Film Review: “Bad Things” — The Legacy of “The Shining”

By Steve Erickson

Bad Things tries out a lot of ideas, many of them good, but a crisis in identity results in slapdash execution.

Bad Things, written and directed by Stewart Thorndike, now available to stream on Shudder and AMC+.

A scene from Bad Things.

The Shining has been continuously remixed and reinterpreted since its publication in 1977. Of course, Stanley Kubrick’s film version, which Stephen King hated, is the most conspicuous example, but King himself got into the game by producing a made-for-TV miniseries of his novel. Rob Ager filled YouTube with hours and hours of videos offering close readings of Kubrick’s lighting choices and production design, leading up to some bizarre conspiratorial conclusions. Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237 offers even more paranoid theories, but The Shining has also been put to more experimental use, such as Akiva Saunders and John Fell Ryan’s creation of a version that mashed together the complete film played forwards and backwards. (This Screen Slate article describes them.) Steven Spielberg “sampled” its imagery in Ready Player One.

Increasingly,  gender has loomed large in The Shining‘s legacy. A depiction of  domestic violence produced under conditions that replicated the abusive behavior it criticizes, Kubrick’s film has come under increasing scrutiny since the #metoo movement. Stewart Thorndike’s Bad Things takes the concept of a group of people trapped in a hotel during winter and flips it around by making all of them queer. Three are women, one nonbinary. Men barely appear in the film, with the most prominent male treated as a disposable victim in venerable slasher movie tradition, running in panic with his torso exposed.  Thorndike’s film riffs on specific images from Kubrick’s The Shining: note the similarity of tracking shots through a hotel lobby — its geometrical rug design is impossible to miss. But Thorndike goes even further, riffing on some of the visuals Danny sees in the hallway. Room 324 takes on the fateful importance of room 237. Ghostly joggers hover around. In the film’s most pointed revision of its inspiration, milk spills down the walls instead of blood. Thorndike explains that “this hotel’s much more feminine than the Overlook.”

Bad Things begins with four friends arriving at the Comley Hotel. Ruthie has inherited it from her grandmother, but she’s making her first visit back since she was a girl. At first, the quartet, who include her girlfriend Cal (trans actor Hari Nef, currently on screen in Barbie), her ex Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones), and their friend Maddie (Rad Pereira), chill out by swimming in the pool. They are startled when a man enters the space. Fran, feeling like the odd woman out, begins having strange visions that resonate with the hotel’s reported hauntings. She witnesses a young girl with frostbitten, bleeding fingers, which may be a vision of Ruthie as a child. The crowd she sees in the lobby quickly vanishes into thin air. Treated with disdain by the others, she ends up sleeping with Maddie. Ruthie checks her phone constantly for texts from her mother, who has long ignored her but wants back into her life so she can profit from the hotel. She also watches videos of a motivational speaker dressed entirely in red (Molly Ringwald). Entanglements of attraction and infidelity spread among the central characters, generating narrative tension.

Bad Things’ most expressive visual aspect is its skillful use of negative space. The hotel is shown in a long shot from a static camera placed across the street. A reverse angle near the end implies that a teeming strip mall lies behind the camera’s POV, but the full frontal perspective evokes the killer-cam of many slasher movies. The presence of crowds is an instant tip-off that a scene is either a fantasy or depiction of ghosts. But the indoor shots, underlined by pale, glaringly digital cinematography, fails to bring the story’s location to life. The hotel’s interior is far more inviting; it is meant to contrast with the forbidding  exteriors, but it’s attractive in a generic way, as if it were a chain franchise. Unlike the Overlook, one never believes that menace and danger are an inherent part of this space.

This disjunction underlines that Bad Things feels like a drama that has been converted into a horror film, especially during the slow set-up of its first half. At a time when working in horror has become the only way to make an independent film that can break even, this dual focus is understandable in terms of economic survival. But the psychological relationship drama doesn’t mesh with the ghost story. The former is insufficiently explored to hold its own. The film’s most potent moments deal with Ruthie’s struggle to retain her mental grip. Her obsession with her phone adds a slightly off-kilter edge that is not unrealistic. But the genre requirement to kill off characters one by one undercuts this potential strength.

Making a film about the tensions in a group of friends with no supernatural elements would probably have led to a more satisfying version of Bad Things. Ruthie, Fran, Cal, and Maddie spend most of the film hashing out their relationships to each other: an odd vision of a ghost or hint of violence reminds us that they are not only trapped in a house, but in the requirements of a genre. As for its subversion of the tropes in The Shining, the film doesn’t go nearly far enough. The references come off as straight homage. A major difference between the two films is the lack of isolation. We are continually reminded in Bad Things that, twice a day, a bus heads from the hotel’s unnamed location to a nearby city. The hotel never becomes a believable vacuum, a volatile container for Ruthie’s or Fran’s mental demons. Bad Things tries out a lot of ideas, many of them good, but a crisis in identity results in slapdash execution.

Steve Erickson writes about film and music for Gay City News, Slant Magazine, the Nashville Scene, Trouser Press, and other outlets. He also produces electronic music under the tag callinamagician. His latest album, The Bloodshot Eye of Horus, was released in November 2022, and is available to stream here.

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