LGBTQ+ conversion therapy is a sensitive subject matter, and for first-time director and three-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Logan, it’s a personal topic. However, They/Them, which is a passion project he wrote during the lockdown and subsequently directed, loses some of its prominence because it’s made as a slasher. That is not a general statement, however, because as Vince A. Liaguno observes here:
"Slasher films serve as an outlet for the societal fears LGBTQ individuals face in their everyday lives."
So what about They/Them being a slasher film makes it not as compelling as it could be? Before I get into that, I want to make an observation about the conversion therapy films I personally love and the various tones they adopted.
The first that comes to mind is the RuPaul and Natasha Lyonne starrer But I’m a Cheerleader. It came out 22 years ago and is still one of the most openly confrontational and relevant works against conversion therapy. However, it delivers the commentary through comedy. Anyone with a taste for dark jokes will fall in love with the light-heartedness with which the film deals with the grim reality of conversion therapy. Another much more recent film is The Miseducation of Cameron Post directed by Desiree Akhavan. It’s an intense coming-of-age drama that chooses to dwell on the terrifying nature of conversion therapy and culminates in a climax that feels like a much needed breath after a series of tortuous exercises at the hands of bigots. The film Boy Erased also falls in the same sub-genre of drama. Finally, there’s the documentary format. Pray Away was released last year and is a documentary about the infamous Exodus International. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.
There are other films too, some comic, some dramatic, some documentaries, but I haven’t seen any conversion therapy films which are also slashers, which is strange, given the slasher film’s formulaic approach in the 80’s of being set in campsites. Think Sleepaway Camp, Friday the 13th, Madman, among others. So, when They/Them was announced, I was really excited to watch it the moment it came out, pun intended. It’s also Kevin Bacon’s return to the slasher genre. However, after watching it, They/Them falls short because it’s a slasher and here’s why I think that is:
They/Them opens with a tense scene that seems to set the tone for a great horror film. We meet a woman driving through a secluded road at night. Her tires are inexplicably punctured and she gets out to be greeted by the sound of rustling leaves and cracking twigs. After the suspense builds, a masked killer with an axe emerges and kills her. The tension is so high in this scene that it doesn’t feel bad that the killing takes place off-screen. As a fan of slashers, I like watching the gruesome murders, but to my disappointment, all the visual horror in this film entails is blood splashes and the shadowy appearance of the masked killer. What’s more, the victims of the killings represent a reversal on the “bury your gays” trope. Even then, the victims were offered the dignity of not being shown getting murdered, no matter how much the story otherwise makes you feel they deserve their fates.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out is not a very visual or gory horror except for the climactic couple of scenes. I feel like They/Them had the potential to be a sort of political and subtle horror film like Get Out. There’s clearly a lot of material about conversion therapy and how it affects people that John Logan has dug out through painstaking research. Focusing on the harmful effects of it, and the horrifying tactics used by the counselors would have possibly led to a more powerful narrative. I feel as though the focus on the slasher angle sort of weakens the impact of the harrowing experiences of the queer characters that are depicted in They/Them. If the horror was atmospheric and psychological, maybe the emotional mind games would have been the centre of the scare tactics.
For example, frontrunner Owen (Kevin Bacon) shouting into the ears of androgynous gay man Toby (Austin Crute) about “being a man”, urging him to point blank shoot a pet dog, or psychiatrist Cora (Carrie Preston) belittling transgender non-binary person Jordan (Theo Germaine) through incessant verbal abuse about their identity, should have been kept at the forefront of the horror narrative and honestly, those scenes are horrifying! There’s even the moment where transgender woman Alexandra (Quei Tann) is discovered to not have female body parts and is forcefully moved to the men’s camp from the women’s. The psychological trauma keeps building but the pressure is defused because somehow the main antagonistic presence is the mysterious killer and not the representatives of the real world horror that defines most people’s experiences with conversion therapy.
I know this is not something all viewers will unanimously agree with, but some of the dialogue in They/Them genuinely feels like unnecessary preaching and forced exposition to cater to all audiences. There’s a scene in the first third of the film where each of the campers tells the others their reason for attending and while I appreciate the mixed bag of motivations, I’m disappointed that the individuality stops there. Apart from a few side-arcs about romance, the characters aren’t well explored through dialogue from there on. Don’t get me wrong, characterization is the film’s strongest suit after acting, but most of that happens through action and not words. There’s an overwhelming amount of “love yourself” speeches that seem inauthentic given that both the speaker and the spoken to are from equally or at least similarly oppressive backgrounds. On top of that, the ending monologue is a terribly preachy speech about right and wrong, and it just rubbed me up the wrong way as a bisexual gender-fluid person genuinely feeling affected by the events on screen and wanting a climax that doesn’t feel like being lectured to about conduct in a heteronormative and binary-normative society.
I’m not one to limit creative exploration, and citing examples of where conversion therapy narratives were compelling as dramatic works of fiction isn’t something I want to do to claim They/Them would have been better as a drama. I just think the reason this should have been a drama is similar to why it should have been a psychological thriller instead of a slasher. The film has a deep emotional core and not a sensational nature. Relying on shock value kind of softens the blow and I would have loved to see a film that doesn’t shy away from openly speaking about and addressing the horrific truth about conversion therapy that’s still rampantly prevalent today. There are some powerful heartfelt moments that manage to move across the screen and make me feel hugged and validated.
There’s a romance subplot between two of the female campers. Both of them claim to have come to the camp for conversion and it’s a heartwarming experience to watch them get close to each other and find solace in their love for each other. Then there’s also the moment where one of the transgender characters helps the other battle the phobia projected onto them by the toxic therapist. This moment however, is absolutely butchered because it’s followed up by an acapella sing-along by the whole camp to P!nk’s "Perfect". I don’t feel as strongly as others about that, but yes, I’d much more have liked to see them sing-along to an LGBTQ+ anthem or anything from the Mamma Mia! soundtrack. Given the age group of the characters, and the otherwise modern lingo of the film, the song’s choice just feels off.
One of the first things They/Them establishes is the rivalry between Jordan and Owen. Owen asks the group to divide into men and women and Jordan reminds Owen that they are a non-binary transgender person who uses the pronouns they/them. This rivalry only keeps building with Jordan finding support from Alexandra and then Toby and even the nurse Molly against Owen and the other camp-runners. So watching Jordan eventually preventing the killer from killing Owen and even delivering a speech about picking the high road just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. On top of that, when the killer, ex-camper Angie, who’d been moonlighting as Molly all this time, does kill Owen, the soundscape turns somber, sort of eliciting a sympathetic response. However, when Angie is arrested, that’s not the case. Am I to believe that since he never killed anyone, no matter how bigoted he was, Owen is less evil than Angie who was there to exact revenge? Or is the point that like Jordan, other embittered queers can also choose a path of non-violence against bigotry and make the world a better place?
All that being said, the film has its fair share of good qualities. Among them, first and foremost is inclusivity of course. We have a non-binary protagonist played by a non-binary actor. Then there’s the sensitive and understanding representation of 21
Century queer youth, even though that gets confusing by the time the film ends. Finally, there’s Kevin Bacon! He is brilliant as Owen, the seductive but dangerous camp lead. Bacon is the senior-most cast member of They/Them and is genuinely scary when Owen comes out of his shell as the sensitive counselor and starts dropping homophobic “lessons” on the campers, but the seductive charm is never really missing. I love the balance that the actor strikes between malicious and understanding in Owen’s body language.
So, altogether, it’s misplaced as a slasher film, but I honestly do not feel like the hate that They/Them is receiving is altogether fair. Those saying it's a bad movie simply because it's bad as a slasher should be reminded that the likes of Jordan and Alexandra often don’t get their tales told, let alone in such major releases helmed by veteran actors like Bacon. So, kudos to first time director John Logan. He could have done a much better job, but what he did is in itself a noteworthy achievement in many ways.