The fantastic queer thriller “They/Them” flips the script on horror films starting with its clever/devious opening scene involving a lone driver in the woods at night. It is one of many indications that thrice Oscar-nominated writer John Logan (“Gladiator,” “Penny Dreadful“) — making a confident directorial debut — is toying with viewers. Even with a pointed reference to “Friday the 13th,” nothing in “They/Them” is quite what it seems — many of its characters have secrets — and that is what make this crafty film so damn fun.
The story unfolds at Whistler Camp,” where a group of LGBTQIA+ youth have been sent to be “straightened out.” Although the director, Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon) tells campers this is a “safe space,” it is, in fact, quite dangerous. Not only is Whistler a conversion therapy retreat, but a masked killer is stalking the grounds.
“They/Them” creates a sense of unease slowly. Upon arrival, the trans and non-binary Jordan (Theo Germaine), who uses they/them pronouns — as in “They can’t believe they’re at this f**king camp” — requests an all-gender cabin when the campers are assigned to “boy” and “girl” bunks. Owen, suitably challenged, sees Jordan is going to be adversarial. A later scene where Cora (Carrie Preston), the camp’s therapist, gets inside Jordan’s head is one of the film’s most insidious.
But this difficult moment is followed by one of the film’s most energizing sequences. As Alexandra (Quei Tann) counsels a pensive Jordan, “Change the voices in your head. Make them like you instead,” the entire cabin breaks out singing and dancing to Pink‘s anthem, “F**kin’ Perfect.” They bond and rebel against change/being changed in this empowering moment.
This theme is well developed throughout “They/Them.” As the campers are assigned to binary, heteronormative activities — the guys do athletics and go shooting, and the girls make craft projects and pies — the youth resist and defy. When Owen is looking for a man with “killer instinct,” he asks the musical-theater loving Toby (Austin Crute) to shoot something. However, Toby is unable to do it, and his fellow campers including Stu (Cooper Koch), and Alexandra come to his support. Moreover, when Jordan is challenged by Zane (Boone Platt) — the camp’s formerly gay now “straight as the day is long” athletic director — to a target competition, Jordan proves to be a master marksperson. These episodes provide more character development than tension.
Theo Germaine as Jordan, Boone Platt as Zanein “They/Them” (Photo by: Josh Stringer/Blumhouse (Josh Stringer/Blumhouse)
Likewise, Kim (Anna Lore), a lesbian camper, excels at baking, which encourages activities counselor Sarah (Hayley Griffith) to come on to her, which is downright creepy. Kim is comforted by the bisexual Veronica (Monique Kim), and they engage in a passionate moment on the dock.
The sex scene between Kim and Veronica offers more pleasure than peril. The characters who are punished (i.e., killed) for having sex are ones who behave inappropriately and inauthentically — as when one guy is looking at selfies of Stu in a Speedo in order to engage in intercourse with a female camper.
Yet it is when a character seduces a camper under false pretenses that “They/Them” focuses on the horrors of aversion therapy with the character receiving electric shocks to snuff out their same-sex desires. (Earlier Jordan discovers a collection of old photos featuring similarly traumatized victims.) The electroshock device is, of course, used to kill in one scene, as if to emphasize the harm of such treatment.
It’s not a spoiler to reveal that that murderer is someone acting against the hateful practice of conversion therapy and justified in wanting to shut down every conversion therapy center, even if killing is an extreme way to achieve that lofty goal.
“They/Them” however, is relatively mild on the bloodletting, which might disappoint gore hounds, but sensitive viewers will be grateful — save one scene involving an animal’s death. (It’s implied not shown.) Logan mostly keeps the suspense at a simmer. An early scene involving a female character being caught in the shower, provides more surprise than splatter. Generally, when a victim is dispatched, it is quick and efficient, and advances the killer’s cause.
As Jordan, Theo Germaine delivers an impressive performance because they are endearing and use their wits and skills to survive. At one point, Jordan wryly observes that things, “Don’t feel right. There should be more Bible-thumping and queer-bashing,” and takes charge as bodies pile up. Likewise, when a character assigned with a difficult task claims they are a Black transgender woman, so they have no fear, it is hard not to laugh and applaud.
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
“They/Them” is notable for casting authentically and having trans, non-binary, gay, lesbian and queer actors playing trans, non-binary, gay, lesbian and queer characters. (Similarly, the recent “Fire Island” and the forthcoming “Bros” have largely authentic queer casts.) It does elevate the film because the characters feel real, even when they play up stereotypes. Austin Crute may be sassy and flamboyant, but as Toby connects with Stu — who is initially homophobic — their friendship feels sweet, not forced. As Stu, Cooper Koch is convincing as a hunky frat boy, which is why as he drops his guard and becomes more self-accepting, he is more sympathetic. Koch makes his transformation compelling.
Monique Kim as Veronica, Anna Lore as Kim in “They/Them” (Josh Stringer/Blumhouse)
The film also gives Monique Kim some choice moments as Veronica. Her droll line deliveries — such as a comment she makes when Kim craves a dirty martini — are amusing, and it is pleasing to see her relationship with Anna Lore’s Kim develop over the course of the film.
Logan also lets the straight actors dig into their parts. Kevin Bacon seems to relish his role as the camp’s director alternating between friendly and fiendish. Alas, Carrie Preston is not given enough to do, but she is pitch-perfect in her therapy sessions. And, as Molly, the camp’s nurse, Anna Chlumsky is likeable as a reluctant ally for the youth.
“They/Them” is a smart and savvy film that demonstrates the value of putting queer heroes in the horror genre as well as the damaging effects of conversion therapy and not allowing people to be who they are.
“They/Them” is now streaming on Peacock. Watch a trailer via YouTube.
about this topic