Conversion therapy, for those who aren’t aware, is any attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Nowadays, it goes by many names as more people become aware of the damaging physical and psychological impact on the recipient of this “therapy”. But it is still something practiced by people today. In writer/director John Logan’s directorial debut, THEY/THEM, Logan has created not only a fun slasher flick starring a large cast of LGBTQIA+ actors, but also a film that shows the horrors of what people are capable of when they refuse to see outside their own ideology.
Situated on an isolated, idyllic lake is Camp Whistler. A camp with a long lineage, its purpose is to help wayward teens see the benefit of living a heteronormative lifestyle. To become more “normal” in the eyes of society. A program intended to “help them find a new sense of freedom.” In other words, a modern-day conversion camp.
Run by camp director Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon), Owen wants his latest LGBTQIA+ recruitments to feel safe at Camp Whistler. He makes it known early on that he and the other counselors are understanding and that God won’t be a major factor during this experience. With a Cheshire grin on his face, Owen finishes his introduction and proceeds to direct everyone to their proper cabin which, of course, is divided into “boys” and “girls.” However, Owen encounters his first challenge when he meets Jordan. Trans and non-binary, Jordan (Theo Germaine) asks to be referred to by They/Them pronouns and if there is an all-gender cabin. Owen chuckles and proceeds to explain to everyone that currently, they do not have an all-gender cabin and that for the time being it would be best for Jordan to use the “boy” cabin – unless that’s a problem for them. And as Jordan and Owen stare at each other, it’s here where the cat and mouse game begins.
Along with Jordan, our main group of campers consists of Alexandra (Quei Tann), Toby (Austin Crute), Veronica (Monique Kim), Kim (Anna Lore), Stu (Cooper Koch), and Gabriel (Darwin del Fabro). They are all there for a wide array of reasons including but not limited to parental pressure, shame, and Moulin Rouge tickets. What’s interesting about this is we get to see different sides of the coin with these characters. We see those who aren’t ashamed of their gender identities such as Alexandra, a transgender woman, and those who are ashamed of their desires, such as Stu. For a film to feature two trans leads is a momentous occasion especially since, historically, trans characters in horror movies are portrayed as monsters or mentally ill. But what makes THEY/THEM so special is that it takes that antiquated trope and flips it on its head.
Once settled into their cabins, it doesn’t take long before the counselors begin to force their ideology upon the campers. One scene in particular shows the group, once again, divided into gender roles where the “women” are taken to cook and the “men” are brought to a shooting range. This is a pivotal moment in the film as we see how manipulation and psychological abuse are used by the counselors to shame the campers. But this scene is also important as it shows the shift of power between Owen and Jordan upon both realizing how they each present a unique danger to one another. I do want to make mention, though, that this scene features a dog death, so proceed with caution.
With THEY/THEM focusing on the subject of conversion therapy, there are some difficult scenes to watch, especially for those who have experience with this. Director John Logan gives us our first peek into the horrors ahead when new recruit Molly (Anna Chlumsky), the camp medic, stumbles upon a boarded-up dilapidated cabin foreshadowing what’s to come. Be aware that there are moments that feature physical harm through the use of electroshock therapy that can be hard to watch. However, one of the more chilling moments takes place during a therapy session between Cora Whistler (Carrie Preston), camp therapist and wife to Owen Whistler, and Jordan centered around choosing to be “the way they are.” It’s intense and soul-crushing. And anyone who has experienced that firsthand knows the pain it can inflict. Additionally, the film features one of the most shocking and surprising betrayals I’ve seen all year.
A horror movie set at a summer camp begs to feature a slasher. It’s hard not to compare THEY/THEM to Friday the 13th especially since the movie is referenced during a lakeside scene. Plus, who can forget that one of Kevin Bacon’s first roles was in Friday the 13th! It doesn’t take long before the campers start to notice a mysterious person in a long jacket and mask stalking the campground and slicing and dicing their way through victims. It’s easy to derive symbolism from the killer’s mask and the hypothetical mask that individuals in the LGBTQIA+ wear in order to protect themselves and feel accepted by a gender-normative society.
Before ending this review it’s important to make mention that Logan and his team worked closely with a Senior Consultant at GLAAD to make sure that each character’s gender identity matched that of the actor portraying them. Logan, who identifies as gay, worked tirelessly to make sure there was accurate representation on screen of these characters. By working so closely with GLAAD, they were able to get the right actors for the roles, and it allowed these actors to feel both seen and supported on set and on screen.
Overall, THEY/THEM is revolutionary. It reclaims the harmful tropes used toward LGBTQIA+ characters seen in so many horror movies, but it also showcases the damaging effects of conversion therapy. As of today, 22 states allow the use of conversion therapy. That being said, the horror of THEY/THEM isn’t the masked killer. It’s the people who feel they have the right to force their views upon others. To cause harm to those who don’t believe in what they believe. Those who refuse to give us autonomy over our own bodies. Instead, this movie is a queer celebration (cue Pink’s “Fuckin’ Perfect”) and a reminder that no one can ever tell us who we are.
THEY/THEM arrives on Peacock on August 5th.