There’s identity horror beyond the ax murderer in Georgia-filmed “They/Them”

Three-time Academy Award nominee John Logan grew up watching horror films, and while he loved the genre, he didn’t always like what he saw when it came to representation. When the screenwriter-playwright finally got around to making his own such film, he wanted it to celebrate queerness.

They/Them, debuting on Peacock on Friday, stars Kevin Bacon as Owen Whistler, who runs an LGBTQIA+ conversion camp alongside his wife, Cora (Carrie Preston). A group of queer campers visit for a week with activities designed to change their sexual orientation. Not only do the young campers have to bond together to stay safe, they have to stay clear of an ax murderer on the loose.

The movie was shot in Rutledge, the nearest town to Hard Labor Creek State Park, considered part of the Covington film industry. Many of the cast and crew have Atlanta or Georgia roots as well, including Preston, producer Scott Turner Schofield and performer Austin Crute.

Although he has written scripts for films such as Skyfall, Hugo and The Aviator, They/Them is the first movie Logan has directed. It’s in a genre he has always loved as a gay man.

Theo Germaine (right) plays a trans, non-binary teen named Jordan.

“I’ve been thinking about it my entire life ever since I realized I was gay and thinking about the issues involved with queerness and my favorite genre, which is the horror movie,” he says. “Horror has a very complicated relationship with gender and sexual identity. When Covid started, everything shut down. Every writer I knew — including myself — had the freedom to write something from their heart. So I wrote this movie.”

In the first cycle of slasher movies in the late ’70s and ’80s, LGBTQIA+ characters were non-existent or — even worse — were jokes or victims, Logan says. He is part of a modern-day push to reverse that trend.

“We were supposed to laugh at (such characters) and at their demise, and as a gay kid, this was very upsetting to me, that I saw myself represented in a way that was so retrograde and inhumane,” the director continues. “Thankfully now we are moving towards [a point where] There is a whole new wave of queer horror, where we are moving towards celebrating gay people as heroes in horror movies. If there is anything this movie tries to do, it’s to take these unbelievably great queer kids and make them the heroes.”

The minute Logan started writing the part of Owen, Bacon’s voice and face kept coming into his head. Luckily the actor liked the script. As the filmmaker started casting later, he realized that finding a trans, non-binary lead would be a challenge, because he wanted to cast authentically. When Logan met Theo Germaine, he knew he’d found the perfect performer for the role of camper Jordan. “They are extraordinary,” Logan says. “The film begins with Theo’s face and ends with Theo’s face, and that is the human soul around which I wrote.”

Rutledge turned out to be an ideal location for Logan and the crew. “Mostly, it had the perfect camps, two that were very close to one another that were surrounded by trees and isolated. The isolation and the topography was everything we wanted. The Atlanta-based crews are also amazing and were very sensitive and sympathetic to all the queer issues of the movie.”

Bacon worked with the director to find his character’s backstory. The camp “has been in his family for many years,” he says. “Our thought is that Owen was raised in this world, this family, and indoctrinated into this idea. He broke away a while and went out and saw a little bit of the rest of the world, then probably decided to come back based on doubts and fears that he might be running from himself and inherited this awful family business.”

Ironically, one of the actor’s earliest roles was in 1980’s Friday the 13th, in which he plays a camper who comes to an early demise via an arrowhead through his neck. He was touched at what Logan was trying to do.

“John’s idea was that if a kid is out there feeling ‘other than,’ feeling bullied or closeted, here is an opportunity on a very large platform in a very accessible genre, that they can stand up and cheer for someone that looks and sounds or is more like them. Horror has a tradition of drawing a lot of people to seats. The movie could have been a dark little indie but that is not what (John) chose to do.”

Preston’s Cora is a licensed therapist who does the conversion therapy on the campers. “She doesn’t have kids of her own so she feels like she wants to save these children, in a sick way, trying to coerce them into changing because it makes her more comfortable,” she says. “To see all these characters come together against a common enemy instead of being victims, they are empowered. It is important to have that representation because we are at a scary time in our country for any rights.”

An Emmy winner for her role as scene-stealing Elsbeth Tascioni in The Good Wife, the Macon-born actress also has appeared in films such as My Best Friend’s Wedding and Transamerica and on television in True Blood and Claws. She enjoyed being able to make They/Them in the area.

“That was one of the draws for me, being able to shoot in my home state and see my mom on my days off. I am very happy for Georgia that there is so much [film and TV production] happening there. It wasn’t like that when I was a kid. To see the growth that has happened in the state and how the state has embraced that, I am extremely happy.”

::

Jim Farmer covers theater and film for ArtsATL. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he has written about the arts for 30-plus years. Jim is the festival director of Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ film festival. He lives in Avondale Estates with his husband, Craig, and dog Douglas.

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