Film Review: “Bad Things” – Two Star Hotel
By Nicole Veneto
Billed as a queer woman’s spin on The Shining, Bad Things is a much more entertaining film in concept than it is in execution.
Bad Things, written and directed by Stewart Thorndike, now available to stream on Shudder and AMC+.
DISCLAIMER: This review was published during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes of 2023. The work being critiqued would not exist without the labor of writers and actors.
I don’t have many good things to say about Bad Things, the latest film from actress turned director Stewart Thorndike (Lyle). In fact, most of what I have to say about Bad Things are not very good things. Don’t get me wrong, picking apart why a movie doesn’t work and what it gets completely wrong can be a lot of fun. In this case though, it’s like trying to describe air. Billed as a queer woman’s spin on The Shining, Bad Things is a much more entertaining film in concept than it is in execution.
Following the off-screen death of her grandmother, Ruthie (Gayle Rankin, GLOW) inherits a hotel in upstate New York, which puts her back in touch with her long estranged (and also off-screen…or is she?) mother after an uneasy past of childhood neglect. Convinced by her partner Cal (Doctor Barbie and Newton’s favorite daughter Hari Nef, still infectiously charming despite the film surrounding her) that they can flip the hotel into a new era, the two bring along tentative friends Maddie (Rad Pereira, soon to be in Gareth Edwards’ sci-fi epic The Creator) and real-estate broker Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Succession). As is true of many queer female friend groups, the foursome have past romantic ties to one another. Unbeknownst to Cal, Ruthie and Fran have a past together, which spells trouble considering Ruthie and Cal are trying to repair their own relationship after Ruthie cheated. (Unbelievable thing number one of many in Bad Things: who would ever cheat on Hari Nef?)
Hoping the hotel can breathe new life into their relationship, Cal urges Ruthie to learn how to run the hotel by watching some not-TedTalk videos about the hospitality business hosted by one Miss Auerbach (the one and only Molly Ringwald, who looks absolutely stunning, I must say). But, as you’d expect, the hotel has its own issues unrelated to the plumbing. Or to the annoying handyman Brian (Jared Abrahamson, Travelers), who was too busy hooking up with Ruthie’s mom to do much maintenance work. As you probably guessed, there’s a bit of a ghost problem. Whispers about a pair of models who stayed at the hotel, went out for a morning jog, and then killed each other in the woods sets the stage for a bout of delusions that culminates in fractured relationships and someone running around the building in Ruthie’s sleep apnea mask trying to chop people into pieces with a chainsaw.
Sounds interesting? Well I’m sorry to tell you but the pacing of it is so slow and tired despite the 86 minute runtime that even when something marginally interesting happens it manages to be a non-event given the lack of structure or stakes in Thorndike’s screenplay. Worse still, the ambiguity between what’s real, what’s supernatural, and what’s presumably all in Ruthie’s head becomes so convoluted that you’re left questioning the logical connections between what happened throughout the film. Bad Things eventually reveals itself to be little more than a defanged pastiche of The Shining — on too many downers. The Shining was, first and foremost, a multifaceted horror film. Inspired by lingering shots of the actresses sleeping in hotel beds, this film is very, very sleepy, at once too slowly paced and hardly paced at all. The whole thing attempts to coast off of vibes alone, with plenty of prolonged static shots and dollies of empty hallways and ambient rooms that linger long enough to imbue them with the vaguest sense that they’re haunted. Grant Greenberg’s cinematography is pretty enough in how it captures the sickening pastels of the hotel’s outdated interiors, but it looks more like an episode of prestige television than it does a feature film.
The easiest comparison I can make to what Bad Things is grasping at is last year’s Bodies Bodies Bodies because of their almost one to one chamber piece set-ups: trap a bunch of young women together in an isolated location and watch as their simmering animosities towards one another manifest into a body count. What makes Bodies Bodies Bodies work where Bad Things fails is that the former is less a horror film than a bloody black comedy that satirizes the shallowness of upper class women’s technologically-mediated relationships. If Thorndike had leaned into a more comedic angle instead of a Ambien-laced thriller, Bad Things might have had more to offer audiences than a lazy shrug at its conclusion. Even then, that wouldn’t fix the lack of basic storytelling beats like set-up and payoff that Thorndike fumbles.
Besides sheer confusion over the logic and events of the film, the question I was left with when the credits rolled was this: what exactly makes for a good film pastiche? A cursory scroll through Thorndike’s IMDB page reveals a substantial connection between her and Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece — one of her earliest acting roles was in Eyes Wide Shut as the character Nuala Windsor, one of the women who asks Tom Cruise’s bumbling Dr. Bill Harford if he wants to go “where the rainbow ends.” Still, I’ve learned the hard way that proximity to Kubrick’s greatness doesn’t impart greatness itself (Steven Spielberg may have helmed and completed A.I.: Artificial Intelligence following Kubrick’s death, but The Shining recreation in Ready Player One was tantamount to digital necromancy of the evilest kind). Calculating what makes a good filmic homage is difficult to ascertain, like figuring out what exact measurements go into making a good cake versus an inedible one.
Unlike a bad cake, Bad Things isn’t quite at the level of total inedibility. There are a couple good things I can say about it. First and foremost is that Nef has yet to be in a movie where she isn’t one of the ensemble stand-outs, and if anyone out there can clue me in on where the long sleeve Hole shirt she wears for much of the movie is from then I will be forever in your debt. Second is that it’s very nice to see Ringwald in movies again, especially dressed head to toe in reds so pigmented her outfit practically bleeds on screen. Other than that, consider Bad Things a less than middling thing in and of itself.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and her podcast on Twitter @MarvelousDeath.