‘They/Them’: Slasher stalks LGBTQ teens at a ‘conversion’ camp in Peacock’s twisty horror movie
Wonderful young actors play the campers getting guidance from a disarmingly kind counselor (Kevin Bacon).
The prolific and versatile John Logan wrote a number of acclaimed plays in Chicago including the real-life crime dramas “Never the Sinner” and “Hauptmann” before turning to Hollywood and creating some of the most memorable screenplays of the last 20 years, writing or co-writing “Gladiator,” “The Last Samurai,” “The Aviator” and “Hugo,” as well as the James Bond movies “Skyfall” and “Spectre.”
At the age of 60, Logan makes his feature directorial debut with the Blumhouse horror movie “They/Them,” and that’s pronounced “They-Slash-Them,” as this is an uneven but intriguing and thought-provoking mashup of “gay conversion camp” films such as “But I’m a Cheerleader” and “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” and cabin-in-the-woods slasher films such as “Friday the 13th” and, well, “The Cabin in the Woods.”
Writer-director Logan’s social commentary darts don’t always hit the bullseye, and there are times when it feels as if “They/Them” has almost forgotten it’s a horror film, but this is an eminently watchable film with some nifty twists and turns, and fine performances from a cast of reliable veterans and promising newcomers. There’s something refreshing about this big creative swing, which champions inclusivity in frank and funny and sometimes sweet fashion—and then delivers a gruesome bit of nastiness.
Peacock presents a film written and directed by John Logan. No MPAA rating. Running time: 104 minutes. Available Friday on Peacock.
After a jarring prologue involving a woman driving alone, a flat tire, a deer and a masked man with a hatchet, “They/Them” opens in classic slasher movie fashion, with a group of young people arriving at Whistler Camp, which has the slogan, “RESPECT RENEW REJOICE.” But these aren’t a bunch of horny, dimwit, hard-partying friends—they’re all strangers whose parents have sent them to this conversion therapy retreat in the remote woods.
The camp is run by Kevin Bacon’s disarmingly friendly and seemingly tolerant Owen Whistler, who looks and talks like the coolest hippie uncle you could ever hope to have. Instead of greeting the campers with Bible quotes and militaristic commands, Owen literally opens his arms and says, “I can’t make you straight. I don’t want to make you straight. Gay people are A-OK with me. If you’re happy the way you are, then more power to you. … And let me tell you another thing. God doesn’t hate you, either. And any son of a bitch that tells you otherwise is a bigoted a------, and that is officially the last time that you’re going to hear about the man upstairs.”
The way Bacon spins those lines, smiling warmly and looking all handsome and trustworthy with his long hair and his leather bracelets, it’s almost MORE chilling than if Owen had come at the guests with fire and brimstone. We know things are going to get dicey and strange and deeply unsettling.
As the campers settle in, we get to know a number of them (while a half-dozen others never get speaking lines and just sort of linger in the background, to the point of distraction). The group includes Jordan (Theo Germaine), a non-binary trans person whose pronouns are they/them; trans woman Alexandra (Quei Tann); the fashion-forward Toby (Austin Crute), who says he made a deal with his parents that if he spent a week at the camp, he could go see “Moulin Rouge” in New York; Veronica (Monique Kim), a bisexual who says she hates herself; Kim (Anna Lore), who comes from a small, conservative town and says it would ruin her life if people learned she’s gay, and Stu (Cooper Koch), a college-bound jock who sits in judgment of his fellow campers and is trying to deny he’s gay.
The young actors are all wonderful, as their characters overcome their own preconceived judgments about each other and in some cases find friendship and even possible romance. Meanwhile, Owen continues to play friend and mentor to the campers, while his wife (Carrie Preston) conducts therapy sessions that seem to be more about making the campers feel horrible about themselves than promoting healing and self-discovery.
Then there’s the “formerly gay” and macho athletics director, Zane (Boone Platt), and his fiancée, Sarah (Hayley Griffith), who seem to take an almost sadistic pleasure in putting the campers through some rigorous, “gender normative” exercises. And what’s with the camp nurse, Molly (Anna Chlumsky)? What’s her deal?
“They/Them” begins to feel like a horror film even before there’s any actual bloodshed, as it becomes increasingly obvious Owen’s camp is anything but “A-OK with gay people.”
As a director, Logan knows how to put us through the horror genre paces, from jump scares and mysterious sounds in the woods, to the obligatory gruesome kills. Time and again, though, we’re reminded that real monster in “They/Them” is bigotry and intolerance.