Credit: Shudder
by Chris Mello Featured Film Streaming Scene

Bad Things — Stewart Thorndike

August 23, 2023

Of all horror films, no work is referenced, paid homage, or just plain ripped-off more than The Shining. Most films are satisfied to take a few images, be they innocuous overhead shots of cars driving through the woods or something more obvious like an ax through a door or a fountain of blood pouring out of an elevator, seen as recently as Evil Dead Rise. Other films, like Stewart Thorndike’s Bad Things, forgo simplistic visual quotation in favor of actually grappling with the monumental text and reimagining the story to suit new ends. In this case, Thorndike takes the hotel setting and descent into madness of The Shining to explore the messy boundaries of queer relationships and generational trauma. Sound like a refreshingly queer, compellingly feminine remix of iconic material about the evil that men do? Too bad; the gulf between Bad Things’ lofty goals and its realization could not be wider, as the film is sorely deficient as both genre entertainment and intellectual exercise.

The simple plot is as follows: Ruthie Nodd (Gayle Rankin), her girlfriend Cal (Hari Nef), and their friends Maddie (non-binary actor Rad Pereira) and Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) arrive at the closed hotel Ruthie has inherited from her grandmother’s passing for a weekend getaway. A few tensions immediately become evident. There’s the matter of the hotel, which Ruthie wants to sell but Cal wants her to reopen as she seeks a more solid foundation with Ruthie in the wake of Ruthie’s infidelity. That transgression is a constant source of distrustful tensions, especially since it was Fran she slept with, and Cal routinely interrogates Maddie (these two seem to have their own chemistry) as to why they brought her along. It’s not long before the trip takes a turn for the spooky, as the friends uncover the strange history of the hotel — ”Women do bad things here,” according to a host of news clippings — and both Fran and Ruthie begin to experience a series of hallucinations.

Once those hallucinations begin, Bad Things’ problems crystallize. For all it takes from The Shining as a thematic jumping-off point, it shares no sense of visual language with Kubrick’s film, save a few long static shots of hallways. This would be fine on its own, but Thorndike musters little in the way of memorable images of her own. While the hallucinations-in-hotel-rooms schtick is the most obvious technique she takes from Kubrick, the illusions themselves are neither lurid nor horrifying, but instead stultifyingly plain, ghosts of the hotel rendered as regular people glimpsed at breakfast. And once those hallucinations give way to the pseudo-slasher of the movie’s last act, Bad Things fares even worse, the drab visual style unable to support scenes of tension or (relatively little) gore. If Thorndike’s interests are elsewhere, that’s fine, but the relative disinterest in the horror movie stuff at the film’s center bleeds over into its other goals, which likewise suffer from a distinct lack of verve.

If there’s anything to praise Bad Things for, it’s that it is refreshing to see a horror movie this casually queer and inclusive of trans performers that doesn’t locate its horror in questions of identity, but rather starts with its characters’ queerness as a given. But what the film wants to say about the relationships between its characters doesn’t coalesce into much more than a recognition of amorphous boundaries and interpersonal messiness. Were there a stronger thesis here, it might be worth excusing just how much Bad Things sucks as a horror movie, but there is no spark anywhere to be found.

DIRECTOR: Stewart Thorndike;  CAST: Gayle Rankin, Hari Nef, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Molly Ringwald;  DISTRIBUTOR: Shudder;  STREAMING: August 18;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 23 min.