Respect, Renew, Rejoice. These are the three words that greet visitors entering Whilster Camp, the fictional conversion therapy program at the center of John Logan’s sinister directorial debut They/Them. From a distance, the camp and its surrounding acreage resemble any other: Log cabins dot the premise, the waters of the serene lake glisten in the sun, the sky is a clear blue. The counselors beam and recite banal motivations. But the camp is a menacing place — a site where Owen Whilster (a brilliant Kevin Bacon), its director, runs a week-long program to turn gay young adults straight.
Conversion therapy — a delusional concept — dates back to at least the 19th century, when Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, a German psychiatrist, convinced a crowd that he had turned a gay man straight through hypnosis. His experiment set an alarming precedent and birthed an entire field — now aggressively discredited by the medical community — of trying to “cure” homosexuality. The treatments — or, more accurately, tortures — ranged from hypnosis to electroshock. They never worked, and instead scarred recipients, dooming them to painful cycles of self-hatred and shame.
The Bottom Line More psychological thriller than slasher horror.
The practice has been the subject of a few films and books — Logan’s They/Them joins the ranks of works from Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader to Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post or Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased. But instead of offering an off-kilter comedy or a coming-of-age drama, Logan examines the practice through the chilling lens of horror. With a formidable cast led by particularly strong performances from Bacon and Theo Germaine, They/Them uses the blueprint of camp slashers to tease out the psychological terrors of conversion and offer celebratory observations about queer identity.
Logan, who also wrote the screenplay, gets right to the gore. They/Them opens with the gruesome murder of a woman driving through a poorly lit backroad. As she tries to turn off a spooky audiobook, her car tires flatten, leaving her stranded. Genre aficionados can guess what happens next. Within minutes, her blood-curdling shrieks can be heard as a masked axe wielder hacks into her skull.
In the next scene, Owen Whilster welcomes a group of LGBTI+ young adults to his camp. The motto “Respect, Rejoice, Renew” flashes before the screen. His recites a speech atypical of a man dedicated to conversion therapy. Manipulating the language of acceptance, he insists that God doesn’t hate them. “I can’t make you straight,” he says to the group of confused campers. “If you’re happy the way you are, then more power to you.” What he wants to do is to help them accept themselves. Bacon’s delivery adds a prickly layer to this speech, allowing Owen to telegraph one mission while speaking of another. Even if he is not a Bible-toting Christian armed with scripture passages and reminders, viewers know something strange is afoot.
Jordan (Theo Germaine), a trans nonbinary camper, is suspicious too. They watch Owen carefully, scrutinizing and parsing each cheery sentiment. Germaine, a nonbinary performer, inhabits Jordan with a striking intimacy. The animosity between Owen and Jordan, building with each subtly competitive interaction, is one of the film’s more sizzling threads.
Jordan struck a deal with their family: If they agreed to attend this program, then they could legally emancipate upon its conclusion. Other campers are in a similar situation: Toby (Austin Crute), a Black gay kid and musical theater aspirant, gets to move to New York at the end of the week, and Veronica (Monique Kim) came to collect research for a paper on conversion therapy.
There are also those who hope Owen’s camp will actually change them — like Kim (Anna Lore), a lesbian caught between self-acceptance and repression, and Stu (Cooper Kock), a star swimmer struggling to release himself from heteronormative ideas of a perfect life. Other group members include Alexandra (Quei Tann), a trans girl whose parents blackmailed her into attending, and Gabriel (Darwin Del Fabro), whose reasons for being at the camp are the most mysterious.
Early days at Whilster are spent participating in activities meant to force trust within the group. Outside of mandatory icebreakers and imposed therapy with Owen’s wife, Cora (Carrie Preston), the campers do form genuinely thoughtful relationships with each other. This comes in handy when they begin to uncover the darker sides of the camp and its history, from the constant surveillance to the torturous methods.
Logan peppers They/Them with a handful of gory scenes, especially when the axe murderer gets to the camp. Those bloody moments are dutiful to the genre, but except for one particularly grisly homicide, they are not as inventive or frightening as they could be considering the unexpected victims.
They/Them is more confident in its exploration of the psychological terrors the LGBTQI+ campers face at the ruthless, conniving hands of Owen and his team. Because of the considered and intimate way Logan builds his characters, the scenes reflecting the realities of conversion programs — the manipulative therapy, the forced gender-normative activities — are as horrific as any axe to the skull.
Within this study of conversion camp’s terrors is a more optimistic throughline, one about self-acceptance and chosen family. The campers help each other through the painstakingly long days at the program, offering support in the form of shoulders to cry on, extra clothes and nighttime skincare routine advice. Even those working through the uneven terrain of their repression come to embrace the solace of this makeshift community. And because of it, they fight back, choosing their own freedom again and again.