The Unicorn Scale: They/Them

By Liam Lambert

August 19, 2022



Photo credit: Image/Peacock

Queer horror has always been there, but sneakily, as it used things like queer coded villains, whatever Nightmare on Elm Street 2 was trying to do, and lest we forget Sleepaway Camp’s joltingly awkward surprise ending. John Logan, a man who has won multiple Academy Awards for screenplays including Gladiator and Hugo, has thrown his hat into this somewhat fraught ring with the straight-to-Peacock slasher They/Them (pronounced They-Slash-Them), and it begs the question, why?

It takes a premise that is heavy with promise, loads up the cast with promising queer actors, and Kevin Bacon of all people, but doesn’t seem to know exactly what it wants to say, or how it wants to say it. 

Before we go any further be aware there are SPOILERS ahead. And if you are unfamiliar with the Unicorn Scale be sure to take a look at the original article here

The movie kicks off by introducing us to Whistler Camp, a gay reorientation facility in the woods of some unnamed, woodsy state. Several teens are deposited at the camp, and in an introductory, we meet Bacon’s Owen Whistler, who runs the camp with the kind of cheerful psychopathy it would have been nice to see more of. One character describes herself as bi, but she hates it. The main protagonist Jordan is played by gender-fluid actor Theo Germaine, who also starred in Ryan Murphy’s The Politician, and turns in solid work here, in a film badly in need of some coherence.

Jordan and two other camp members standing side by side with stern expressions on their faces.

Soon, people start getting killed, and the reorientation methods start getting more intense and creepy. Not that reorientation in and of itself isn’t creepy, there’s just a ways to go between forcing someone to go hunting and electroshocking their nipples whenever they see a buff dude’s picture. There’s a lot of muddled perspective as to what the film wants to say about the subject. It’s clearly on the teens’ side, as we see in the frankly unfortunate and kind of out of nowhere spontaneous singalong scene, set to Pink’s “Perfect”. 

The kids all get some mild character moments, but nobody is particularly well developed. The one bi character later claims she was lying to infiltrate the camp to write a scathing expose for her college or high school newspaper (the age of these kids is not clear). She then ends up hooking up with the squeaky clean cheerleader-type lesbian, who “just wants to give my parents grandbabies!” It’s almost like her entire identity and character exists so that a box can be checked, and that’s it. What was the point of making her bi if she wasn’t even going to be demonstrably bi?

The teens in the camp sitting on the steps at the front door with serious expressions on their faces.

That’s kind of the entire problem with the movie, in that the characters seemingly only exist to be potential fodder for a killer who doesn’t even target any of them, focusing instead on the terrible staff of the camp. There is such a lack of risk to anyone under 21 in the film that there are lengthy stretches, such as the singalong I mentioned earlier, or a pie baking scene that feel like they should be in an entirely different film. Again, this writer-director has won Oscars for his screenplays. How is he this bad at creating believable characters?

What I Liked:

Kevin Bacon is solid in this, and Theo Germaine is a really interesting actor, who does great work with the flimsy, underdeveloped character they're given. In another film, they would both be excellent. Here, they’re the equivalent of Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles showing up on an episode of Teletubbies. The original concept is fantastic, you just wish they had developed it better. There was some excellent tension built in some of the later reorientation scenes, too, when you genuinely worried for a couple people’s safety.

Owen Whistler facing the campers with the other counselors posing behind him.

What I Didn't Like:

First of all, Do. Not. Make. A. Character. Something. For. No. Reason. 

Like I said before, it’s something of a slap in the face to say that a character is bi, especially in a film like this that is purportedly marketed to young people, who should be excited to see themselves portrayed in a genre that has generally not paid much attention to them outright, and then do absolutely nothing with that information. 

The last half hour of this is a muddled, incoherent mess that takes whatever goodwill the character building in the first hour did and flushes it down the toilet. The big climax involves sending three-quarters of the cast away from the location, and presumably out of danger, so that the main pro and antagonists can showdown with each other. What, one wonders, was even the point of having them there?

The Rating:

This movie could have been 10000x better if it just stuck with the characters, let the inherent horror of the situation be what it focused on, and didn’t try to shoehorn genre tropes in and ignore entire characters, or rob them of any use or agency. A cluttered mess at best that just made me want to watch But I’m A Cheerleader or Red State again, both movies that dealt with fundamentalism much better and more interestingly.

The title is the cleverest thing about it.

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