Conversion camp horror film They/Them is a sly, murderous good time

The fantastic queer thriller They/Them flips the script for horror movies, starting with its clever/devious opening scene featuring a lone driver in the woods at night. It’s one of many clues that three-time Academy Award-nominated author John Logan (Gladiator, Penny Dreadful) — making a confident directorial debut — is toying with viewers. Even with a pointed reference to “Friday the 13th,” nothing in “They/Them” is what it seems – many of its characters have secrets – and that’s what makes this clever movie so damn funny.

The story unfolds at ‘Whistler Camp’, where a group of LGBTQIA+ youth have been sent to be ‘cleaned up’. Quite Dangerous Not only is Whistler a conversion therapy retreat, but a masked killer also stalks the grounds.

“They/Them” slowly creates a sense of unease. Upon arrival, transgender and non-binary Jordan (Theo Germaine), who uses she/them pronouns — as in “You can’t believe they’re in this damn camp” — demands an all-gender cabin when the campers are assigned to the “boy” and “girl” bunks. Owen, suitably challenged, sees Jordan will be opposing. A later scene, in which Cora (Carrie Preston), the camp’s therapist, enters Jordan’s mind is one of the film’s most insidious.

But this difficult moment is followed by one of the film’s most stimulating sequences. When Alexandra (Quei Tann) advises a thoughtful Jordan: “Change the voices in your head. Make them like you instead,” the entire booth sings and dances to Pink’s anthem “F**kin’ Perfect”. They connect and rebel against change/being changed in this empowering moment.

This theme is well developed in They/Them. While the campers are assigned to binary, heteronormative activities—the boys do track and field and go shooting, and the girls bake crafts and cakes—the youth resist and defy. When Owen searches for a man with “killer instincts,” he asks musical lover Toby (Austin Crute) to film something. However, Toby is unable, and his fellow campers, including Stu (Cooper Koch) and Alexandra, come to his aid. When Jordan is challenged to a shooting competition by Zane (Boone Platt) – the formerly gay, now “just as the day is long” athletic director – Jordan proves to be a master marksman. These episodes offer more character development than suspense.

themTheo Germaine as Jordan, Boone Platt as Zanein “They/Them” (Photo by: Josh Stringer/Blumhouse (Josh Stringer/Blumhouse)

Likewise, Kim (Anna Lore), a lesbian camper, excels at baking, which encourages activity counselor Sarah (Hayley Griffith) to reach out to her, which is downright creepy. Kim is comforted by bisexual Veronica (Monique Kim) and they share a passionate moment in the dock.

Kim and Veronica’s sex scene offers more pleasure than danger. The characters who are punished (ie killed) for sex are the ones who behave inappropriately and inauthentically – like when a guy takes selfies of Stu in a Speedo to have intercourse with a female camper.

But when a character seduces a camper under false pretenses, They/Them focuses on the horrors of aversion therapy, with the character receiving electric shocks to erase her same-sex desires. (Prior to this, Jordan discovers a collection of old photos of similarly traumatized victims.) The stun gun is of course used in a killing scene, as if to emphasize the harm of such treatment.

It’s no spoiler to reveal that this killer is someone who opposes the hateful practice of conversion therapy and is justified in wanting to shut down every conversion therapy center, even if killing is an extreme way to achieve that lofty goal.

However, “They/Them” is relatively mild about the bloodshed, which might disappoint Gore Hounds, but sensitive viewers will thank you – save for one scene involving the death of an animal. (It’s not shown implicitly.) Logan keeps the suspense simmering most of the time. An early scene in which a female character is caught in the shower provides more surprise than splash. In general, dispatching a victim is quick and efficient and advances the killer’s cause.

As Jordan, Theo Germaine puts on an impressive performance because they are lovable and use their wits and skills to survive. At one point, Jordan wryly states that things “don’t feel right. There should be more Bible banging and queer bashing,” and takes charge as the bodies pile up. Likewise, it’s hard not to laugh and applaud when a character given a difficult task claims she’s a black transgender woman, lest she be scared.

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“They/Them” features authentic casting and trans, non-binary, gay, lesbian and queer actors playing trans, non-binary, gay, lesbian and queer characters. (Similarly, recent Fire Island and upcoming Bros have largely authentic queer casts.) It elevates the film because the characters feel real, even as they play stereotypes. Austin Crute may be sassy and flamboyant, but when Toby bonds with Stu – who is initially homophobic – their friendship feels sweet, not forced. As Stu, Cooper convinces Koch as a handsome frat boy, which is why he becomes more likable as he lets go of his guard and becomes more confident. Koch makes his transformation convincing.

themMonique Kim as Veronica, Anna Lore as Kim in They/Them (Josh Stringer/Blumhouse)

The film also offers Monique Kim some select moments as Veronica. Her quirky lines — such as a comment she makes when Kim is craving a dirty martini — are amusing, and it’s gratifying to see how her relationship with Anna Lore’s Kim develops throughout the film.

Logan also immerses the straight actors in their roles. Kevin Bacon seems to be enjoying his role as camp manager who alternates between friendly and fiendish. Unfortunately, Carrie Preston isn’t given enough to do, but she is absolutely perfect in her therapy sessions. And as Molly, the camp nurse, Anna Chlumsky is likable as a reluctant ally for the youth.

They/Them is a smart and clever film that demonstrates the value of putting queer heroes in the horror genre, as well as the harmful effects of conversion therapy and not allowing people to be who they are.

They/Them is now streaming on Peacock. Watch a trailer via YouTube.

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