Right now, there’s a bit of slasher revival happening. There’s been enough time since the end of the last slasher cycle that folks can come back to the genre with new eyes. It also allows for new perspectives. The feature debut of screenwriter John Logan (Skyfall, Alien: Covenant), They/Them brings a queer perspective to a more traditional slasher. Now, queerness isn’t unique to this film. This year alone saw slashers like Scream and Bodies, Bodies, Bodies feature explicitly queer characters in them. They/Them however centers around queer identity. It asks who determines that identity and how do we express that. The question though is, who is this movie for?
They/Them riffs on that staple of early 80s slashers, the summer camp killer. Jordan Lewis, a non-binary teen played by non-binary actor Theo Germaine, gets sent to Whistler Camp, a conversion therapy camp. Run by Kevin Bacon’s Owen Whistler, Whistler presents the camp as a safe space where teens can decide for themselves their queer identity or if they want to join heteronormative society. The staff consist of Whistler and his wife along with two graduates of the camp. If Jordan can come out of the camp and still identify as non-binary, their parents will grant them to emancipation. However, something’s off about this camp and it’s counselors. Also at some point dead bodies will start showing up because this is a slasher film and well, people have to die.
In terms of slasher films, They/Them has some fun playing with the expectations of the genre. If you haven’t seen a Friday the 13th or another early 80s summer camp slasher in awhile, you forget the victims aren’t the campers. It’s the counselors that are the victims. They’re the ones who wronged poor Jason Voorhees and They/Them plays hard into that mindset. All of the staff here meet pretty brutal ends. They’re to blame for the evils unleashed at Whistler Camp.
Which is also the problem. Look setting a film at a conversion therapy camp, a place where queer people are forced into heteronormative roles, and setting up the staff initially as “good” accepting people doesn’t work. This is a conversion therapy camp which is evil on principle. When the Whistlers reveal themselves as deeply conservative, sadistic individuals, it’s not a surprise. There’s no way they could be good people. Again, they run a conversion therapy camp. The battle of wills between Kevin Bacon and Theo Germaine as Germaine’s character openly challenges Bacon’s ideas of heteronormativity is the only interesting thing here.
Ultimately, who is this film for? Is writer/director John Logan, who is openly gay, writing this for straight people? There’s a large, conservative sector of horror fans that probably could learn something from this. Still, they won’t turn up for a “woke” horror film especially one that takes so long to get to the kills. Is it for queer horror fans? This movie takes itself way too seriously and preachy for really anyone in that crowd to get much out of it. It might be okay as a baby queer gateway slasher. But why not watch films like Freaky and Bodies, Bodies, Bodies which are way more fun and way less preachy?
They/Them tries to inject dour seriousness into a genre not built for it. This is a dour film filled with horrors that queer people live everyday. Who wants to watch that? Just watch Kathryn Newton brutally murder varsity football bros in Freaky. It’s way more fun.
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