The horror genre is filled with tropes that are designed to creep you out, things that have been used for decades to terrify audiences. The jump scare, the face in the bathroom mirror, the chase scene — need I continue? It would seem that there’s nothing left to scare us, that everything’s been done hundreds of times over. That is, until one film dared to implement the most terrifying thing of all: self-empowerment anthems.
They / Them (or “They slash Them “) is the new slasher film out Friday on Peacock, billed as” an LGBTQIA + empowerment tale set in a conversion camp. ” It’s trying to bring some originality back to mainstream horror. Aside from a couple of bigger names, like Kevin Bacon, to lend itself credibility and attract a wider audience, it boasts a cast of entirely queer actors, which is a huge step for a film produced by a major studio.
Its conversion camp setting is certainly one that could hold a great amount of horror movie potency; conversion camps are very real, gruesome places where bigoted, ignorant families send children to be mentally and sometimes physically abused until they’re so broken down that they are “turned straight.” To set a slasher here, letting a killer loose on the camp counselors, could be a stroke of genius if done correctly.
It’s unfortunate, then, that all of the potential in They / Them is squandered by paper-thin characters, nonsensical writing, and a true misunderstanding of the real horrors that exist inside those camp gates. Even its masked killer doesn’t provide a single tremble. The real scares in They / Them are found in its cringeworthy screenplay, particularly one scene that I’ll never be able to shake. The only thing scarier than a conversion camp is one where your fellow campers start a P! Nk singalong.
During a touching scene near the middle of the film, two campers, Jordan (Theo Germaine) and Alexandra (Quei Tann), are discussing difficulties of being young trans people and their experiences living openly after coming out. The scene is legitimately poignant, and left me thinking for a moment that They / Them was going to have some worthy takeaways after all. And then, to my jaw-dropping shock, Alexandra starts to sing P! Nk’s “Fuckin ‘Perfect” to Jordan. Moments later, the other campers join in one by one to make it a full musical number.
Oh, how naive we were to think Glee was gone and buried. The dead always come back for one last scare.
If you might not know, “Fuckin ‘Perfect” is a bottom-of-the-barrel self-empowerment anthem that’s specifically crafted by P! Nk to be a dastardly, chorus-heavy earworm. It’s filled with barren, platitudinal lyrics (“Change the voices in your head / make them like you instead”) and banal messaging. An insincere attempt at connection.
I have spent a third of my life trying to escape this song, dodging it on bad Pride playlists and midwestern radio stations when I go home to visit my parents. So to be confronted with it in They / Themwhen I had nowhere to run after letting my guard down watching the film’s one emotional moment, was like being thrust into a horror movie of my own.
There is a special type of chills that my body gets when I’m experiencing unbearable secondhand embarrassment. They usually pop up in a movie theater when a trailer comes on that’s so incredibly stupid — or, on the other hand, meant to be so grand but completely misses the mark (Avatar 2!) – that my body can’t help but form a physical reaction to try to alert me to go into fight or flight mode. I had those chills head to toe when watching this scene. I practically passed out when one camper hopped up on a bed to do P! Nk’s pseudo-rap verse.
I had to watch it multiple times to write the piece that you’re reading now, a task that seemed almost unbearable. I even kept my Peacock subscription running for another month past the final episode of Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip Season 2 just so I could access They / Them one more time on the day of its release to write an accurate article — journalism isn’t dead, folks.
This scene is what some phobia therapists might call immersion therapy, except I’d rather be covered in a tank of snakes. And I hate snakes.
Even more shocking is that They / Them is directed and written by John Logan, who has not only written fantastic films like Skyfall and Aviator, but is also openly gay himself. “I love that song, I love P! Nk,” he told Coming Soon. “I wrote [the script] to the stage version of Moulin Rouge, where we used P! nk, so P! nk was in my head a lot. ” That, my friend, is what we call a gay fever dream. We all get them after falling asleep listening to Britney Spears or Toni Braxton, but the chaos they inspire in our subconscious has no place on screen, at least not like this.
What’s more, “Fuckin Perfect” is from P! Nk’s greatest hits album, which is boldly entitled, Greatest Hits… So Far !!!, exclamation points included. Though I appreciate the willful aspiration of that title and how it reads like a tweet I’ve made in a state of mania, that album also features a little song called “Stupid Girls,” the hottest slut-shaming song of 2006. So forgive me if I am not one to sympathize with P! nk’s perspective on apparently living an embattled life when one of the most popular songs in her oeuvre was hellbent on tearing women down for shopping and dating.
Or what about when P! Nk got on stage at an event held by the Human Rights Campaign (already questionable) and began her speech by saying, “I’m gay… actually I’m not.” Personally, I think it’s very cool and fun to treat coming out like a silly little joke. Let’s throw a couple thousand dollars of film royalties her way di lei as a thank-you.
I can think of a half-dozen songs off the top of my head that would’ve been a better fit for this scene. A little song called “Brave” by Sara Bareilles. Perhaps anything off Born This Way. My god, Britney Spears’ “Lucky” even could’ve done the trick in the right context. At least that’s a song that would make the audience want to join in instead of audibly groan. Those songs might not be any less cringe, but at least they’re halfway listenable.
They / Them does not move the needle. It has nothing new to say, and therefore, nothing to lose. It may have put its fictional campers in a conversion camp stalked by an (unscary) masked killer, but I was queer person facing real-life duress when confronted by a mohawked auditory assailant whose real name is Alicia Moore. P! Nk has been stalking me with this song for years, crashing through the roof of my car doing aerial acrobatics every time it plays on FM radio.
When They / Them finally came to a screeching halt and cut to black, I thought I had escaped this nightmarish world for good. No more weird scenes where counselors hook people up to electroshock machines and show them what looks like images you’d pull off screensavers dot com if you searched “muscle man.” No more bad haircuts and box-dye jobs. No more singalongs.
And then there was one last jumpscare: “Fuckin ‘Perfect” playing over the end credits. They / Them may not have scared me once, but I’ll still have nightmares for weeks.