‘They/Them’: Queer slasher misses the mark on conversion therapy
By: Kate Phillips
Note: This article contains spoilers of the film They/Them. We mean it – we’ll be revealing who the killer is about half way through.
Content warning: This article discusses conversion therapy.
Horror films and queer representation have a historically uneasy relationship, with a long legacy of them either villainising or senselessly murdering their queer characters. So, when I saw the trailer for They/Them (pronounced “they slash them”), a slasher film set at a gay conversion camp, I was genuinely excited.
The film has a lot going for it: a diverse, mostly unknown queer cast with an interesting and potentially terrifying premise. Plus, the horror genre is one with underutilised potential to tell great queer stories. Unfortunately, when it comes down to it, They/Them is just not very good.
Image: Josh Stringer/Blumhouse
We open with what might be the most effective sequence in the whole film: a tropey and creepy hack and slash in the woods. After this, the film pivots to its main setting, Camp Whistler, a gay conversion camp. We’re introduced to the main characters (or potential victims): a group of queer young adults, most of whom have been sent to the camp by their parents.
Kevin Bacon’s portrayal of the conversion camp director is genuinely unsettling. Rather than taking a bible-thumping approach, he tells the characters that he “can’t make [them] straight”, assuring them that he will just help them change if they want to.
He weaponises affirming language like “this is a safe space” and “this is a place that’s all about inclusion”, while donning a smile. He even seemingly respects our lead Jordan’s (Theo Germaine) non-binary identity, addressing them with their pronouns and acknowledging the camp should consider building an all-gender cabin.
After this, there is a painstakingly slow ramp-up of tension as the camp’s friendly façade starts to slip. The campers are subjected to a variety of conversion techniques: counselling, practicing “gender-normative” activities, being handcuffed together and being led into the woods for the night.
There is an entire hour of the film where there aren’t really any scares. None of the tension from that opening sequence is revisited, other than a few fake outs. None of the characters are aware that they’re in any danger from a serial killer for the first 80 minutes of the movie, and then at the end, it becomes clear there was never a threat to them after all.
I am a self-confessed chicken with horror movies. I watch most of them with my hands over my eyes, and flat-out refuse to watch the famously scary films like Hereditary. So, if a movie cannot even raise my heart rate more than a Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons, then it has failed spectacularly.
Throughout the movie, there are moments where clearly, the audience is supposed to be scared – the score is telling us so – but nothing scary is actually happening.
A great horror movie is one that uses the genre to unearth our deepest fears to make broader social commentary. They/Them fails in one of its most basic jobs – it’s not scary. That means any kind of commentary it attempts just comes off a little bit cringe. The extended sequence where the campers earnestly dance and sing along to ‘Fuckin’ Perfect’ by P!nk is emblematic of the film’s tonal problems. The movie isn’t sure whether it’s a horror movie or a gay empowerment film, so it ends up doing neither.
Writer and director John Logan, who is openly gay himself, wrote the film from a desire to see gay lead characters in a horror movie. In interviews, he has indicated that he wanted to “celebrate diversity”; a noble goal, but not exactly the best ingredients for a horror film. The film is wary to place its queer cast in any actual danger.
It’s true that there is a genuine tension in placing a young and diverse queer cast into peril, and then threatening to kill them off one by one. The “bury your gays” trope is a real one to combat, but They/Them doesn’t even fully engage with the potential horror of the setting.
The horrors of conversion therapy are very real, and truly frightening. Survivors report practices that truly do belong in a horror movie: prolonged physical and psychological torture, exorcisms, re-enactments of traumatic events (and of note, only the ACT, Queensland and Victoria have banned it in Australia). The ultimate horror is that queer people are vulnerable to falling prey to these methods, and of believing the brainwashing and having their lives irreparably changed.
While Carrie Preston is disturbing as a therapist who smiles broadly, unmoved as she deploys homophobic slurs against the campers, they seem largely unaffected. There is never any real risk that they will start to believe any of the brainwashing.
While Jordan does appear shaken by their therapy session, the film pivots suddenly to the High School Musical-esque ‘Fuckin’ Perfect’ performance, destroying any ability for us to sit with the psychological horrors we just witnessed.
By refusing to engage with the actual experience of trauma, the film creates characters who end up feeling mostly hollow. The young actors do well with what they’re given, but what they’re given are cheesy lines like: “no one is ever going to tell us who we are again.”
It’s exciting to see queer and trans people of colour in a mainstream horror film. However, the intersection of race and sexuality is depicted, and then not deeply engaged with. Black trans woman Alexandra’s (Quei Tann) treatment at the camp stands in contrast to Jordan’s. She’s deadnamed throughout the movie, forced to wear men’s clothing and relegated to the cabin with the “boys”, whereas (white) Jordan’s pronouns are respected.
It’s possible that this was done to comment on the harder realities for trans people of colour, but we never get to hear Alexandra’s perspective on what is happening to her. Plus, the racism directed at her is never named for what it is.
The film’s ending undercuts even the potential for revenge or retribution. The killer turns out to be the camp’s new nurse (Anna Chlumsky), a former camper who has returned to murder the camp’s employees – which are the only deaths in the film.
Instead of joining the killer’s mission to close other conversion camps by killing their employees, Jordan instead chooses to step aside and let the police intervene, as if queer people have ever had something to gain by working with the carceral system.
They/Them had a lot of potential, but the makings of a good film are buried within the tonal problems and lack of actual horror.
Unfortunately, it has nothing to say other than a milquetoast kind of liberal message that celebrates queerness. It does this only in a very gentle way: by singing P!nk songs and encouraging us to “love ourselves”, rather than dismantling the very real systems that seek to harm us.
Kate Phillips is a PhD Candidate, writer, and psychologist, working across trauma and neurodiversity in research and practice. She is interested in too many things, including table-top games, horror movies, and musical theatre. An ex once described her as “extremely online”.
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