Kevin Baconreturns to the slasher genre that launched his career (he starred in “Friday the 13thTh,” after all) should have been reason alone to see “They/Them.” In this case, he is not one of the campers, but an obvious villain, Owen Whistler, the leader of a gay conversion camp, a place that terrible parents send their children to try to make them equal. These places still exist – and “Pray Away” is a fascinating documentary about their harmful effects – and “They/Them” at times feels like a drama about how misguided and disastrous they can be. Just trying to get through a world that contains something as horrible as gay conversion therapy can be a horror movie for a young person trying to form their identity. Whistler is the kind of monster who smiles and tells his victims , that he acts in their best interest, and he is joined by a group of advisors who appear to follow him like a cult leader, including characters played by Carrie Preston and Anna Chlumsky.
Of course, the stars of “They/Them” are the young people who are already trapped in a waking nightmare that only gets worse when a slasher serial killer who looks like they take their style choices from “I know what you did last summer” The Fisherman begins stalking the campsite and taking out workers and counselors. Theo Germaine (“The Politician”) leads the teens as Jordan, a non-binary person who suspects that the camp is much darker than it even appears on the outside from the day they arrive. Germaine is the only reason to watch “They/Them” as they capture a strong-willed skepticism that conveys backstory and character depth that everyone else in the film lacks.
As “They/Them” alternates scenes of Whistler ramping up his torture techniques to convert his latest campers with someone committing murder around camp, it becomes clear that no one involved ever asked what movie they were making. It doesn’t have the style of a slasher picture – the kills are almost all uniformly boring, Logan cuts away from the “good stuff” that typically characterized the genre to show things like a raised ax and splatters of blood on the wall – and it’s not rich enough to function as a character drama (and abandon any pretense of suspense given how deadly obvious the killer’s identity is from the very beginning). Some of the young people get a subplot or two and even romantic arcs, but they’re so clearly plot devices, given too little actual character beyond knowing all the words to Pinks”Perfect.” A scene where they all break into an a cappella rendition after an emotional moment is easily one of the year’s worst in every way and indicates this film’s biggest problem, turning kids sent to conversion camp into a monolith. I would have respected the movie more if half the kids didn’t seem to know the words.
The truth is that the best person for this material would have been someone like that Ryan Murphy, a creator less afraid of horror, sex, and identity than Logan appears to be. While Murphy’s output is far from “f*cking perfect,” it never lacks personality and ambition like this film, which is afraid to choose a style. Representation in storytelling is crucial to the future of film as an art form. But execution will also always matter.
At the Peacock today.