Film Review – Bad Things
Writer/director Stewart Thorndike makes explicit the influences that pervade Bad Things (2023). A spooky hotel and the violent events that happen inside of it will undoubtably call to mind Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, The Shining (1980). Thorndike makes several visual and thematic callbacks to that film, and keen observers will have a running tally of every single one that pops up. To reference something so well entrenched in pop culture is a bold and risky decision, and in that regard Thorndike should be commended for the effort. But does the final result pay off? I’m not so sure about that. While there are elements that work well, the overall piece leaves a lot to be desired. It has plenty of potential but doesn’t quite reach it in the end.
Ruthie (Gayle Rankin), Cal (Hari Nef), Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones), and Maddie (Rad Pereira) are friends who visit Comely Suites, a hotel which Ruthie has inherited from her late mother. Other than Brian (Jared Abrahamson) – who had previously worked for Ruthie’s mom – the hotel is empty. Unlike the grand resort that was the Overlook Hotel, Comely Suites is more mid-tier. With its plain walls and generic carpeting, the place looks like it belongs near a busy freeway, where travelers can stop to rest for a night or two before getting back on the road. But the fact that the hotel lacks a unique personality makes it all the creepier. The empty rooms and hallways create an enclosed space characters get lost in – like mice trapped in a maze.
Given that Bad Things – at least on the surface – is set up as a haunted house story, our characters eventually encounter strange occurrences. This is where Thorndike borrows heavily from Kubrick, incorporating many of the same cinematic techniques. Grant Greenberg’s cinematography has a cold, detached quality. Colors are not vibrant here, the palette is muted to help reflect the snowy weather conditions outside. The camera will glide down hallways and through rooms, mimicking The Shining’s famous Steadicam sequences. We even get the appearance of two ghostly figures, but instead of twin girls we get two women who – for some reason – are jogging in place. Some of the best moments are when Thorndike allows a shot to extend for a second or two longer then expected. A character will exit a shot and Thorndike will hold for an extra beat, creating a sense of nervous anticipation.
The horror elements are, sadly, hit or miss. Sometimes, they can generate suspense. Other times, they ring hollow because of how closely they resemble the Kubrick film. It’s hard to be affected by a scare scene that reminds us of a better movie. On the flip side, Thorndike provides a narrative twist in terms of character dynamics. We learn early on that Ruthie and Cal are a couple, as well as Fran and Maddie. However, the relationships they have with one another is flimsy at best. Throughout the runtime, their bonds are tested and strained. Regrets, jealousy, and animosity start to seep through the cracks. The emotional thread hangs on whether the four can stick together through a cavalcade of lies and backstabbing. This is especially true for Ruthie, who acts as the dramatic center. Being the new owner of the hotel immediately puts her in the position to make the biggest choices and face the biggest consequences. Gayle Rankin (whom I know from the Netflix series, Glow) is very good here. She carries Ruthie’s inner turmoil as though it is about to burst at the seams. The character is a bit of a double edged sword – she leans on Cal and the others for support, but can also cause much of the strife amongst them.
Despite how good some of the pieces are in Bad Things, the writing ultimately lets the whole thing down. The back and forth between the supernatural and relationship stories feel clunky and detached, as though both sides belong in different movies. Seeing characters encounter ghostly beings only to turn around and have a lovers’ quarrel just doesn’t gel as well as it should. It also doesn’t help that the pacing pushes all of the terror toward the backend of the timeline. Thorndike spends the first and second acts establishing mood and relationships. By the time we get to some actual thrills, it’s too late. Molly Ringwald makes an appearance but has very little to do. Her role is so plain and unremarkable that once her purpose is finally revealed, it lands with a thud rather than a splash.
So what does it all mean? Is there any meaning to be learned? Certainly, there are themes of regret and guilt, as well as what it means to be a queer person living in modern society. But all of it kind of floats in a haze of loose fitting parts. There are indications of something deeper, but those avenues are not explored well enough. As a straight genre piece, it’s not very scary, exciting, or thought-provoking. Yes, the story goes to some very dark places, but once the credits rolled I felt strangely unaffected. Is it because The Shining references are too blatant? Is the narrative too thin to leave any substantial relevance? I don’t mind a movie being ambiguous so that we can interpret it ourselves, as long as there is enough material for us to make an educated analysis. That is not the case here.
Bad Things is a curiosity. While watching it I kept waiting for it to shift into that next gear, where suggestion and subtlety explode into all out mayhem. Even with the contributions of a talented cast and a classic film as inspiration, the result never switches out of neutral.