Pronouns matter more than gore or suspense in “They/Them,” a tepid flip-the-script horror movie whose title doubles as its logline when you say the “slash” out loud. Set at a janky gay conversion camp, this Blumhouse-produced, Peacock-released LGBT empowerment exercise presents itself as a cross between “Friday the 13th” and “But I’m a Cheerleader.” Alas, it’s so committed to affirmational messages about queer identity not being a choice, a condition or a legitimate motive to get axed by a deranged serial killer that the movie all but forgets to be scary — although enlisting Kevin Bacon as too-genial-to-be-trusted camp overseer Owen Whistler nearly makes it work.
“I wanted my favorite genre to celebrate who I was, so I wrote this movie,” openly gay writer-director John Logan told the closing-night crowd of Outfest — the first audience to see his well-intentioned feature directing debut. Fine, but since when does horror celebrate anything? The genre is most effective when it identifies and exploits our fears, whereas “They/Them” demonstrates how a little social consciousness can suck all the drama out of the equation. In an effort not to treat gay and gender-nonconforming characters as victims, the movie gives us no reason to fear for their safety.
That said, just getting “They/Them” made represents a meaningful achievement, considering the overwhelmingly conservative codes of American slasher movies, whereby virgins and well-behaved white kids make it to the closing credits, while marginalized/diverse characters are often the first to be slaughtered. With this personal project, Logan — a thrice-Oscar-nominated Hollywood screenwriter who counts “Gladiator,” “Skyfall” and “The Aviator” among his credits — seized the opportunity to challenge the genre’s heteronormative (and often aggressively homophobic) formula.
Remember “Sleepaway Camp”? That notorious early-’80s shocker traumatized a generation by revealing its killer to be a shrieking girl with a severe case of gender dysphoria. From the start, Logan pushes back against such clichés. In “They/Them,” practically nothing goes according to the “rules,” which is entertaining for a time, since it makes the movie less predictable at first. But as soon as audiences figure out what’s going on, the element of surprise evaporates and it starts to feel like a very special episode of “Glee” — right down to the nutty musical number, in which everyone knows (and internalizes) the words to Pink’s “Fuckin’ Perfect” — or one of those primetime soaps that aired on The CW a quarter-century ago.
“Scream” writer Kevin Williamson (who is also gay) set the template for such meta-horror, but the world wasn’t ready for queer protagonists at the time. It is now, and as Peacock’s first original feature, “They/Them” will surely earn the streamer points for inclusivity. But it doesn’t really work as a slasher movie, in that nobody knows that there’s a killer (or several) at large, and they have no reason to be scared until incredibly late in the story. Instead, what’s meant to be horrifying are the cruel and disrespectful ways that Owen and his fellow authority figures — sinister all-smiles therapist Cora (Carrie Preston), studly camper-turned-counselor Zane (Boone Platt) and whose-side-is-she-on nurse Molly (Anna Chlumsky) — treat the self-questioning teens.
“They/Them” joins a growing subgenre of gay conversion movies (e.g., “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” “Boy Erased”) that harshly critique those backward-minded enough to believe that homosexuals can be “cured.” These stories tend to play like prison movies, in which sure-of-themselves young people are held against their will and subjected to “Bible thumping and queer bashing,” as gender-rejecting Jordan (nonbinary star Theo Germaine) puts it here. The trouble is, that preaching-to-the-choir approach fails to acknowledge what is so pernicious about these programs — namely, how they weaponize vulnerable (and sometimes suicidal) participants’ internalized homophobia and desire to be “normal.”
A couple of the characters in “They/Them” do want to change — like Stu (Cooper Koch) and Kim (Anna Lore), who could have been prom king and queen back home — but the rest are here because their parents have promised some incentive if they give the camp a try: legal emancipation, house tickets to “Moulin Rouge!,” etc. Logan wants us to believe this program is different, giving Bacon a welcome speech that emphasizes respect for their identities. “Gay people are A-OK with me,” he says. But by the second night, Owen is putting the teens (half of whom are so vaguely defined they might as well be extras) through exercises that seem seriously damaging to their mental and physical health.
The movie’s most effective kill is the first one, and it takes an incredibly long time for the next to occur. Then three more come in quick succession, inexplicably presented back to back instead of spaced out for maximum anxiety. By this time, audiences have figured out (spoiler alert) that it’s not the campers but the counselors who are in danger. Once that pattern emerges, “They/Them” stops feeling like a horror movie at all, but some kind of gay vigilante fantasy — which gives LGBT audiences a chance to cheer, perhaps, but effectively eliminates what little tension the film had established when we thought the kids were in danger.
However much Logan enjoys the genre, horror doesn’t come naturally to him; he has essentially decided to forgo the pleasure audiences typically take from slasher movies in order to turn the tables on the film’s torturers. While there’s almost no chance that homophobes will take “They/Them” as evidence that they (the gays) are coming for them, its very existence is sure to freak some people out — and maybe that’s some kind of success.
“They/Them” will be released on Peacock on Aug. 5, 2022.