To an extent, the tagline here tells you all you need to know: ‘fear doesn’t discriminate’. You see, They/Them (they slash them, get it?) shows a profound misunderstanding of both topic and genre. When the tagline suggests that we should be more like fear, yet fear is a negative emotion, it is pretty indicative of how little this film has been thought through beyond marketing puns. The misunderstanding goes deeper, though, leaving us with a film that barely functions as a horror film and then has an ending sequence that totally misunderstands horror audiences and what the slasher genre does.
It is tricky to effectively review this film, because what totally ruins it is the ending. Though, the ending also falls as flat as it does due to how terrible everything is before that. Let’s deal with that first then: They/Them is a ‘horror’ movie, a slasher, set at a gay conversion camp. That’s right, it is a teens at summer camp slasher, this time the twist is that our teens are members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and that the counsellors are pernicious homophobes. Anybody familiar with the genre, and this film includes overt allusions to Friday the 13th (1980) (Kevin Bacon features in that and this) as well as Sleepaway Camp (1983), will know what usually happens: teens get killed. The usual trope is teens have sex and die, a puritanical bent that has always existed in the genre and, if read in the most generous way, is subverted here. Theoretically, sexuality is encouraged in They/Them, by focusing on the LGTBQIA+ teens as our relatable and positive characters, and repeated (though ultimately hollow) references to the importance of living as yourself and being true to yourself. The main way this subverts the slasher genre, though, is by not really engaging with it at all.
The idea of having Queer teens as the fodder for a slasher killer seems pretty objectionable, so the film does not do this. Instead (and it barely does this either) the focus of the killer’s ire is the counsellors. There is no sense of threat involving the teens at all, they are just at the camp and the flow of the narrative is mainly just hangout scenes between sessions with counsellors. These sessions follow the same blueprint: the counsellor puts on a front of acceptability and tolerance, before revealing a pernicious core or doing something utterly heinous (though, of course, everything done at a conversion camp is heinous). There is no sense of reality to these sequences, this is not a convincing camp in any way. If the film were to function, it would have to function as an exposé and critique of conversion camps, but it does not sell this aspect at all. Mostly because the film feels rudderless and formless, just hopping between sequences with no direction. The genre language is also confusing, as there is no real deployment of the conventions of horror. To present conversion camps through a horror lens would work, this does not do that. The internal logic doesn’t cohere and it just ends up as flimsy backdrop.
The real focus is on the teens, which is where we spend most of our time. It tries to balance a few arcs but is not really able to establish any convincing characters. It trades in thin stereotypes and caricature, on a writing level, and though the casting is good (an inclusive process in keeping with its topic) the writing is not good enough to allow any performance to stand out. Kevin Bacon gives a movie star turn as our ostensible villain, the boss of the camp, but it feels like a very known and empty turn. Once again, the thinness of the writing underpinning the film meaning the only impact is the presence of a known and established actor. The result of all of this is that They/Them is just incredibly boring. Yes, it is not about a person preying on Queer teens (bonus) but nothing is done in place of this. The slasher trappings hang awkwardly around the film and actually exist outside of what the film focuses on. In the last twenty minutes, we get a bit of a reveal of who the killer is and we learn the design behind it all. But this design has nothing to do with the characters we have focused upon for the whole film, and this entire aspect of the film barely exists in it. It can call itself a slasher but there is not really any slashing. There is no sense of people being hunted or living under fear, it is just a dull hangout movie that happens to be at a conversion camp and then, in the last ten minutes, we get revelations about a vendetta.
The choice of victims is also incredibly interesting. When the film nudges into a slasher narrative, it is the counsellors being killed. This is pretty darn satisfying, in theory. In practice, it sucks. The actual kills are barely shown because it seems those involved don’t understand the genre and can’t pull it off (or budget restrictions mean it can’t be the type of film it needs to be, bringing the whole endeavour into question). The thing is, with slasher franchises, there is a huge degree of rooting for the killer. Even when they are framed as negative, the glee comes from how they dispatch their victims and them as larger than life figures. The killers are the draw, they are the icons. There is a reason the Friday the 13th films eventually became the Jason movies, and why a film like Freddie vs. Jason (2003) exists. Here, no killer is established in any real sense, meaning the film cannot pull off the primary appeals of the genre. The wider issue, though, is with the killer’s plan. Without giving too much away, rather than the film taking advantage of the cathartic potential of horror and taking symbolic vengeance on actively harmful bigots, it presents action against these people as immoral. The film’s conclusion comes out of nowhere and is the result of two films hitting together that cannot coexist: the poorly written and terribly characterised LGBTQIA+ drama collides with an almost slasher and the film fizzles out. There is the proposition that we should shut these camps down, and it is ignored.
There is just a base misunderstanding here, not acknowledging the messaging potential of horror. The genre is one of imagery and symbolism, one of hyperbole. A film like Ready or Not (2019) is not telling the audience to go out and make the rich explode into fountains of blood, it is using the language of horror to reflect the realities of oppression. The rich in a capitalist system are inherently reliant on oppression, therefore the film literalises this into active violence and gives violence as a response. The logic here is the need to stand up and combat, it is a call to action and of awareness. They/Them is so unaware of this, it has no acknowledgement of the symbolic potential of horror and how these films function as cathartic exercises for the viewer. Dispatching the bigots is a way of highlighting the actual damage bigots do, and a hyperbolised fight against conversion therapy in a sensationalised horror world shows the need to stand up against these practices in our world. What the film instead posits is to live as yourself (fine, good even) and leave all this stuff alone (bad). It is a message of disengagement and of political illiteracy, repackaging self-actualisation as a kind of empty solipsism and, thusly, saying nothing at all. Or nothing of any worth.
Again, it is all clear from the marketing and background of the film: the stupid tagline and how obvious it is that this existed as a title first, and then had a movie fitted to it. There has been some surprise that a film from John Logan, who writes and directs (his directorial debut), could be so bad. After all, this man wrote some fantastic, or hugely respected, films (Gladiator (2000), The Aviator (2004), Rango (2011) and Skyfall (2012), to name some). He has also written a host of bad movies, though. And, notably, his background is not in horror. This is the issue, the film plays in a space it completely misunderstands and therefore utterly fails. One can argue it is well meaning and inclusive, but these impulses are pushed in irresponsible directions. Ultimately, it is a work of profound misunderstanding, on a political and filmic level, and one that should be completely avoided.