“And please, just remember; this is for your own good.”
Story: Whistler Camp. Where folks can come “Respect, Renew, Rejoice”. And Head counselor Owen Whistler seems super chill, really laid back, and more into the campers finding out who they truly are than actually converting anyone. Too good to be true, right? Like, yeah maybe? Hey, what’s that boarded up cabin? What the heck’s in there? I’ve seen horror movies like this before, and if somebody’s got a bear suit in there I’m out. Er, I mean, enjoy your stay!
Subgenre: LGBTQIA+ Camp(y) Slasher Hijinks
Release Date: 2022
FX: Very little blood and gore. Extremely hilarious CGI deer early on.
Where I Watched: Peacock
Spooky or Nah?: Yeah yeah. Sandman started today on Netflix. But I’ve been stoked for They/Them, and it’s possible subversion of slasher tropes ever since I saw the teaser with Kevin Bacon playing it up to the cheap seats. So here we are! Let’s dig in. Things start off with a narrative subversion too delicious to spoil but… okay maybe I spoiled it a teeny little bit by mentioning it? Ah, screw it. I liked it. Had to mention it. Got that out of my system. Thank you for your patience.
Basically, They serves as a horror story on several levels. One is the obvious 80s “campers camping ZOMG SLASHER” trope. Then there’s the insidious way the counselors use their power to intimidate, emotionally abuse, and demean their charges. The horror takes a long time to build. Well, at least the horror in terms of genre; there’s a lot of horrific words said and actions done by the staff before the red stuff makes an appearance. There’s poison behind smiles, gestures, and empty words of assurance, builds slowly but surely. For example? ‘Nother TW here; there’s an old pup, Duke the Dog. There’s a “manning up” day for the guys cabin. Let’s just say you shouldn’t get attached to sweet, sweet Duke. I WAS ROOTING FOR YOU. WE WERE ALL ROOTING FOR YOU. (Still not over it, obviously.)
Anna Chlumsky (My Girl), Carrie Preston (True Blood), along with our lead guy Kevin Bacon, are the leading “grownups” in this story. And they all seem super nice and peachy keen. Maybe a bit too nice? Here’s where I plop in a trigger warning: there is a character who is trans and hiding it. That individual is found out very early in the film, and the deadnaming, gender shaming, and gender-affirming treatment denial may be too much for some. It doesn’t last very long – this character is 100% still treated like their true gender by the character’s fellow campers – but it’s extremely intense and had me disgusted by the counselors and heartbroken for that character. Fair warning, yada yada. So let’s just say that the performances by the “grownups” are absolutely incredible, and a bit too true-to-life for folks like this.
As for the “kids” – who all look college age or older, but that’s part of its retro charm, no? – it’s amazing that they have an all-inclusive cast of characters in more ways than one. Not only do they draw from the entire LGBTQIA+ community, but instead of the cliché of “nobody wants to be here”, there are several characters who want their “difference” to go away. To “be normal”. And these actors are heartbreakingly perfect in their performances. Shout outs to Anna Lore, Quei Tann, Austin Crute, Monique Kim and Theo Germaine, and Cooper Kotch, for making me believe in and root for their characters. Damn y’all, you were fire.
I gave a shit about these characters from the jump. They also form bonds with each other that feel real, and understandable in this heightened situation they’re all in. As with all 80s homages, some of the campers plan an escape after the “program” gets to be completely batshit. And, of course, a few of the campers get it on when they think nobody’s watching. I mean really; teenagers in a horror movie set in a summer camp? It’s the law y’all. (Speaking of fun 80s throwbacks, there’s a fun 11th Hour reveal that harks back to that era, and is rather freaking satisfying.)
This is director John Logan’s first directorial effort, though he’s written tons of great screenplays like Skyfall, Gladiator, and a slew of Penny Dreadful eps. Though the plot can get a little wobbly in the second act, when the setup has been firmly established and the climax is a way off. There’s a certain feeling of “well, how should we go about setting things up for the big bang” here and there, and a few scene transitions that feel a bit sloppy. But all in all, They is a great watch for folks jonesing for a fun retro horror watch with a 21st Century spin.
Bee Tee Dub, there’s about a minute and a half of ads before the movie starts, so the entire film can be played with no commercial breaks. For those of you who, like me, care about that kind of thing.
Oh, and one last-last thing? Great use of Pink’s “Fuckin’ Perfect”. That scene was sweet, uplifting, and ominous, all wrapped up in one.