“We’ve come a long way, baby,” says Kevin Bacon with a laugh, when asked about starring in a new summer camp slasher movie more than four decades after launching his career with the definitive summer camp slasher movie, the original Friday the 13th.
The new one is called They/Them, and it’s from Hollywood horror factory supreme Blumhouse, but it’s got an exceptionally modern twist (thanks to writer-director John Logan) on what quickly became a stale formula after Friday the 13th initially changed the game back in 1980.
Bacon stars as Owen Whistler, who welcomes a new group of LGBTQ+ “campers” to his conversion camp with the promise that he’s not out to change any of them, their sexual preferences, or how they identify. Of course that’s not the truth at all, as Whistler and his counselors inflict increasingly abusive psychological torment on the teens. Meanwhile, someone is lurking in the shadows around the camp and starting to bloodily dispatch victims one by one.
The narrative upends the template set by the original Friday the 13th, in which the carefree counselors, there to reopen the abandoned Camp Crystal Lake, are slaughtered one by one. Bacon’s character in that film is murdered after he and a female counselor get busy, establishing one of the most common tropes of the slasher genre: have sex and get killed.
“That was the tradition certainly of the subgenre of slasher films,” says Bacon. “You’d pick something that society had decided was either immoral or unattractive or somehow objectionable, and whoever those people were, they would become the victims — the premarital sex, dope-smoking guy like me, or the [so-called] trashy girl. Sometimes the gay person.”
They/Them changes the rules about that. “Now, John Logan has taken that and flipped it on its end and empowered the other kind of campers that come to this place and given them something to fight against and bond over,” continues Bacon. “That’s what’s really cool about the movie, I think.”
Unlike the first major wave of slasher films started by Friday the 13th and encompassing a whole slew of similar titles throughout the 1980s, They/Them takes pains to establish the characters of the campers, led by Jordan (Theo Germaine), a trans, non-binary person who wants to emancipate themselves from their parents but instead finds themselves shipped off to Whistler Camp. John Logan’s script spends time with the other kids as well, something which Bacon insists is important to making the film work.
“I would be happy to be in some part of the genre without there being a great message, necessarily, as long as it’s an interesting character-based thing,” says the actor. “Something like Friday the 13th, I mean, did they have characters? I don’t know. There’s a bunch of girls and guys and knives and everyone’s dead. But at the very least, for me to be involved in something that is in that genre, which as you know, I love and return to time and time again, at the very least it needs to be character-based.”
Which brings us to Bacon’s role itself. As Owen Whistler, he begins the film in almost gentle fashion, speaking softly to the campers and offering them an almost reasonable explanation of why they’re there, suggesting that he simply wants to facilitate whatever choice they want to make about their own lives when it quickly becomes evident that that’s not the case at all.
“I had a young woman on an interview today say to me, ‘It was so terrifying for me and chilling because you sounded exactly like my pastor,” says Bacon. “I don’t know what her history was, but that person had obviously in some way tried to change her. So that’s something that John and I talked a lot about.”
Bacon and Logan concluded that steering Whistler away from the typical tropes was the best way to make him even more unsettling. “With the style and the look of the character, we wanted to move as far away as we could from a Bible-thumping or macho drill sergeant kind of idea,” he explains. “To me, that is a much scarier kind of turn than someone where you go, ‘Oh, I get it. It’s one of those stereotypical bad guys that Hollywood is always giving us.’”
That also meant that Bacon, as actors almost always strive to do when playing a villain, wanted to probe what makes Whistler tick and makes him human, as monstrous as his actions are.
“The one thing that I always want to keep doing with a character like this is making them a human being,” he says. “Where did he come from? What was his life experience like? Why did this guy maybe leave and come back? How did his father, let’s say, feel about him as a man? Did I ever question my own manhood? All of these things can be kind of massaged to create a well-rounded character.”
Murder and mayhem aside, the real horror of They/Them is the underlying truth upon which it’s based. Conversion camps are still legal in at least half the states in America, even though “conversion therapy” has been widely discredited and proven harmful to its victims across the board. While They/Them is at its core a slasher movie, Bacon is proud of the representation inherent in the film’s cast and themes.
“When I walked out during the very first scene that we shot, to look across those faces of those young people that had come together — they’re all playing characters, but they’re all authentic to those characters,” he says. “To see them there and know that we were going to put them up on the screen on a big platform with a possibility of getting a lot of eyes on them being represented in this kind of way — yes, it’s a horror movie, it’s entertainment, and it’s going to be fun. But that was definitely a sense of pride, I think, for all of us.”
They/Them is streaming now on Peacock.