Movie Review – They / Them – DelmarvaLife
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
The title of this film is pronounced “They Slash Them”. It’s a pun on the idea of how members of the LGBTQ community indicate which pronouns should be used to refer to certain people, as well as a take on the idea of horror movies, commonly referred to as movies slash. When it comes to slasher movies, Halloween (1978) and Friday 13 (1980) established the genus model. Even before these films, the idea of centering LGBTQ themes or characters in a horror feature existed and was demonstrated in titles such as Alfred Hitchcock. String (1948) and psychology (1960). However, the LGBTQ characters in these movies are often cast as villains. Glaring examples include overnight camp (1983) and Thesilenceofthelambs (1991). It’s rare for LGBTQ characters to be portrayed as the survivors or even the heroes of horror or slasher movies. One of the first exceptions from a mainstream company was A Nightmare Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), and even that is disputed. The tide has started to turn somewhat with movies, like It Chapter Two (2019), The New Mutants (2020) and Nope (2022).
There have been a few independent horror movies where LGBTQ characters have been the survivors or the heroes. Most notable was At all costs (2005). TV and streaming services have been better places for horror content with LGBTQ survivors or heroes. Spiral (2020) on Shudder is an example. In the Dark: Midnight Kiss (2019) is another. The one that is more related to what this film does is American Horror Story: 1984 (2019). Still, this movie does something different than those aforementioned productions. This movie makes LGBTQ characters the protagonists, but it doesn’t make them the targets of physical violence, with one exception. Above all, this film does not victimize them with the typical slash of this genre, which makes the title a little misleading.
Theo Germaine (4400 and The politician) stars as Jordan Lewis, a teenager who was forced to attend Camp Whistler, a summer retreat reminiscent of that of Friday 13, a direct reference that is made here. Jordan is not here to have fun or relax between classes. Jordan is here because it’s conversion therapy. Conversion therapy is an attempt to transform someone who is a sexual or gender minority or who might identify with the LGBTQ community into a heterosexual and cisgender person. It’s pseudo-advice for transitioning a person from gay to straight or resisting gender-nonconforming behavior.
In this case, Jordan is one of those gender nonconforming people. Jordan is non-binary. A non-binary person is a person who does not identify with either male or female gender identity choices, or the person who identifies with both genders simultaneously. In some cases, the person may move back and forth between multiple genders. Often, non-binary people prefer the pronouns “they” and “them”. Looking at Jordan, you couldn’t tell what their biology is, which is the point and the goal. The horror or conflict would be to tell a non-binary person that they have to be either a him or a her, having to choose one over the other. This is exactly the dilemma Jordan faces when they arrive as they have to sleep in either a boys dorm or a girls dorm. After this dilemma, which isn’t played out as horribly as one might assume, the struggle all but disappears.
Kevin Bacon (Apollo 13 and Free from all ties) plays the role of Owen Whistler, the man who owns and runs the camp. He is a middle-aged man who comes across as charming and reasonable. He seems almost tolerant and even accepting. He does not quote Bible verses, contrary to the usual tactic of conversion therapists, as Joel Edgerton testifies erased boy (2018). One would assume that Owen doesn’t even try to convert the young people who come here at all. Obviously his behavior is either a smokescreen or a tactic in what could be considered gaslighting.
Carrie Preston (The good wife and true blood) also stars as Cora Whistler, a doctor who is supposed to be a youth psychologist at the camp. It is revealed that she is Owen’s Lady Macbeth. She is on board and complicit in the children’s gaslighting. His tactic is to mentally deconstruct children, subtly and slyly humiliate them, and make children feel guilty. She engages in an insidious form of verbal intimidation. This movie doesn’t feature a lot of on-screen physical brutality. It’s mostly implied or depicted off-screen, but Cora’s verbal bullying is probably the most effective horror in this entire narrative.
However, this scene with Cora is just one. There really aren’t many more scenes as effective as hers. They are not effective from the point of view of being a horror film with scares or thrills. Filmmaker John Logan in his feature directorial debut is best known as the Oscar-nominated screenwriter for Gladiator (2000) and the aviator (2004). Logan is not known for writing horror movies. Logan wrote the adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) and sequel Alien: Pact (2017). Yet these were based on already established properties. These films were also punctuated with musical or action sets. Slasher movies are usually punctuated with killer scenes peppered with it. Logan doesn’t really have that kind of punctuation.
In a movie like Scream (1996), there were murder scenes or set pieces nearly every 20 minutes. Aside from the opening, Logan skips nearly an hour before setting up another murder scene. His movie feels like it should have been a drama that was just a test of wills between Jordan and Owen. The slasher aspects feel almost nailed down, befitting a different movie than this one. Rather, this film provides a platform for actors like Austin Crute, Monique Kim, and Quei Tann to shine. If Logan had made this movie a drama, it might have given more time to explore the characters of Crute, Kim, and Tann a bit more.
Operating time: 1 hour. and 44 mins.
Available on Peacock.