Kevin Bacon runs a gay conversion therapy camp in this queer thriller that’s light on scares and long on self-loathing.
Of the many positive trends “Get Out” ushered forth — the highbrow-ification of horror, irrefutable proof that Black stories can rock the box office — there’s also been a proliferation of socially conscious horror with somewhat mixed results. Studios began to shove political commentary into every horror movie, whether it was “The Forever Purge” pitting Mexican immigrants against gun-toting MAGA gangs, or the latest “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” turning Leatherface into a displaced victim of tech gentrification. Horror fans can sense when films force satire into a bloodbath and it’s annoying: They’re being sold a market trend and usually all they want is good clean bloody fun.
Leading that charge is Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Prods., the prolific banner behind some of the most successful horror franchises of the last decade, including “Paranormal Activity” and “The Purge” as well as “Get Out” and “Us.” But in its rapid expansion, Blumhouse is in danger of becoming the Ryan Murphy of horror: Commercial, vaguely political, and mostly average.
Blumhouse’s new slasher “They/Them” (the slash is pronounced) turns the very real horror of gay conversion therapy into a bloody nightmare. Though it’s an apt setting for a creepy chiller, the simple plot doesn’t leave much room for social commentary. Light on scares and heavy on self-loathing, “They/Them” clumsily apes conventions from the classic conversion camp comedy “But I’m a Cheerleader” and doesn’t even rise to the dreary bar set by conversion therapy dramas “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” and “Boy Erased.” Although a few dedicated performances deliver some intriguing characters, this tepid slasher thriller is a half-baked attempt at queer horror.
The movie begins promisingly, with a roadside murder complete with creepy moose and classic masked killer. The next morning a group of LGBTQ+ teenagers arrive cautiously at Whistler Camp, introduced with a sign that reads “Respect, Renew, Rejoice.” They are greeted by ruggedly handsome camp director Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon), who delivers a warm welcoming speech, complete with surprisingly respectful language.
“I can’t make you straight. I don’t want to make you straight,” he lectures. “Of course, we hope that in your time here you’ll discover a gender-normative lifestyle that is authentic for you.”
When he points the group to boys and girls’ cabins, unflappable Jordan (Theo Germaine), who is trans and non-binary, is left holding their bag. Owen surprises the group yet again by letting Jordan join whatever cabin that makes them feel most comfortable. It’s only a matter of time before Owen reveals his true colors: When a staff member discovers a trans girl among their ranks in Alexandra (Quei Tann), he is outraged to have been “lied to” and makes her join the boys’ cabin.
The eerie setting sows seeds of unease, but the middle of the movie contains very few frights. Instead we watch Owen’s wife Cora (Carrie Preston) deliver her rather unorthodox “therapy,” calling Jordan a “scared, lonely, ugly little dyke” with a placid chill. The bite of her words feels cruel and unnecessary, and the movie does very little to earn the vitriol. When the group breaks into gendered activities like target practice and baking, the humorless attempt at levity throws it into starker contrast against the brilliance of “But I’m a Cheerleader,” which did it all of this much better more than 20 years ago.
Written and directed by John Logan, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “Gladiator,” “The Aviator” and “Hugo,” the sparse script can only be appears to be a mismatch of talent and material. Logan seems to have underestimated horror, wrongly assuming that anyone who can do historical dramas and James Bond movies can do genre. It’s baffling why someone with such a long career that’s never included horror movies (unless you count “Sweeney Todd”) would choose one for their directorial debut.
Aside from not being very scary, the movie is littered with missed opportunities. Owen and Cora’s guiding philosophy remains a mystery; a spying groundskeeper is thrown into the mix as a very short-lived red herring; and the creepy young convert couple who lust after the kids hardly have enough lines to be necessary.
There is far too little story spread out over far too many characters to feel invested in anything. That’s unfortunate, because with a little more screen time, Jordan (ostensibly the titular character?) could have been a fascinating protagonist.Bacon and Germaine both came ready to play. The power struggle between Jordan and Owen — the gender-fluid hero taking on the old guard of toxic masculinity — now that’s a battle befitting social horror.
Peacock will release “They/Them” on August 5, 2022.
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