They/Them Slashes the Queerphobia From the Slasher

Ever since Hitchcock revealed that his murderer in Psycho was a cross-dresser, slashers have presented queer people as monstrous horrors.

The killer in the first Friday the 13th film is a mother masquerading as her male child. The antagonist in Silence of the Lambs is trying to turn into a woman. The terror in Malignant is a woman with a parasitic male cancer inside her. Anyone who disturbs gender roles is…well, disturbing. They destroy and must be destroyed.

John Logan’s They/Them (pronounced “They-slash-Them”) is a queer slasher. That means it deliberately rejects a lot of the genre’s history and mechanics. That’s probably going to annoy some genre fans. But Logan, and Blumhouse studios, are to be commended for following the critique all the way to its end, even if it means slashing out much of what makes a slasher a slasher.

Not the Usual Summer Camp

The movie starts very much in slasher tradition, at a summer camp on a lake. The camp in question here, though, is devoted to gay conversion. Camp leader Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon) is surprisingly chill for a gay conversion counselor. He doesn’t thump a Bible and he doesn’t even tell the students that they’re wrong to be gay, lesbian, or trans. He just promises to help them if they want help.

Jordan, a nonbinary camper with pronouns they/them, remains suspicious though. And sure enough, Owen slowly but surely removes the genial mask. Camp games turn sadistic; friendly acceptance gets less friendly and less accepting. And, in the time-honored tradition of the slashers, young people start to have sex, and the sex is quickly followed by hyperbolic violence. Someone is stalking the camp and (surprise!) they have a knife.

That’s where the slasher dynamics start to get less straightforward, and/or less straight, though. It’s difficult to explain exactly what’s different without spoilers. But basically, the inevitable murders don’t progress the way they should. The wrong people die, the right people aren’t at risk. Slashers punish queer people and they punish sex. They/Them refuses to follow the standard script.

The Wrong Kind of Scary

You could say that the movie refuses to go for the jugular. But that’s not exactly true. On the contrary, in many ways. it cuts a lot deeper than horror movies tend to. Especially if you have a queer child of your own, as I do, there are portions of the movie that are positively harrowing.

A psych session in which the therapist smilingly and remorselessly tells Jordan that they are self-deluded and unlovable is vicious—not least because the therapist is, in no small part, speaking for the tradition of the slasher itself.

Even more traumatic is a scene in which Alexandra (Quei Tann) a Black trans girl, explains that she is at the camp because her parents blackmailed her. They threatened to never let her see her younger brother again if she didn’t subject herself to a week of torture. Compared to that cold, remorseless sadism, the elaborate steel contraptions of the Saw franchise seem like cheap rusty gimmicks.

You can have fun onscreen blood and violence. Or you can have parents carefully finding their daughter’s weak spots and using them to destroy her. Horror fans generally show up for the first. The second is the wrong kind of intense.

No Victim, No Monster

You could imagine a horror film in which the first half is the camp counselors inflicting these sadistic humiliations on the counselors, and the second half is the bloody revenge. But that’s too overdetermined too in a genre where the queer people are always the killers.

Owen tries to encourage Jordan to find their inner violent slasher as part of embracing his manliness. Jordan even turns out to have some impressive firearms skills. The shadow of Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill loom over their shoulder.  But ultimately the movie is as much about rejecting the stereotype of trans predators as it is about rejecting the stereotype of trans victims.

That does leave the movie somewhat adrift. The slasher plot engine, which has powered many much less thoughtful and inspired films through ninety minutes of empty fun, sputters early on and never really picks up the rhythm. John Logan is a smart writer, and They/Them is a decent concept. But to make a queer anti-slasher work as a slasher, you need a truly great movie, and this can’t quite manage that.

Still, it has its moments. My favorite is a scene on a dock. One of the girls, blonde wealthy Kim (Anna Lore), says she keeps expecting to see Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th fame rise out of the water. Veronica (Monique Kim), a bisexual alterna-kid, says, “Who’s that?” And before you’ve processed that the wrong one of them is the slasher fan, Kim leans over and kisses Veronica, as if exhilarated to be surprised by her friend.

Knowing the tropes and forgetting the tropes are both a kind of pleasure. They/Them may not quite be a perfect slasher. But it is itself, which is an achievement for any movie, or any human.

Rating: 6.5/10 SPECS

They/Them premieres exclusively on Peacock August 5th. For more on movies in theaters now, follow us here.

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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.