"They/Them" works better as a queer empowerment tale than a slasher

They/Them (2022)

What if “Friday the 13th” crossed paths with “But I’m a Cheerleader” or “Boy Erased”? Setting a contemporary, Blumhouse-produced slasher flick at a conversion camp is so conceptually inspired that it’s hard to believe it’s never been done before or that twisted sex-and-violence maximalist Ryan Murphy didn’t get to it first. Cleverly titled to double as gender-neutral pronouns and a queer/“other” slasher film, “They/Them” feels like it was specifically made for every LGBTQIA+ horror lover who has ever felt oppressed. Opening as a traditional slasher but ending more as an empowerment tale for the queer community, the finished product just leaves too much on the table to really subvert camp-slasher tropes or reach its full potential with more than earnest intentions.

A busload of youths arrives at Whistler Camp. Running the show is the seemingly calm, cool, and possibly progressive director, Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon, back to camp in a meta stroke of casting). His wife, Cora Whistler (a creepy, Stepfordized Carrie Preston), is the camp therapist; Nurse Molly (Anna Chlumsky) is the newest hiree; and other staff members, alpha athletics director Zane (Boone Platt) and seemingly sweet activities director Sarah (Hayley Griffith), are proof of Whistler’s conversion successes. The kids are forced to give up their phones but also their natural desires and how they identify themselves through a series of activities, team-bonding exercises, and therapy sessions. Nonbinary Jordan (Theo Germaine) is the first to see right through the kumbaya togetherness of this off-the-grid camp and speak up, but can they uncover Whistler’s sadistic secrets before it’s too late? Oh, and a masked killer is slowly slicing up the camp as well.

For his feature directorial debut, Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan ("Gladiator," "The Aviator," "Skyfall") comes so close to bringing all the pieces together that you keep rooting for it. Being sent to a conversion camp that almost seems oddly inclusive by the all-smiles “counselors” is sinister enough and disturbing all on its own, particularly when psychological and physical torment is used to break these kids, but Logan’s script never seems fully realized in what it wants to accomplish. The ensemble of characters isn’t exactly small, and while Logan and his uniformly queer actors do handle some of the “camper” moments with surprising tenderness and sensitivity, they feel like superficial bright spots in the grand scheme of things. 

When the angle of gender identity in a slasher-film setting actually gets to be fresh and compelling, sequences involving rifle practice for the young men and the baking of a pie for the young women are both chilling in their own way. A therapy session that slowly turns malicious is also a spellbinder. Besides the obvious throwbacks to “Friday the 13th,” “Sleepaway Camp” even gets a nod with the “lie” of a transgender camper, who subsequently gets sent to bunk with the boys. It’s not that “They/Them” needed to consistently play into bloodlusty genre expectations, but throwing a masked slasher into the mix just ends up feeling frustratingly tacked-on like an afterthought. The whodunit mystery is too perfunctory to make a true impact, and the obligatory “Talking Killer” reveal (after the slashing picks up for the finale) forces the actor to go so big and hysterical that the tone almost wobbles over into camp (no pun intended).

Although the script does not always know what to do with everyone (some of the campers don't even have lines), a select few actors really get to break out of their half-formed characters. As Owen Whistler, Kevin Bacon can naturally turn on and off the charisma and switch to threatening evil. Theo Germaine has a strong, stoic presence and a no-bullshit disposition as Jordan, and Quei Tann and Austin Crute (2019’s “Booksmart”) both impress as, respectively, trans woman Alexandra and the fabulous Toby who are always their individual selves. The film’s major highlight is easily a cabin-set a cappella singalong to P!nk anthem “Fuckin’ Perfect,” and it’s infectious in a “Glee” sort of way that’s not overproduced but joyous and cathartic in a rough-hewn sort of way. To give credit where credit is due, “They/Them” means well in proudly making the oppressed finally feel like the heroes of their own story, but up against a weak slasher B-story, it’s only A-OK.

Grade: C +

Blumhouse is launching “They/Them” (101 min.) on Peacock on August 5, 2022.