Monday, October 3, 2022

Camp Bacon

Is They/Them the cleverest titled slasher film of all time? If your first instinct is a shrug, let me remind you that it's pronounced "They Slash Them" and now, I see you nodding, and indeed, we are one. 

Quick Plot: Welcome to Whistler Camp, a scenic but horrid place where LGBTQ+ teens are subjected to conversion therapy. They attend an extent. Some of the kids genuinely want to be "cured", while others have been threatened by their parents if they don't comply. While the staff initially presents themselves as not the worst human beings in the world, that's soon revealed to be a ruse.

Not surprisingly, camp director Owen is the worst. Returning to summer woods after 42 years, many degrees, and still no Oscar nominations, Kevin Bacon leads a small batch of well-meaning sadists to teach the females how to bake and the males how to shoot. Nonbinary camper Jordan observes the action carefully, hoping to get through the week to be legally emancipated from their parents while helping a few fellow campers along the way. 

If they survive, of course.

It's summer, it's camp, and there are attractive teens in spades. Naturally, that means we've also got a masked killer slashing through the cabins. Of course, that might feel like a relief when the planned activity in the next cabin over is electro-shock treatment.

They/Them is the directorial debut of veteran screenwriter John Logan, whose diverse credits range from 1999's Bats to Oscar nominated films like Gladiator and Hugo. That is indeed what we call range.

It's hard to go too far into discussing They/Them without spoiling its reveal, though I'd be surprised if most horror fans don't clock it as soon as the carnage starts. I'll dance around the details, but if you prefer to go into a movie fully unspoiled, stop here.

They/Them is a well-made movie: the dialogue is clever, the cast is dynamic (and diverse in more ways than one), the visuals are executed quite well. As a film, it's enjoyable. But if you came here for a horror film, you'll likely be disappointed. 

As you might guess, the real horror of They/Them is less an axe-wielding maniac and more Bible-thumping bigots. That makes for a triumphant tale that lets you cheer, but also, you know, not an actual scary slasher. It's exciting to watch talented young actors who would normally be designated to early canon fodder get a full space to shine and SPOILER ALERT not be brutally murdered. But also, since all of the victims are the villains, the fear factor erodes pretty quickly.

The experience brings me back to an important day in my own childhood. I was about seven years old when my family rented Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (this was not an unusual occurrence in the Intravia household). If you recall, this is the first installment in the franchise where children are actually enrolled in Camp Crystal Lake, which should have amped up the impending doom. Instead, it completely killed the terror of Jason Voohrees because that film establishes an important rule: Jason doesn't kill kids.

This devastated first grade me.

How could I ever watch another Friday film knowing I was safe? What was the point? Chucky wanted to possess a kid my age, Poltergeist kidnapped a little girl and allowed a clown doll to strangler her brother. Cat's Eye had me convinced the only thing protecting me at night was the family cat. We identify with horror when we feel in danger, but when Jason showed us the lines he wouldn't cross, the tension is off the kiddie table. 

All this is to say that a key part of many horror films is connecting the audience to the victims, establishing that line of empathy that reminds viewers that were they living in the world on camera, they would be in grave danger. When a genre film toys with that rule, it can certainly still be valid, but it ultimately turns us into distant spectators. Justice might be served, but this slasher doesn't do its job.

High Points
It would have been very easy to introduce the staff of Whistler Camp as immediate monsters, but Logan's script (and especially Bacon's performance) offers them just enough nuance to be more interestingly human

Low Points
See the aforementioned explanation of how this doesn't feel like the kind of horror film it wants to embrace

Lessons Learned
Knowing your Sondheim doesn't make you an ally

Rich kids drink dirty martinis

Never trust a groundskeeper with a ventriloquist dummy collection (actually, never trust ANYONE with a ventriloquist dummy collection)

They/Them is admirable in a lot of ways, and I certainly had a good time watching it. But you do have to go in knowing you're not actually getting a camp slasher designed to scare. Have at it on Peacock. 


  1. I love picturing grade 1 you, horrified at NOT being scared by a horror movie. Great paradox, and I totally relate. Last night some friends and I were talking about the new Dahmer series on netflix (it's not bad!) and I was pleased that one of my friends who is not at all into horror found the show disturbing but really liked it, and was asking about other similar serial killer shows/movies. I was so happy to see someone discover the joy of being scared/disturbed/freaked out just the right amount, you know? So it's timely that you mentioned this now too. Neat.

    Also, yes, Friday the 13th part 6 sucks so bad. I've been a massive Voorhees fan since grade 4 but boy oh boy, there are a few stinkers in that catalogue that I just can't forgive.

    1. Here's an even bigger twist: today, I actually consider Part VI to be one of the best in the franchise! I think it has a smarter sense of humor than the rest, but yes: I still don't consider it scary in the LEAST.