Thursday, August 11, 2022

Conversion Camp Carnage: They/Them (2022)

They/Them (2022)
Rating: **1/2
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Theo Germaine and Anna Chlumsky

For a backwoods slasher, this one does very little slashing and more of a different kind of nightmarish horror. A missed opportunity perhaps, but not without its own merits.

Taking place in Whistler Camp, a gay conversion program straight out of a Friday The 13th or Sleepaway Camp set, a group of queer kids find themselves in an awkward yet intense stay as their families, friends and communities dump them there in hopes that the camp's curriculums would pray away their indiscretions. Led by Owen (Kevin Bacon), who welcomes the kids with a too-good-to-be-true speech about how the camp focuses on acceptance and that he himself is all okays with the gays, the place is mostly staffed with former residents turned straight (more on that bull later) acting as activity managers, Owen's own wife taking over therapist duties, a new recruit who would be the camp's nurse and one creepy groundskeeper who many of us are sure is just there for bodycount fodder.

It's made clear within the first few nights that something is off with the camp as our non-binary protagonist Jordan (Theo Germaine) quickly notices the lack of traditional Bible-thumping techniques and how Owen irately reacted when he found out one of the campers is a transwoman, completely in contrast to his compassionate welcome of being open to queer people. Slowly but surely, the staff starts rearing their true ugly colors as they force the kids to dire situations such as verbally abusing them in private, flirting with them so they can justify a punishment or even gun down a poor dog while spouting homophobic slurs. It isn't long before our troubled teens plan on leaving the camp to escape its increasingly dangerous staff, but it seems these people may not be the only thing they have to worry about as out there is a loon in a mask, stalking everyone and making their rounds of murdering folks all over camp.

The way I see it, They/Them (2022) (pronounced as "they-slash-them") only started and ended as a slasher flick, spending a major bulk of its nearly two hour run as a drama thriller centering on the nightmarish world of gay conversion practices. For a good part, it's a serviceable affair as director and writer John Logan pens the majority of its teen LGBTQ+ casts to be vulnerable yet admirable and sweet, breaking away from the traditionally cliched tropes of jocks, nerds and queen bees by exploring these teens thoughts and weaknesses as they ponder about their identities as a person to add a little bit of depth. With this, you get to care for these teens and fear for their safety once they're put in danger, which is always a good thing in a horror flick as it shows a good sense of writing and development.

Interestingly, the danger here is less in the form of the masked slasher and more around the camp staff who are soon revealed to be sadistic, manipulative and basically unhinged. Granted a lot of their scenes genuinely felt terrifying for their intensity, psychological torment and emotional abuse, one of which involving an "aversion therapy" with a slide show and a car battery, but there were some opportunities hinted and given that could've made the staff a little more layered, thus intriguing and even scarier; Kevin Bacon's character, for one, could've rode along their projected personality as a well-intentioned camp lead who just wanted what's best for the teens in a warped sense, but instead it's all thrown away as a red herring and basically lowered his character to a typical villain who just wanted to torture kids. Then there's one sex scene between staff members who were supposed to be straight, only to show one of them needing to look at spicy pics of their respective genders to get rock hard, pretty much revealing their hypocrisy and how the camp's approach doesn't always work. These would've been a great source of grey-area conflict among those running the camp and those staying in it, giving us an effectively challenging premise to sit through, but it's all treated in black and white instead and underwhelmingly simplified the clash to "troubled teens are good, conversion camps are bad".   

In fact, the slasher elements (which comes in within the last twenty minutes of the movie) also reflect this lack of solid contention given that the killer have been targeting a specific set of people only despite the relatively large cast. This took away any sense of real danger and mystery towards the killer's identity, something that doesn't help the fact that the entire massacre feels rushed and mostly unsatisfying with overly basic murders. It all ends with the killer monologuing at how places like Whistler Camp needs to be taken down while our main lead points out the unnecessary need of violence to achieve that goal. Frankly, this last act completely snuffed out any sense of excitement I have for this finale, which is a shame as I wanted to like They/Them (2022) all the way. 

As a slasher fan, I cannot deny my disappointment at how messy the bodycounting ground of They/Them (2022) is executed, subverting very little and missing a lot of the marks. It's one of those cases that the title would have benefitted more as a something else other than a slasher flick, in this case a character study thriller, considering how much of the dead teenager movie tropes feel more of an afterthought comparing it to the brutal hub of psychological interactions. On that note, I will say that They/Them (2022) delivers on handling and establishing its teen casts well enough to make them endearing and worth rooting for, giving us an okay character driven horror within the accursed world of conversion groups. It's not gonna be for everyone, but an attempt was made and I can at least appreciate that.

1 female hacked to death with a hatchet
1 male repeatedly bashed against a computer monitor
1 male and 1 female hacked to death with a hatchet
1 male strapped to a car battery, electrocuted to death
1 female found with a throat cut
1 male pushed into a taxidermized rhinoceros head, throat cut with a hunting knife
Total: 7

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