Two companies, A24 and Blumhouse, have dominated mainstream horror movies over the last decade. While the first has made an artier, ostentatiously “weird” but thoughtful version of the genre into its brand, it’s harder to pin down the voice of Blumhouse. They’ve produced notable films by Rob Zombie, M. Night Shyamalan, Leigh Whannell, and gay director Christopher Landon. Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is their biggest claim to a classic, an instant landmark that resonated far beyond fans of the genre. But that combination of skillful filmmaking, political intelligence, and mass appeal is hard to re-capture. Sophia Takal’s 2019 “Black Christmas” proved to be Blumhouse’s clumsy attempt to follow up “Get Out” with an explicitly feminist slasher movie.
Out gay director John Logan’s “They/Them” tries painfully hard to be a breakthrough for queer representation in horror, but falls even flatter.
At the beginning of “They/Them,” a new set of LGBTQ youth have just arrived at the “conversation therapy” camp run by Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon). Most have been forced into it by their parents. Owen’s methods include grouping campers he considers male and female into strictly gender-segregated groups who fire guns at targets and bake pies, respectively. From there, things get far worse: the clean surface Owen presents, insisting that the camp isn’t based on homophobia or conservative Christianity, is quickly revealed to be a fraud based on a violent foundation. Jordan (Theo Germaine), who is trans and non-binary, emerges as the hero, taking charge as the camp’s counselors are knocked off by a masked killer.
In its ‘80s heyday, the slasher movie was beloved by teenagers but despised by critics. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert repeatedly attacked it as misogynist violence-porn on their show “At the Movies.” “They/Them” reverses slasher movie clichés in painfully surface-level ways. (It also pays homage to the start of the genre by casting “Friday the 13th” actor Bacon.) Two girls sharing a joint and then having sex is seen as a necessary response to the camp’s repression. Rather than punishing its characters for sex, drinking alcohol, or using drugs, “They/Them” updates the genre’s moralism to bump off homophobes.
Far more troublingly, “They/Them” flirts with ideas it finds too charged to really develop, suggesting sexual sadism as the camp’s core. The handyman leers at girls in public, while in private he pleasures himself to the camera he’s set up in their shower stall. One counselor forces a girl against the wall, making suggestive comments and groping her. The most unlucky boy is tortured with electric shocks through nipple clamps, in a scene whose sexualized overtones are readily visible.
Sadly, “They/Them” goes for the convenient tactic — in life and media — of blaming homophobia on repressed, self-hating queerness. In one of its few moments of real wit, a faux-heterosexual couple of counselors engage in foreplay by showing each other photos of people of the same sex on their phones. But elsewhere, the film gets much blunter. Its view of the “ex-gay” movement as grounded in self-hatred isn’t exactly off-base. The organization Exodus went down in flames publicly, as one supposedly heterosexual leader after another came out of the closet for a second time or was discovered cruising in gay bars. But “They/Them” ignores more subtle, less violent manifestations of the damage done by such repression. I doubt Logan wanted to suggest that gays and lesbians ourselves are the main perpetrators of homophobia, although not the only ones, but that’s what “They/Them” does.
On a broader level, “They/Them” just doesn’t work as a horror film, or anything else. The pacing is lazy, with little happening in its first half. It avoids the vicious glee of slasher movies’ murder scenes. That’s perfectly understandable, because a movie in which queer teens get killed off one by one would come off as insulting. But “They/Them” doesn’t do anything genuinely subversive with the format. Logan’s script is painfully hacky, the blatant work of a 60-year-old man flailing to portray contemporary youth, even though the parts were all cast with actors who match their characters’ sexual orientation and gender identity. The ensemble cast is too large for real character development, with most characters playing as stereotypes who are never fleshed out: Toby (Austin Crute) is a femme boy who lives for Broadway musicals, while Stu (Cooper Koch) is a masc jock who fears his gayness will destroy his opportunity to get a sports scholarship.
“They/Them” keeps a fairly light tone, but unlike Jamie Babbitt’s “But I’m a Cheerleader,” it’s incapable of treating this subject with a sense of humor. The scene where the entire cabin of teens sings along to Pink’s “F**kin’ Perfect” is this year’s most cringe moment in cinema. Although meant to be a moment of queer joy, it just underlines the emptiness of the song’s “empowering” lyrics in the face of systemic bigotry. “Glee” and “Friday the 13th” don’t gel.
While I can’t write about the ending of “They/Them” without spoilers, it sinks the film even lower, struggling hard not to alienate heterosexual spectators by fully endorsing its queer characters’ anger. “Conversation therapy” has proven to be an extremely treacherous subject to fictionalize: As critic Alfred Soto wrote, Joel Edgerton’s “Boy Erased” was as scared of gay sex and desire as the homophobes it criticizes. The next noteworthy queer horror film is likely to come from some place more marginal.
“They/Them” | Directed by John Logan | Blumhouse | Starts streaming on Peacock Aug. 5th