Oscar-nominated veteran screenwriter John Logan (Skyfall, Hugo, The Aviator, Gladiator) makes his directing debut with his own skillfully-crafted screenplay for the gripping and bloody terrifying slasher, They/Them (pronounced They-slash-Them), which received its world premiere tonight as it closed the 40th anniversary Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival.
Within the first few minutes, we discover that a brutal masked axe murderer is on the prowl in the remote forestland that surrounds Whistler Camp, a creepy conversion therapy facility (is there any other kind?) run by the unsettlingly amenable and mild-mannered Owen Whistler (an excellent Kevin Bacon). The team of counsellors there includes Owen’s manipulative “therapist” wife Dr Cora Whistler (Carrie Preston), newly appointed camp nurse Molly (Anna Chlumsky), hunky former camper and “reformed gay”, athletics director Zane (Boone Platt), and his perky fiancée, activities director Sarah (Hayley Griffith). This is the unnervingly poised and passive-aggressive welcoming committee that greets the arrival of a fresh batch of young LGBTQ+ campers. They’ve all either been forced into attending the one-week program by their families, like the unapologetic and spirited bisexual Veronica (Monique Kim) and the fabulously flamboyant, musical-loving queer Toby (Austin Crute), or agreed to go more willingly, motivated by their own internalized-homophobia, like gay high school jock Stu (Cooper Koch) and reluctant lesbian Kim (Anna Lore).
When the group is separated upon arrival and dispatched to their gendered accommodation, Jordan (Theo Germaine) is awkwardly left standing alone, like a last-to-be-picked Drag Race contestant, telling Owen that they identify as trans nonbinary. Jordan agrees to go to the boys’ quarters, where they’re later joined by Alexandra (Quei Tann), who is sent there as a punishment for not telling Owen that she’s a trans woman. Despite the actions of the blood-thirsty axe murderer, it’s in this kind of intentionally cruel treatment by the camp facilitators—and progressively worse—of these young people where the real horror in the film lies. Meanwhile, Owen continues to present himself as the kindly proprietor of a “safe space” that only seeks to help the teens to embrace “a gender normative lifestyle”, but the veneer gradually begins to drop as he continues this “well-intentioned” abuse.
With these vulnerable young people at the mercy of deeply misguided adults, the fact they’re “off the grid” with no wifi, cellphones, or computers allowed, ramps up the potent sense of isolation and peril, as the body count begins to mount and Logan plays with our genre expectations. At the heart of this strong ensemble cast, essentially taking on the role of ‘final them’, Germaine gives an exceptional performance as Jordan, with rich and emotionally delicate work as they begin to question themselves while Owen attempts to draw out doubts and darkness from the young people in his care. Sensitive and contemplative, they’re also the badass trans nonbinary movie hero we’ve been waiting for.
The conversion therapy setting has been used on film in comedy with But I’m A Cheerleader, based-on-real-events dramas like Boy Erased and Trapped: The Alex Cooper Story, and even a gay adult movie, with Marc MacNamara’s A Murdered Heart. But when I first heard about They/Them earlier this year, my initial thought was, isn’t conversion therapy horrifying enough without it being given the horror movie treatment? The result though is hugely impactful, not just an entertaining and highly effective genre film, but as a major Blumhouse production available on Peacock, it has the potential to broaden the knowledge of and movement against this heinous practice. A practice that continues to have legal protections in far too many regions around the world, including the US, despite being widely discredited. While the disturbing nature of current real life “therapy” and the lasting damage that it causes echoes throughout the film, the shameful history of the sanctioned torture of LGBTQ+ folks by the medical profession is also channeled.
The passion for horror movies among our community is strong, but we’ve often had to be satisfied with queer subtext alone, so it’s a thrill to have such a vibrant and diverse range of LGBTQ+ characters—portrayed by an LGBTQ+ cast—at the centre of the action here. Far from torture porn horror, although it’s scary in all the right places, They/Them is ultimately an empowering tale of queer resilience and survival, of overcoming prejudice and hate both from outside and within our own community, and even within ourselves. In addition to conversion therapy itself, with the current targeted legislative assault on LGBTQ+ youth and their families, as well as threatening voices from SCOTUS about the fragility of our hard-fought freedoms, this couldn’t be a more timely allegory; a call to band together as queer folks against the forces that would harm us.
Although there are some lighter moments, and some great one-liners like Alexandra’s “I’m a Black trans woman; I could do it in heels”, generally the tone is a chilling one that isn’t dissipated by comedy. There’s some defiant queer joy though, encapsulated in an unexpected and fun P!nk singalong sequence, as the bonds begin to form between the campers and a chosen family emerges. As well as some steamy sex scenes, that just go to show what a waste of time trying to “cure” us is. All these young people are fabulous, beautiful humans just as they are and don’t need anyone to rescue them.
By James Kleinmann
They/Them premieres on Peacock on Friday, August 5th 2022.