The last time Stewart Thorndike made a horror film, it was 2014’s Lyle, a lesbian take on Rosemary’s Baby. That’s a reductive description since the film is much more than an extended homage, but the log line certainly makes it an easy sell for genre fans.
Thorndike has been absent for nearly a decade, but now she’s back with Bad Things, a female-driven paranoia/rage thriller in the vein of The Shining. Not unlike Lyle, there’s plenty of fun to be had spotting the homages of the classic film, but Thorndike is once again making the narrative her own by infusing the film with complicated – and often messy – queers.
Bad Things follows Ruthie (Gayle Rankin), a troubled young woman whose friend group includes supportive girlfriend Cal (Hari Nef), aspiring chef Maggie (Rad Pereira), and Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones), the black sheep of the group. The foursome plan spend the weekend at Comley Motel, the abandoned property that Ruthie has inherited in upstate New York, in part to assess whether she and Cal could hypothetically run it as a business together.
In addition to complicated relationships within the group (Ruthie has cheated on Cal before with Fran, who still harbours a crush on her), there’s also external factors. Almost immediately a disgruntled former employee of Ruthie’s mother, Brian (Jared Abrahamson) shows up unannounced, and both Ruthie and Fran start to experience strange and unsettling visions.
Naturally, viewers who are aware of The Shining will immediately start to connect the dots, but Bad Things doesn’t track onto Kubrick’s film in a direct one-to-one comparison. That’s not to say that there aren’t clear homages, such as tracking shots down the motel hallways, a pair of ghostly female joggers (stand-ins for the twins), as well as the suggestion that the motel unlocks an inherent madness lurking within its unhinged protagonist(s).
What makes it distinct, then, are the women at the center of the tale. It’s here, however, that the film doesn’t quite hit the mark. Despite featuring four characters (and, in reality, Maddie is given so little to do, they feel superfluous) the screenplay holds them at a distance so that they’re never fully realized.
Ruthie has mommy issues that have manifested as a toxic tendency to self-sabotage her relationships, particularly with Cal. Nef’s character is supportive, but also pushy (it’s Cal’s decision to take over the motel, not Ruthie’s). We learn early on that Fran has recently had “a cancer scare,” though the others question the veracity of the diagnosis as her mental health unravels over the weekend. And Maggie…well Maggie is there to talk about how they got into cooking, corner Cal to demand why she and Ruthie are together, and yell at people.
In her director’s statement, Thorndike advocates for the need to allow complicated women to do “bad things”; to let them be filled with rage, to be murderous, etc. Arguably there’s been a good run of these kinds of characters in contemporary horror, from Jennifer in Jennifer’s Body to Femke in The Columnist to Chalotte & Lizzie in The Perfection. What’s less common is a female writer/director at the helm and/or more than one of these characters in a single text. In that regard Bad Things does bring something new to the table.
One simply wishes that the film would go deeper into these women. Aside from their key motivation, the vast majority of Bad Things is composed of talky interactions as the women unravel or gossip snidely behind each other’s backs. At times it’s interesting, but it’s also slow, repetitive and fails to offer new insights into the characters. Whereas The Shining took months to let Jack Torrance unspool into madness, Bad Things sends its characters off the deep end almost immediately and the film has uneven pacing and never gets a handle of its rising action in the back half of the film, leading to a fairly predictable climax.
Certain sequences, however, do stand out, including a murder that upends gender roles in a way that is reminiscent of Danishka Esterhazy’s 2021 Slumber Party Massacre remake, minus the laughs. And the motel setting is easily the film’s greatest asset: equal parts ho hum run-down aesthetics mixed with softly feminine brass & pinks. One space that really pops is a large room full of hotel supplies where a scene of violence ends; it’s so busy and visually packed with discarded objects that it is unlike anything else in the film. One only wishes that Thorndike had used it more.
The Bottom Line: Slight characterizations, repetitive confrontations, and uneven pacing bog the film down, despite its short run time. There’s enough here to recommend, though, and, at its core, Bad Things is a welcome addition to recent queer horror texts that make space for messy women/queers to be their true selves. In that capacity, the film succeeds. 3/5
Bad Things played at Tribeca Film Festival and streams on Shudder on August 25