Recent mainstream horror has an exploitation problem. Sadly, that’s often traced to the exquisite 2017 film “Get Out,” which with all its sublimity, subtlety and actual nuance, should have raised the bar. But it somehow opened the floodgates for a slew of identity horror knockoffs — from “Them” to “Antebellum” — that are shallow, sloppy copycats.
“They/Them” is the latest to suffer this fate.
And it’s a shame. Because it boasts a large cast of queer actors who also portray queer characters when the genre has had a long history of evading them altogether. Though there are plenty of interesting stories — even some that have little to do with their genders and/or sexual identities — that could benefit from being more inclusive.
Writer-director John Logan’s “They/Them” hinges entirely on his characters’ queerness, but with meager suspense, horror and plot. It comes off like the filmmaker had no idea what kind of story he wanted to create around his capable cast.
So, Logan goes for the lowest hanging fruit — setting “They/Them” at a gay conversion camp called Camp Whistler. Though that is ripe for all kinds of atrocities and horrors that could make for a vapidly entertaining gore-fest, it immediately poses a pair of problems that are never satisfyingly reconciled.
For starters: How do you make a horror film centering queer people that doesn’t re-trigger a group that is already brutalized in real life? The second question is a bit more complicated and rooted in a consistent issue with which recent horror filmmakers have frustratingly eschewed contending.
Where else can the horror derive from or what is a subtextual horror that can be explored concurrently in the story so that it’s not strictly tethered to a character’s identity? Mariama Diallo’s “Master,” from earlier this year, had witches and ghosts expertly woven into its story about a Black female student navigating a privileged, white academic space.
“American Horror Story: Asylum,” told a haunting story about the history of how society responds to queerness and race through the prism of an unethical mental institution. Its creepy imagery and music were also profoundly unsettling.
“They/Them,” on the other hand, resorts to literal storytelling, which runs counter to what makes so many horror movies great. That’s even despite having a title in which the slash is supposed to be pronounced, suggesting a hint of allegory. Get it? Because it’s supposed to be a slasher?
But it’s not. Not really, anyway. A group of young queer adults finds themselves at this conversion camp led by Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon), an obvious villain who preaches about his intention to help them while flashing an icy smile. Molly (Anna Chlumsky), one of Owen’s right-hand women, is also there to, ever so mysteriously, support his every decision.
And day after day, the queer, sadly one-dimensional characters (portrayed by actors including Theo Germaine, Quei Tann and Anna Lore) are subjected to the same oppressive regulations. That includes being forced to wear clothes aligned with their assigned genders, shoot animals and generally act in direct opposition to who they are.
The typical disturbing experiences queer people navigate in a heteronormative society are worsened by the fact that they’re in a virtual prison. “They/Them” doesn’t even bother to build compelling stories around any of them. Molly, as paper-thin as her storyline is, actually is a more interesting character. That says a lot about the film’s priorities.
Logan’s film banks on the presumption that its audience is going to be disturbed by the reality adjacent to the plot — but not the plot itself. Absent are the things that you come to anticipate and even crave from a horror such as suspense and mounting fear. The most intense reaction it might incite is boredom.
Because aside from a clumsy pair of violent twists toward the end of the film, one that further exploits queerness and another that’s an undeveloped revenge subplot, nothing happens in the movie. The movie spends a lot of time building up to things that never actually occur, which makes it an even more exasperating watch.
The film’s not even smart enough to infuse bits of humor or commentary like in “Scream” or “But I’m a Cheerleader,” just to make you feel… something. Anything.
“They/Them” is not only not scary, but it also has nothing to say. A total waste.