Social commentary and metaphor is part and parcel of the horror genre, even in the most gore-heavy and axe-crazy of examples. It’s a continuum of just how explicit and intentional that commentary is, whether its the unspoken social mores of seminal slasher films or the raison d’être of Jordan Peele’s filmography. In the hands of someone like Peele, you can get multi-layered narratives that beg for dissection and discussion. But in the case of something like They/Them, you can get a whole lot of potential that gets buried by poor execution of horror tropes.
Our setting here is Whistler Camp, a gay conversion center set in the middle of nowhere run by Owen (Kevin Bacon), a seemingly benign and welcoming authority figure. Despite his ostensible good nature, reluctant camper Jordan (Theo Germaine) is instantly suspicious. As the campers bond while they endure the manipulations and abuse of the camp’s counselors, a masked killer stalks the grounds, threatening everybody.
Warning: This film contains scenes of queer youth being physically and psychologically abused, as well as an intense scene centered around the death of an animal. While I will not be discussing specific plot points in this review, I will be discussing the overall effect these scenes have on the final product. If you want to avoid that and would like a summary of the film overall, please skip to the last paragraph.
They/Them comes to us with the most noble of intentions. Writer/director John Logan is gay, and the majority of the cast are LGBTQ+. While gay conversion therapy has been explored many times in dramatic films, the terrifying and painful nature of it seems ripe for exploration in a horror film. The set-up and setting are perfect for some old-school slasher action. It’s just a shame that Logan can’t manage to access that full potential.
To be sure, Logan is a talented filmmaker if not a brilliant one. The visuals are great, and there are several scenes that are legitimately heart-pounding. He’s good at mounting tension in subtle but recognizable ways. There’s nothing innovative here, but he also clearly knows what he’s doing. His script is likewise solid and serviceable, occasionally relying too heavily on cliche but otherwise doing a decent job.
Even when it comes to conversion therapy angle of the film, Logan handles everything well. There is a lot of psychological horror to be mined from the practice, and Logan often hits on a few very productive veins. He doesn’t pull any punches in showing how destructive and invasive it is, even if he doesn’t go as far as he probably could. (Real-life descriptions of such places make Whistler Camp seem like a cake walk.) Even if he only scratches the surface of the practice, the elevated reality of horror gets the point across.
Logan also has a good grasp on the characters here, brought to life by a talented cast. (More on them in a bit.) Even if some of them don’t get enough of a chance to breathe, you end up caring for these kids and wanting them to thrive. Their stories and connections are very believable, and they work together well as a community. They might be victims, but they aren’t woobies. They’re here to empower themselves, first and foremost. While Logan sometimes defaults to stereotypical representation, the actors make the characters feel more organic and relatable.
What undoes the movie, however, is the added element of slasher horror. And unfortunately, They/Them has been explicitly marketed as a slasher film. In fact, the proper pronunciation of the title is “They Slash Them.” (Subtle, I know.) But while Logan opens the film with an honestly gripping slasher attack, we don’t get another bit of that until literally 48 minutes into a 100-minute film. And then not again until the final 20 minutes of run time.
Most frustratingly, Logan stages these slasher moments very well. Again, nothing revolutionary, but clearly done with some degree of skill and attention. But he has no idea how to pace this element of the film nor on how to integrate it into the film as a whole. Often times, the killer in the woods feels like an afterthought or a background subplot when it should be a central focus. You promised us a slasher film, don’t give us a gaslighting psychodrama with a slasher on the side.
This dovetails into Logan’s problems with tone and consistency, as well. Psychological horror and physical horror come from very different cinematic worlds, and while it’s entirely possible for them to coexist, Logan just can’t get this to cohere. This leads to jarring energies fighting for dominance and a rather heterogeneous kind of horror that’s hard for the audience to fully commit to.
Beyond that, Logan sometimes has a hard time balancing the characters and plot together, and especially balancing the characters against the horror aspects of the film. Midway through the film, the campers bond over a shared sing-along to Pink’s song “F**kin’ Perfect.” From a character standpoint, this is a great moment, allowing some of the more closeted and conflicted teens a moment to realize the community and support they have. But it comes off as far too Glee for the film Logan is trying to make, sticking out in the wrong ways. He has a knack for creating moments that are either perfect for character growth or advancing the narrative but rarely for both at the same time.
That sing-along itself is a great example of Logan being reluctant to push things to a place where they might make more of an impact. There are times when the scene feels almost satirical, because of course every queer kid knows all the words to Pink’s empowerment anthems, even the closeted jock who hates being gay. This gets undone when Logan uses the song to score the closing credits in a far more reverential manner. Likewise, Logan plays with the idea of the counselors being a cult, but he never fully commits to the idea. Adding a bit of a religious twist might have been too clever an idea to work, so it’s never fully explored.
What sustains the film and even occasionally helps it rise above itself is the excellent cast. Like I said before, these are kids you want to see succeed, and the actors commit to their roles well. The young cast is mostly queer, often playing heightened versions of themselves. Theo Germaine is quietly magnetic as Jordan, a wonderful queer twist on the Final Person. While Jordan as written can kind of come off as a Non-Binary Sue, Germaine injects them with the right amount of humanity and sympathy. They’re often paired with Quei Tann as Alexandra, an outspoken trans woman who serves as the heart of the community. Tann has a kind of vulnerable strength, powered by the free expression of her emotions.
Kevin Bacon, however, might be the true draw here. While it might seem like easy casting to make him the charismatic but not-so-secretly sadistic head of the camp, it’s hard to deny how well he handles the role. At the start of the film, Owen welcomes the campers with practiced compassion and empathy, but this mask slowly slips over the course of the narrative, and Bacon’s performance undergoes a stealthy evolution. Bacon is so on point here that he makes the rest of the counselors seem like their sleeping on the job, the sole exception being Anna Chlumsky as the one counselor sympathetic to the kids. And she’s basically notable for her constantly wide-eyed expression.
They/Them can be seen as a kind of poster child for not living up to your potential. Logan has created a backdrop ripe for prime horror, but he too often pulls his punches when he should be going for the jugular. It’s a shame because you can see what we could have gotten had he just gone in for the kill. Perhaps stretching this out to a limited series could have given us more time to get to know the campers and feel for their distress. The uniformly talented cast does what they can to elevate the material, but Logan’s inability to balance the horror elements is more than they can handle. It’s not the queer horror film we both want and deserve, but at least they tried.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / C+
They/Them can be streamed exclusively through Peacock Premium.