camper’s survival. Still, it eventually buckles under the weight of its message. It’s as if Logan is blinded or enamored with the idea that a traditional sleepy camp slasher will correct decades of homophobia with horror. From queer-coded villains to “bury your gays” tropes, Logan’s focus is on not repeating the same mistakes, but it fails to recognize what’s also needed for a slasher.
Ironically, They/Them suffer from an identity crisis. Slasher is a genre that is meant to strike fear into the audience and potential victims on screen. What made Scream an effective and subversive slasher was that anyone was the target and that the teenagers were well aware that they were being picked on by a masked killer.
In They/Them, Jordan is the only one who feels safe as a protagonist. But like Scream’s Sidney, the people around them don’t exactly have that protective shield. Logan twists the narrative to amplify the message without putting the innocent protagonists at risk, rendering the slasher aspect ineffective.
They/Them lack the element of surprise that slashers are known for, which illustrates the film’s most significant problem. It evokes a bad horror subgenre; the villain should not be a masked killer with distorted reasons for killing. Instead, the premise should be that hapless youngsters will be sent into a lion’s den with dangerous adults who want to “cure” them.
The setup is there, the campers are systematically dismantled by the camp staff, and their malicious intentions peak through their friendly veneer. The gay vigilante story Logan wanted to tell is well within reach, but the framing and execution undermine its ambition.
Logan has all the tools to make a well-made slasher. There is an ensemble cast that engulfs every scene with its innate charisma. Technically speaking, everything is done right. The central tenants of the sleepaway camp slasher are present, but there’s no excitement, no tension. Logan can focus on the terror inherent in conversion therapy, but he can’t translate it into an effective slasher because that would require undermining the mission.
The battle between Owen and Jordan should have been central to the development of this bloody power struggle, but it isn’t. A masked killer is conjured at the scene of what could have been a cat-and-mouse survival horror between Jordan, their comrades, and Owen and his staff.
They/Them are impressive by reason of existence and an excellent cast that deserves to shine. The film is not unwatchable; it’s just without excitement. While it’s satisfying for the film to squarely focus on dangerous institutions, it’s sad that this horror movie can’t find a happy medium.
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