Review: 'They/Them' a Well-Intentioned, Yet Disappointing, Queer Horror Film

by Megan Kearns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday August 5, 2022
Originally published on August 5, 2022

'They/Them'
'They/Them'  (Source:Peacock)

Queer horror has a long cinematic history. Yet, it has also exploded recently with films such as "The Fear Street Trilogy," "Titane," "Knife + Heart," "Spiral," "The Perfection," "Bloodthirsty," and "Freaky."

New queer slasher horror film "They/Them" (pronounced "They Slash Them") merges the summer camp slasher — like "Friday the 13th," "Sleepaway Camp," and "Fear Street: 1978" — with the real-life horror of homophobic and transphobic conversion camps, which still exist. Starring a mostly-LGBTQ+ cast, it's a well-intentioned, yet disappointing, film, which hurts my heart to say.

Written and directed by gay filmmaker John Logan, "They/Them" is his directorial debut. A longtime screenwriter ("Gladiator, "The Aviator," "Skyfall"), he created and wrote "Penny Dreadful," a macabre, supernatural monster series I adore, especially for an incandescent Eva Green performance and great queer and trans characters (albeit some problematic narrative arcs).

A group of young LGBTQ+ people arrive at a gay conversion camp led by Owen (Kevin Bacon, also a producer). Jordan (Theo Germaine) is trans nonbinary, Alexandra (Quei Tann) is a trans Black woman and lesbian, Veronica (Monique Kim) is a bisexual Asian American woman, Toby (Austin Crute) is a gay Black man, Kim (Anna Lore) is a lesbian, and Gabriel (Darwin del Fabro) and Stu (Cooper Koch) are gay men. A few other queer people stay at the camp, but we never learn their names nor stories.

With a relaxed and charismatic demeanor, Owen reassures the queer campers that he can't, and doesn't want to, make them straight. He says they don't preach homophobia nor religion. Rather, he promises to help them each "find their truth." Some of the campers attend as they hate being gay or bi; others proudly embrace their queer and trans selves, but made a deal with their parents.

As the week goes on, Owen and his colleagues — including therapist Cora (Carrie Preston) and nurse Molly (Anna Chlumsky) — push the young queer people to their physical and psychological limits, including subjecting them to unsettling therapy sessions. Owen and his colleagues often divide the group along binary gender lines of "girls" and "boys" — even though Jordan is nonbinary — in cabin arrangements and activities to reify stereotypical cis-het gender norms, like baking and hunting.

Amidst a heavy-handed "predator vs. prey" theme, a mysterious masked killer strikes. The killer's mask bears a seam across the front, evocative of Frankenstein's monster, an interesting queer allusion as "Frankenstein" (1931) director James Whale was a gay man.

via GIPHY

Unfortunately, "They/Them" suffers from lackluster writing and dialogue, tedious pacing lacking tension, and mediocre cinematography, editing, and score.

The cast's acting remains uneven. Kevin Bacon gives a good performance. Theo Germaine and Quei Tann also give endearing, compelling performances. But other performances feel stiff, wooden, or over the top. While some characters are appealing, others never feel fully developed but rather trope-filled, including Veronica with the "Asian hair streak" trope to indicate her rebellious, outspoken persona. (Although, to be fair, Monique Kim said in the press notes that she chose her hairstyle.)

There's something disturbing about the way "They/Them" unfolds, which differs from its connections to horror genre conventions. I kept wondering: Who's the intended audience? As a queer person, hearing the numerous homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic slurs and messages (including deadnaming) over and over felt upsetting and triggering. To the filmmakers' credit, when characters misgender trans characters Jordan and Alexandra, other queer characters correct them with their proper pronouns, "they/them" and "she/her," respectively. The film also contains some disturbing, gratuitously violent scenes involving homophobia.

Yet it's refreshing to see inclusivity with so many LGBTQ+ characters and LGBTQ+ actors portraying them, especially queer and trans people of color. And it's wonderful to see the queer characters embrace moments of joy and find community with each other, (including singing to a Pink song), as well as friendship, sex, and romance.

Amidst the cruel proliferation of atrocious anti-LGBTQ+ laws, "They/Them" remains a well-meaning film shedding light on the insidious homophobic and transphobic atrocities of conversion camps, while aiming to entertain audiences through a horror film. I couldn't help but think of "The Miseducation of Cameron Post," bisexual filmmaker Desiree Akhavan's moving and terrifying film (although not a horror film) that also follows queer characters at a gay conversion camp. Sadly, "They/Them" lacks the qualities to make it truly memorable and compelling.

I'm always delighted to add queer films to the horror canon (and cinema as a whole). While I applaud its efforts, I wish "They/Them" was a better, more enjoyable film.

"They/Them" streams on Peacock on Friday, August 5, 2022.