Horror has always been queer. Whether in subtext or the actual depiction of LGBTQIA+ characters onscreen, scary movies (and slashers in particular) have never shied away from addressing sexuality. So the emergence of They/Them, a slasher set at a gay conversion camp, makes sense. The film makes sure to underscore the very real horrors at its heart – and they have nothing to do with a masked killer.
Take, for instance, the moment we sit in on a “therapy” session with Jordan (Theo Germaine, a breakout), a trans and non-binary camper trapped at Whistler Camp with other LGBTQIA+ teens. There are no gnarly kills here, but there is very real violence. We listen in as camp therapist Cora (Carrie Preston, perfectly cruel) rips Jordan apart. “You’ll never be good enough, or straight enough,” she tells them, insisting that their identity is a sham to get attention from their parents.
She ends the conversation by using a slur against Jordan and then dismisses them icily, smiling as they walk out the door. This may be one of They/Them‘s most chilling and heartbreaking scenes. Moments like these, where we are forced to sit with the real terror of what gay conversion camps do, are what make this otherwise middling slasher compelling. However, they’re hampered by a banal script, as well as satire that’s as dull as a butter knife.
The campers stuck at Whistler Camp are all there under more nefarious circumstances than their earlier slasher film peers. We meet this group as they’re greeted by camp director Owen (a perfectly cast Kevin Bacon) on their first day. Owen assures everyone that while this is a gay conversion camp, it’s also a “safe space,” creating an unsettling atmosphere for the campers and audience – we all know there is no such thing as safety in a place like this, intentions be damned.
Even before bodily harm comes to anyone, so much emotional damage is caused that it can be hard to watch at times. Scenes like Jordan’s therapy session, or another early on where Alexandra (Quei Tann), a trans camper who is put into the boys’ cabin after she’s spied on in the shower by a counselor, are more grueling than any kill we see later on.
Speaking of kills, they are few and far between. Without spoiling too much, the body count stays in single digits, and there are some nice subversions of what we usually expect from slasher victims and their killers. At its best, it’s a welcome change from the days of yore, and an interesting diversion from what we understand and know about the subgenre. At its worst, though, the lack of dispatches stilts the pacing of the film, leaving long stretches of conversation that can drag, and dialogue that can feel forced.
Lines like “I keep expecting Jason Voorhees to come out of these woods,” and “Honey, please, I’m a Black transgender woman. I could do it in heels,” are meant to be winking and empowering (respectively). Instead, they feel forced and hollow. It’s when the movie leans in too hard to this dynamic that things reach a nadir. When They/Them thinks it’s smarter and better than it actually is, the movie suffers, and so does the audience.
However, there are some moments of queer joy folded into the weird pacing and forced dialogue worth holding on to. An impromptu singalong/dance party in a cabin that’s slightly unhinged (and arguably doesn’t entirely work), romances blossoming between several campers that aren’t played for pain, and true tenderness in the campers’ performances are worth noting here. Indeed, the cast made up of mostly LGBTQIA+ actors are all great to watch, and their talent shine through even the tritest of lines.
To its credit, They/Them offers an interesting vision of what greater, specific LGBTQIA+ representation and storytelling can bring to a slasher, even if it doesn’t land perfectly. It’s cool that queer teens will have a new potential entryway into the slasher subgenre, they deserve a better end product.