Stewart Thorndike’s horror-psychodrama starts with the main character carrying a chainsaw, ominously trudging across an empty, snowy parking lot outside an abandoned building. The scene is like a giant sign reading: Horror Tropes Ahead.
And Thorndike knowingly piles them on. The chainsaw-wielding Ruthie (Gayle Rankin) has arrived with three other women at the isolated hotel she has inherited from her grandmother for a last weekend before she sells it. The film never reclaims the droll touch at the start, which reveals that Ruthie uses the saw to cut a log lodged under the tires of the Uber that brought them there. Instead, Bad Things is smoothly competent and uninspired — or, more accurately, inspired by The Shiningfrom the hotel setting to the tracking shots along a narrow corridor and a set of ghostly twins.
The Bottom Line
Efficient but unoriginal psycho-horror.
Thorndike’s major twist is that the four main characters are queer women, a change that helps expand the genre’s range but doesn’t in itself revamp the horror tropes she leans on. The mixed result is not original but not quite homage, always watchable but never as compelling as it might have been.
One of the deliberately horrifying things about the hotel is its aesthetic, that of a 1980s chain, with beige carpets and bold patterned bedspreads. Ruthie is ready to sell. Her girlfriend, Cal (Hari Nef), wants them to keep it and run the hotel together. Their friend Maddie (Rad Pereira) has joined for the weekend, bringing along Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones), a troublemaker no one else wants there.
An early conversation among the friends teases out the horror tropes, alluding to deaths at the hotel, and to twin models who went jogging and never returned. As in most solid ghost stories, Thorndike does a good job of playing with point of view to keep viewers guessing about what is real and who might be unhinged. When the joggers reappear outside, are they ghosts or figments of the characters’ imaginations, spurred by the power of suggestion? Except for the Shining-style tracking shots, Grant Greenberg’s straightforward, unghostly cinematography leans towards the psychological explanation. On the haunted side of things, there are some eerie sounds and doors that mysteriously open at night. And you know that chainsaw has to be put to bloody use by the end. Both Fran and Ruthie are effectively set up as likely suspects.
Those supernatural tropes land half-heartedly, though. The film’s more interesting strand deals with the crisscrossed relationships among the women. We eventually learn that Ruthie once had a fling with Fran, which Cal forgave but won’t tolerate a second time. Maddie used to be with Cal, who left her for Ruthie. Fran is constantly coming on to Ruthie, who responds, putting her relationship with Cal in jeopardy. The hermetic setting intensifies those hothouse dynamics, which the actors often bring to life beyond what Thorndike’s bare-bones script gives them to work with. Rankin, always strong (Sheila the She-Wolf in GLOW and a terrific Ophelia to Oscar Isaac’s Hamlet at the Public Theater), makes Ruthie a mess of conflicts. Nef, despite some stiff line readings, makes Cal the most sincere and likable of the group. Dexter-Jones (Naomi on Succession) is expert at playing sharp-edged characters like Fran. Pereira is stuck with an underwritten, functional character to play.
Ruthie obsessively watches a video of a hospitality industry expert, played by Molly Ringwald in blood red from head to toe — dress, tights and stiletto heels. Both an object of desire and a mother surrogate, the character hints at what is behind the confusion in Ruthie’s mind. In her traumatic childhood, she was neglected by her mother, once left for days in the empty hotel all alone.
Thorndike’s first film Lyle (2014) was another psycho-horror, about a pregnant woman mourning her first child, and she has said that Bad Things is the second in a trilogy about motherhood. But the maternal theme is both too blunt and not deep enough here. In yet another twist on The Shining, milk pours down the walls of a room instead of blood. It’s an eye-rolling moment, a jarring tonal misstep. Like the wit of the opening scene, it resembles nothing else in the film.
To stand out, Bad Things required a deft balance between horror and relationship drama. Erratic in its use of each, it remains a thin gloss on both genres.
Venue: Tribeca Festival (US Narrative Competition)
Production companies: PCG Pictures, Baked Studios, The Space Program
Cast: Gayle Rankin, Hari Nef, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Rad Pereira, Jared Abrahamson, Molly Ringwald
Director and Writer: Stewart Thorndike
Producers: Lizzie Shapiro, Lexi Tannenholtz
Executive Producers: Samuel Zimmerman, Nicholas Lazo, Emily Gotto, David Harari, George Rush, Gus Deardoff, George A. Loucas, Matthew Dean Russell, Amy Williams
Director of Photography: Grant Greenberg
Production Designer: Amy Williams
Costume Designer: Nell Simon
Editors: Thomas Emmett Ashton, Kathryn Shubert
Music: Jason Fakler
Casting: Allison Twardziak
Rated R, 1 hour 23 minutes
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