They/Them offers a surprisingly empathetic and graceful treatment of its LGBTQ-focused material, but its horror bona fides are more lacking.
Blumhouse’s new slasher flick They/Them is certainly topical, the story of a group of teenagers navigating the too-true horrors of gay conversion therapy — not to mention a masked killer, who is stalking the nearby woods of the campgrounds and making mincemeat of anyone unfortunate enough to cross their path. Academy-award nominated screenwriter John Logan makes his directorial debut with They/Them, and for those perplexed as to why a man with such critically acclaimed films as Gladiator, Hugo, and The Aviator under his belt would deign to make a low-budget slasher flick, keep in mind this is the individual also responsible for the godawful Lou Diamond Phillips-starrer Bats, so in that context, the material isn’t much is beneath him. But such thinking is already reductive, as the slasher genre has turned out more than a few masterpieces across its history. That said, Logan is certainly no John Carpenter, but he also doesn’t completely embarrass himself here, churning out an involving thriller that delights more than it repulses.
They/Them also demonstrates a reverence for those slasher films of yesteryear by casting Kevin Bacon as camp leader and owner Owen Whistler, who, as the movie opens, explains to his new charges that “gay is okay.” You see, Owen simply wants to introduce another way of life, another choice, one that doesn’t have to be accepted, but also one that doesn’t have to be instantly disregarded. Indeed, Owen is so charming and such a gifted pitchman that he almost sells this dangerous bullshit, cluing the viewer in almost instantly that something sinister must be hiding behind that blindingly white smile. Indeed, the majority of They/Them consists of simply waiting for the other shoe to drop, as the campers befriend one another and come to accept not only one another’s differences, but their own socially perceived shortcomings. The motley crew includes non-binary-identifying Jordan (Theo Germaine), an Army brat who only agreed to come to the camp to receive emancipation from their parents; Alexandra (Quei Tann), who desperately tries to keep her transgender identity a secret; Stu (Cooper Koch), a bronzed Adonis and champion swimmer who is deeply ashamed of his homosexuality; and Kim (Anna Lore), an upper-class golden child whose affluent parents see their daughter’s queerness as social poison. Somewhat surprisingly, They/Them is, first and foremost, a deeply empathetic portrait of its LGBTQIA+ characters, displaying patience in delving into their various struggles and personal demons. By the time the film reaches what should be its biggest eyeroll moment — a group sing-along to Pink’s “Perfect” — Logan and his cast have garnered so much goodwill through this humanist approach that the resulting feelings of euphoria actually feel earned, a rousing and cathartic moment of pure bliss, unburdened by labels or expectations.
But for a movie that bills itself as a slasher, there are surprisingly few kills or thrills to be found. Indeed, Logan seems to entirely forget about his masked killer for large stretches of the runtime, making its inclusion feel cursory, at best, especially when nearly all of the kills are accordioned into the film’s ending stretch. It’s not hard to figure out what Logan is up to here, that the clichéd thrills of the average slasher flick are no match for something as truly sinister — and unfortunately real — as gay conversion camps. Still, the seasoned screenwriter would have been wise to drop the masked killer nonsense and simply focus his attention on using the horror genre and its various conventions as both the framework and flavor for his overarching story, something which he accomplishes here in spurts but never with enough consistently to be entirely successful. That being the case, the film proves genuinely affecting in its dramatic efforts, but lands as a lame duck when it comes to delivering scares, a serious hurdle to overcome when you affix the horror label (and its implicit expectations) to your film. It doesn’t help that the killer’s identity is fairly obvious, or that the movie goes out of its way to rightfully clarify that sexuality and identity are not a choice, and then proceeds to have its entire climax hinge on… a choice, an irony which seems lost on all involved, and is about as thematically boneheaded as things get. But for all that, viewers could do a lot worse than They/Them, the kind of movie that includes as much gratuitous sexy-time as its ’80’-era forefathers, but which is unafraid to make its various couplings of the same-sex variety. That it’s reasonable to believe this quality worthy of praise in a mainstream movie in 2022 is a pretty damning indictment of the film industry, but let’s just be grateful there’s something here to get the pulse racing.
You can stream John Logan’s They/Them on Peacock beginning on August 5.