If you’re going to make a slasher movie, be about it.
Dipping into the genre for a halfhearted pre-credits kill, then dipping out till just before the end really doesn’t cut it for They/Them (★★☆☆☆), writer-director John Logan’s seemingly well-intentioned horror-thriller set at a queer conversion camp.
Aided by the sunnily sinister setting, Logan does strike a properly foreboding atmosphere as a diverse group of teens arrive at Whistler Camp, all of them innocent but not entirely unsuspecting.
Unlike the blissfully stupid sexpots who might populate a Friday the 13th movie, these young gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and nonbinary campers are wary and guarded from the moment they’re greeted by cultish camp leader Owen Whistler.
In a canny bit of casting, Whistler is played by Kevin Bacon, who, of course, appeared as one of those dim sexpots in the original Friday the 13th.
His character Jack famously died by having an arrow rammed through his throat as he lounged in bed smoking a post-coital joint. No death scene in this film, pronounced “they-slash-them,” is nearly as chilling or memorable.
But the film does zig where it might be expected to zag, with Owen surprising the campers and the audience by not coming off as a fire-breathing homophobe at first.
In fact, Bacon lends the guy an approachable, congenial air that might lead some of these campers to let their guard down and really hear his message.
“Only you can know what’s best for you,” Owen intones soothingly, adding, however, “we hope that through your time here, you will discover a gender-normative lifestyle that is authentic to you.”
Despite Owen’s pleasant tone, the intent belies the intolerance guiding him and his staff, which includes Owen’s wife, Cora (Carrie Preston), the camp therapist, and buff, angry former camper-turned-counselor Zane (Boone Platt).
They’re also guided by cruelty, as becomes evident in Owen’s treatment of camper Alexandra (Quei Tann), who’s trans. She’s misgendered, deadnamed, denied access to her hormone meds, all in the guise of “helping her.”
Similarly, Cora’s therapy sessions generally end with the kids in tears. Easily the film’s most effectively disturbing exchange — wonderfully played by Preston and Theo Germaine as trans nonbinary camper Jordan — involves Cora sweetly informing Jordan in one of their sessions that they’ll never be loved or special.
Clearly, behind Owen and Cora’s façades of kumbaya togetherness, and the camp’s supposed mission of self-improvement, the Whistler counselors are more inclined toward inflicting harm.
The terrible disconnect of people embracing these kids only to viciously tear them down echoes a reality faced by many a queer teen. Even the one sympathetic person on staff, Nurse Molly (Anna Chlumsky, in a solid performance), can’t protect them from being bullied by Owen and company.
As the caring façades start to slip, and Alexandra, Jordan, and their fellow campers realize they’re trapped with hypocritical tormentors and torturers, They/Them seems to grasp what truly makes a conversion camp a horrifying place to be.
If the film were committed to just that mode of storytelling, there’d be fewer complaints. But, as we know from the routinely staged opening sequence, there’s also a slasher stalking these woods, so that time bomb is ticking even if the film doesn’t want to run with it. And it does not run with it.
Save for a quick sighting of our hooded, masked killer looming on a hill, and a ho-hum kill midway through, the movie mostly abandons the idea of being a slasher whodunnit until a bloody and logistically unconvincing pileup in the final reel.
Also unconvincing is a lot of the script’s queer lingo, which sounds as if written by a Drag Race simulator — generally the right words, but used with not much conviction.
Of the major plot turns along the way, Logan does provide one good twist with a camper revealing a secret mission, which, ultimately, like most of the movie, has nothing to do with the slasher plot.
The genre framework is too rickety to stand on its own, and not energetic enough in its execution to add much to the film’s promising concept. But at least They/Them avoids the outright transphobia of that other slasher cult classic Sleepaway Camp.
They/Them is streaming exclusively on Peacock. Visit www.peacocktv.com.
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!