[review by JA Kerswell]
At the root of its problem, despite the clever wordplay of its title, John Logan's THEY/THEM is unsure what it wants to be. An irony somewhat, given that it revolves around a group of confused teens at a LGBTQ+ conversion camp. It is part thriller, part coming-of-age drama, part slasher, part teen angst, part torture porn, part social commentary, part black comedy and even part musical (a GLEE'esque musical number is thrown in for good measure). As a whole it doesn't really work, and if you go in expecting a straight slasher movie (for want of a better term) you may well be frustrated. But on the plus side it looks good, boasts some great performances and kept my attention.
|Kevin Bacon makes a welcome return to his old stomping ground in THEY/THEM.|
Owen (Kevin Bacon making a welcome return to a killer summer camp for the first time since FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)) runs Whistler Camp – an idyllic looking place hiding a very dark secret. He runs the place with his wife Cora (Carrie Preston giving an icily effective performance as a therapist with a nice line in passive aggressiveness). Along with a couple of other counsellors (Boone Platt and Hayley Griffith – both playing ex-campers), completing the staff is Molly (Anna Chlumsky) – a new addition who becomes increasingly conflicted and uneasy with Bacon's approach. Oh, and the creepy janitor Balthazar (Mark Ashworth).
Owen and crew breezily welcome a busload of teens, including the androgynous Jordan (Theo Germanine); conflicted jock Stu (Cooper Koch); musical theatre fan Toby (Austin Crute) and reluctant lesbian Kim (Anna Lore). All are there under duress at the insistence of their families. Owen tells them that he is completely fine with their sexual preferences and identities, but if any are conflicted his process can help steer them back more stereo-normative ways. At first he is good to his word and the camp activities seem little more than good-natured team-building. However, soon things take a darker turn as Owen forces campers into ever more dangerous and reckless activities in an attempt to reinforce gender stereotypes. Meanwhile, someone in a grotesque mask is idly watching the activities with interest from behind a nearby bush. And here-in lies part of the problem …
THEY/THEM has been sold as a slasher movie, but the slasher action only really bookends the movie. It opens with a reasonably suspenseful scene where a woman is killed by the masked assailant after her car is forced off the road. Bar a couple of moments where the killer is seen lurking in the woods, the movie is far more interested in the character arcs of the central teen cast. That itself isn't a problem (although the irony of this much character building in a movie riffing off 80s camp slashers (which routinely had little to none) will not be lost on most viewers). Unlike many modern horror movies, the teens here are well-rounded, likeable and resourceful. There's even some touching moments and the benefit of this approach is you genuinely care what happens to them. However, it's easy to forget you're meant to be watching a horror movie for its lengthy mid-section. The location and premise is great. There can be few more insidiously horrifying places than a LGBTQ+ conversion camp. Arguably – and again ironically – THEY/THEM might have been better to lose the slasher aspect altogether. Perhaps a more interesting movie would have been to have the teens turn on the counsellors and their twisted ideology without the help of a masked assailant.
|Despite utilising the iconography and some elements of the slasher movie, THEY/THEM is more interested in culture wars than knives and axes.|
Curiously, THEY/THEM jettisons the poisonous religious ideology that underpins and drives most so-called conversion therapy. Owen even tells the campers that he won't mention God after one remark during their orientation. This leaves the motivation of those running the camp somewhat unclear – beyond the fact that it soon becomes apparent that Whistler Camp has been in this grisly business for well over a century. Bacon gives a good performance as a man whose mask of sanity and amiability slows slips. However, there isn't much else of substance to his character – or any of the other counsellors – for that matter. The main takeaway – quite accurately – is that conversion therapy ruins lives. And, in this instance warps individuals into bullies and worse – and ultimately essays the wholesale hypocrisy of the venture.
The other reason THEY/THEM doesn't quite work is that it never quite chooses a tone and sticks with it. It veers from black comedy (someone dies impaled on a rhino horn) to hand-wringing earnestness. It even throws in a couple of semi-gratuitous sex scenes and twists – at least one of which I didn't see coming (which isn't surprising as it makes no sense whatsoever!). It flails around grabbing elements from modern teen dramas, GET OUT (2017), HOSTEL (2005) and, of course, 1980s camp slashers. There are even a few half-hearted, and somewhat awkward, stabs at SCREAM'esque (1996) quips (with one character saying: “I keep on expecting Jason Voorhees to come out of these woods.”) If only!
Ultimately, THEY/THEM is an interesting failure. If nothing else it shows that the subgenre is timeless. Before seeing it I had already read the criticism that the slasher aspect was lacking. Again ironically, going in with that in mind you might enjoy it more.
female: 3 / male: 4
1) Female killed with axe (off-screen)
2) Male has head bashed repeatedly into a computere monitor
3) Female hacked with axe (off screen)
4) Male hacked with axe (off screen)
5) Male electrocuted
6) Female found with throat cut
7) Male impaled on Rhino horn and throat cut
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