The following They/Them review contains light spoilers.
Over the past several years, I’ve repeatedly joked to my partner that when I snap (not if), and inevitably tear down the street in some kind of armored vehicle I’ve constructed from garbage, just rolling over Hobby Lobbies and Chik-fil-a’s and Shell’s and whatever other establishments have been asking for it, that a streaming service would inevitably make a special after my untimely demise which they would then title They/Them. It’s a layered joke, because of course anyone making a Snapped-style special about a genderqueer person who uses they/them pronouns would just make that the title. In fact, it would already be at least the second documentary to have done so.
Blumhouse Productions, however, looks like they’ve decided to capitalize on a relatively funny internet pun [my colleagues will tell you I love puns] with their new conversion camp slasher, They/Them, pronounced “they-slash-them.” And, yes, the whole promotion around the title is truly hokey, but the slasher genre has never promised elegance.
Because the filmmakers set an explicitly queer and trans slasher film in a summer camp, I have to imagine the makers of They/Them are aware of the legacy they’re working with, because there is a lot to contend with. The 80s camp slasher, Sleepaway Camp is infamous for its (spoiler from 1983, I guess) “reveal” that the killer is a trans girl. (Who grows up to be a woman who kills people in subsequent films.) Between this and the fact that all three Fear Street movies also list this very same campsite as a film location, it’s clear this film is not the first queer and trans film of its ilk.
What it is, though, is a summer camp horror film where queer audiences will see straight-coded antagonists. It’s a film where we have explicitly queer-and-trans-from-the-jump heroes like Jordan (Theo Germaine) and Alexandra (Quei Tann) and a delightful cast overall. In this film, the straight people are the baddies. The gays, the lesbians, the bisexuals, the queers, the trans people and nonbinary people who will see themselves in this film are the heroes.
With an emphasis on personal choice, few to no trappings of Christianity, and Owen’s initial concession to allow Jordan, a trans nonbinary person, to sleep in the “boys'” cabin, the film itself seems like it’s trying to lull you. We’re shown a heartfelt scene where the campers list their reasons for winding up at the camp; they range from making deals with their parents to being afraid they won’t be loved to wanting economic advancement in the form of a swim scholarship. By the time the campers are in their first therapy sessions, it clicks that the homophobia and transphobia here are a departure from the typical Evangelical fervor we may associate with conversion camps, that we may have seen in other films, and moves instead toward the increasingly mainstream Neo-Nazi / Proud Boy / Alt Right / Republican rhetoric, rooted in the idea that queerness is somehow stemming from psychological distress. The approach at this camp is medicalized, fueled by quack psychiatry. The exercises the campers go through are designed to break them down, and these unsettle long before the killing starts. Heterosexual ideas of gender roles abound, ham-fisted as a TJ-Maxx ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ decal, and include a use of stock photography so basic it’s actually upsetting.
A flourish I couldn’t miss, too, was the insidious manner in which the transphobia on the part of the conversion camp counselors manifests. When Jordan tells Owen they’re trans and nonbinary and asks if there are all-gender cabins, Owen responds by asking them if they would be alright in the boys’ cabin. Jordan accepts, and Owen says, all grins and open hands and empty promises, that they should think about an all-gender cabin for the future. Later, he’ll backtrack on this, use he/him pronouns for Jordan, and loop them into boys’ activities, like the only real way Owen can understand transition is from one point on the binary to another. Similarly, Owen responds with undue ire when he finds out Alexandra, a Black trans woman, is in fact trans, and forces her into the boys’ cabin for what he calls her “dishonesty.” It can’t go unsaid that Jordan is white, and also receives better treatment — which, I will get to later — and this could have been something handled with more intentionality. Regardless, these moments build the world in a way that rings true to the ways transphobia manifests in our current atmosphere in all its duplicitous forms, in the ways die-hard heteros try to twist trans narratives to reinforce the gender binary, making someone else’s identity about them, screaming about being harmed or deceived by trans people existing like a Karen lying on a department store floor. It’s the same kind of rhetoric that bolsters up bathroom bills and sports bans. I don’t think these cruelties, though they may be hard to watch, are to be unexpected.* It is a film set at a gay conversion camp, after all. It is the topic at hand.They/Them is attempting to talk about and depict as gruesome and villainous the ways that straight people treat LGBTQ people.
As a balm to these microaggressions, the film shines where it builds relationships between its queer characters. What young sapphic experience would be complete without falling for someone you’ve only known for a few days? What gender-nonconforming and trans person won’t recognize the way the trans and gender-nonconforming characters find each other and form connections quickly, deftly, generously? The campers cultivate joy and resistance, even in a bleak setting. (Though the choice of singalong to P!nk’s “Fuckin’ Perfect” from 2010 read as woefully out of touch.)
As a whole, though, the They/Them conceit feels forced. “They” is used as a slur at multiple points, and I watched this through twice and there might be exactly one instance of “slashing”? Everything else is more of a chop or an “impale.” Also, unless the killer’s pronouns are they/them, the title implies some kind of queer solidarity and resistance, and it does not deliver. Chekov’s gun sits idle, unfired. I’m not surprised the twists weren’t twisty enough, that the script didn’t stick the landing, to be honest. This was written and directed by the same man who brought us Penny Dreadful, which I binged, and which I hate to break it to you, exhausted me, even if it did have a spooky aesthetic.
Then there’s the fact that the [conversion] campers are a rainbow of people of sexual orientations, gender identities, and races, but the film barely touches race. The most notable moment where the characters actually acknowledge they have identities other than their genders or sexual orientations comes when Alexandra declares “I am a Black, transgender woman. I can do it in heels,” in a moment of strength — and that’s largely it. Transphobia and homophobia are all aspects of the white supremacist agenda and, especially with a film that is trying to say so much, I needed the script to reflect some thought on this, but instead, I saw something white writers do all too often, which is write around race and leave confronting the white supremacist elephant in the room to someone else. All of the conversion camp staff are white. They/Them has the setup for more overt commentary on the white supremacist (and Christian) foundations of conversion therapy, but they just don’t go there.
With that, I do have to say this film is timid, in a lot of ways besides the above. And timid is not what I’m looking for in horror. The gay sex is fun and given its spotlight (yes, reader, there are gay sex scenes, and the time stamps are…) but none of the trans / nonbinary characters have sex. Which, I’ll repeat as a question for you: In a campy, sexy, summery, drive-in-movie-fodder, make-out-in-the-car-with-your-partner(s)-movie that is supposed to be explicitly queer/trans centered WHY are the trans characters not given so much as a kiss? Listen, it’s not Halloween or a slasher panicking about teen sexuality. Not all characters who have sex in this movie die. It was therefore entirely possible to make this happen while sparing the life of at least one trans character, and yet, reader, they do not even get so much as a romantic subplot or even a little flirtation. The trans characters are completely unromanticized and it feels, again, like this was a lake the film didn’t want to dip its toe into. John Logan was willing to write and direct a movie where people are literally massacred and tormented, where trans pain is on display, but hesitated to show our heroes actually receiving any kind of non-platonic love or affection. It’s a glaring omission.
And then they bring the police in at the end. Which, just, no. Without spoiling anything, because the police are not influential when it comes to the plot, I will tell you they arrive at the tail-end of the movie, after all the action’s wound up. I wonder if, like unmasking the monster at the end of a Scooby Doo episode, it felt to Logan like this was the way you buttoned up a narrative. But it undoes any progress made through the rest of the film. The ending robs the queer characters of their agency and might have very well played out the same without their presence. I’d have loved to have seen more of what the characters would have done at the conclusion of the film when left to their own devices as opposed to perpetuating some rote fantasy about cops showing up and handling things. Cops are not our friends! We had an opportunity for the queer characters to resist their oppressors, to fight back, and instead, we get a tired plea for non-violence.
For a movie that bills itself as a queer empowerment film, there is neither enough fighting back nor enough in-your-face queerness, and while I’m not surprised due to the director’s history, I AM surprised because of the genre. In horror, you can really go there, and friends, they did not. Somehow, a cis white gay man managed to think of elaborate ways to torment queer and trans campers and saved none of his creativity for revenge on the straights. The kills are dull. The reveal contains no nuance. They/Them had the promise of having teeth only to wind up being all gums — and that was just a personal blow for a movie named with the pronouns I use.
Still, even where the script fails, the actors fucking sell it, and I don’t want to take away from the cast’s shine here. I was lapping up even the most far-fetched lines when they fell from these actors’ lips. Their facial expressions and the looks each of the cast members give each other lend so much life to this film. Considering the talent of the cast, they deserved a more complex script, and I do hope they each find themselves in more roles where they can truly display their talent. I don’t think this movie will find any kind of noteworthy place in the queer horror canon for me, excepting its novelty. Even if it did gift us with the line: “You’re lovely. Just like your pie.”
Now, some people are concerned this movie has come out amidst a flurry of anti-choice, anti-gay and anti-trans legislation, along with panic around gay people and monkeypox. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t give me pause. If you check the comment sections of other articles about this movie on other sites, you’ll see people cheering on the masked killer, hoping the queers are the ones who meet gruesome ends. What are we doing with this film? Are we making light? Making fun? Is this a bad idea? Horror critics have long noted that horror as a genre is a window into our anxieties. Maybe this is that. As Theo Germaine said, the movie “takes queer fear seriously.” Maybe.
But also, and I think more importantly, we should consider that as long as there have been movies, queer people have been oft-coded as the villains. We talked about 1983’s Sleepaway Camp, and then there’s the bisexual panic of A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 following just two years after. There is no way to not read an AIDS panic narrative into the 1985 movie Demons. Anxieties about the existence of queer and trans people have thrummed through the horror genre for so long that, honestly, I and many other queer people can’t help but see ourselves in the monstrous. With that, I do work on the internet, and I have to tell you that literally any movie that centers trans people and/or QTPOC is going to get hateful comments like that, no matter the type of horror, whether or not the conceit involved a conversion camp. I regularly have to delete comments from transphobes on Autostraddle just because we publish articles about trans people existing. One of the reasons I love horror movies so much is because horror is a fertile ground for experimentation, because even flaws can make a movie more interesting, and we deserve to be the ones experimenting, too. Homophobes aren’t interested in being quiet, but that doesn’t mean we should be, that we shouldn’t cast queer and trans people in movies, that we shouldn’t write queer and trans characters, that we shouldn’t make mistakes or be messy when trying to make art. And in 2022, we need all the queer characters with guts we can get.**
At the end of the day, it was a delight to witness Theo Germaine play a stalwart, empathetic, trans nonbinary person who refused to back down, who can handle a gun, and who looks out for the other campers. It was a dream to see Quei Tann play a trans woman who never falters in her sense of self, her humor, her kindness, or her bravery. It was a fucking hoot and a half to see the characters reckon with their queerness in all its manifestations from sheltered high femme lesbian to the self-assured bisexual to ultra-butch gay jock, musical-theater-identified-gay, and more, while at a gay conversion camp, in a horror movie. They really inhabit their characters, and they really fucking sell it. Watch it on Peacock with your queer date, friend, cat, or by your damn self with something cold to sip or snack on. Even though we deserve better, if this is your bag, we deserve to enjoy the flawed, campy summer horror, we do have, too.
*If you think that watching anything having to do with conversion camps may be too much for you, I would pass on this. It is the entire setting of the film. That said, my girlfriend, who cannot stand most horror, was able to watch and enjoy this film. If you’re looking for a general horror-level rating, They/Them is safe to watch with your sensitive butch date.
**If this becomes a six-movie horror franchise, I will be delighted because around movie two or three is where we start having fun, and then maybe we can actually get some killer lore. I know masks are sometimes random, but this one that’s been sewn up the center just seems so deliberate? And no one explains it!