THIS IS A SPOILER-FREE REVIEW
They/Them, the recent Peacock slasher release written and directed by John Logan (perhaps best known for writing Skyfall and the Sweeney Todd movie), promises a lot based on the title alone: a commentary on contemporary LGBTQ+ identity; a wry, self-referential slasher; a narrative about queer community and/or the othering of queer people by oppressive forces. Does it deliver?
Well, kind of.
In simplest terms, They/Them—which follows a group of young queer campers at a week-long conversion camp that grows more and more ominous—is messy. But not, unfortunately, the fun kind of messy (camp, gore, etc.)—the kind of messy resulting from having attempted to take on too much at once, the kind that mostly serves to confuse and frustrate a viewer. It’s not a bad movie by any means. It’s just not really a good one either.
The film’s pacing, for instance, leaves a lot to be desired. Kills are relatively few and far between, a disappointment for those anticipating a standard slasher flick. Honestly, I’m hesitant even to call They/Them a horror movie. It’s more of a slow-burn psychological thriller with a little bit of slashing splashed in. But even if the film was marketed as more Fatal Attraction than Friday the 13th, it still probably wouldn’t work. It spends time on scenes that seem plot-relevant, only for the viewer to realize we didn’t actually learn anything we didn’t already know. It sets up character motivations only to throw them away down the line.
The issue of incomplete character work is exemplified through Kevin Bacon’s slimy conversion camp owner Owen Whistler. Bacon pulls out all the stops, slinking through his little self-contained world with equal parts narcissistic overconfidence and fear that his charges may turn on him. Still, Whistler doesn’t feel totally clear. He switches very rapidly from Fake Cool Camp Counselor Sitting in Backwards Chair mode into Jordan Peterson Alpha Male Carnivore Diet mode—and while I’m sure that this reveal is intended to demonstrate Whistler’s hidden evil side, he mostly just comes across like two different guys who suck for different reasons.
To this point, we never understand his motives for running the camp at all. He doesn’t seem to be very religious, or even that politically conservative beyond an obsession with guns and hunting. There’s that quote often attributed to screenwriter Christopher Vogler, that “every villain is the hero of his or her own story”—but what’s Whistler’s story? What does he want? What led him to believe what he believes about gender and sexuality? Does he actually believe it? I feel like I shouldn’t have to ask these questions.
Regarding the killer, I won’t spoil you, but suffice to say they’re just not that scary. Or fun. Or comprehensible. I appreciate the intent behind the reveal, and I think it could have been pulled off with a lot more context. I also sympathize with Logan’s obvious attempts to avoid making certain implications about certain kinds of people being violent, cruel, or bad. That avoidance, however, prevents the movie from transcending into something that feels radical, surprising, or even remotely believable.
And if you’ll allow me one tangent about the machinations of successful horror movies: Every notable slasher mask has a story, even if that story is that the mask’s real horror comes its selection being not just mundane but basically arbitrary (see: Michael Myers; every killer ever from the Scream movies). This mask, alas, has no such story attached. It’s more of an unexplained Party City situation that attempts to manipulate actively through its perceived “scariness” (a grey pallor, empty eye sockets, scars, etc) rather than creating fear through its association with a deeply terrifying killer.
Admittedly, this void of meaning matches up to the equally anticlimactic killer reveal. You can predict it, and even if you don’t, it’s more “oh… huh” than “oh my god.” The reveal is ultimately more Mrs. Voorhees than Jason—and there’s a reason that Jason, rather than his mother, is the villain who gets remembered.
Other facets of the film contribute to a kind of narrative mush: The dialogue suffers from Joss Whedon Disease in that some characters exist almost exclusively for the purpose of being witty one-liner machines. The plot suffers from juggling too many characters to actually focus on or learn about anybody in depth. One romance subplot is given so much screen time that it seems destined to connect with the larger plot when it simply doesn’t.
The film, perhaps to its detriment, eschews the idea of the final girl (or the final boy, or the final person) in totality. Very few characters here change from beginning to end; most everybody’s journey is either to realize they were morally in the wrong and suffer violently for it, or to bask in the fact that they’ve been morally right the whole time.
This movie was obviously written by a middle-aged gay man—someone who has credentials and experience within the queer community, and who’s probably completely supportive of contemporary queer fluidity and experimentation, but who, through no fault of his own, just kind of fundamentally misunderstands Gen Z. These characters are kindly, compassionately drawn young queer people; the missing link seems to be the young part. They don’t talk about themselves or amongst themselves in the way that young queer people actually talk about and amongst themselves. (No self-respecting group of gay teens in 2022, for instance, would break into a rousing, unironic rendition of Pink’s feel-good 2010 hit “Perfect.”)
In the movie’s very, very careful handling of queer issues, a lot of potential tension is lost. None of the campers are really shown to have any flaws that actually effect their lives and stories; they’re martyrs and moral patients, long-suffering Atlases of a homophobic and transphobic society whose problems are all caused by other people. Jordan (Theo Germaine), our resident they/them, is particularly, unambiguously good and righteous. They calmly and clearly explain their pronouns. They do what they must to minimize harm to their fellow campers.
Don’t get me wrong; in a world where gay and trans people are still seen by many to be predators, it’s refreshing to see a movie that so obviously sympathizes with its queer cast of characters. Horror movies in particular have a long history of using homophobic and transphobic tropes for shock value (looking at you, Sleepaway Camp). But horror movies need stakes, and horror characters should be complex, fully realized people who could, at any moment, make a fatal mistake for themselves or someone else. They/Them is so afraid for its queer characters to come off badly that they come off blandly—which I might argue is worse.
It’s hard not to compare They/Them with Bodies Bodies Bodies, the A24 Zillennial murder mystery also released on August 5 and notably co-written by Kristen Roupenian, author of the controversial New Yorker short story “Cat Person.” But where Bodies has been praised for its sardonic, self-aware treatment of the younger generation’s relationship to politics and language, They/Them takes itself deadly seriously.
If contemporary horror movies are often vehicles for metaphors about trauma, grief, and oppression—look at The Babadook, for instance, or the rebooted Halloween series, or Happy Death Day, or Fresh—then a horror movie that grapples with the terror of feeling trapped in a world that hates you or a body that isn’t quite right could hit hard. Unfortunately, They/Them is not that movie.