Bad Things


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Bad Things
"It’s in this fracturing of feminine figures within a familial, uterine space that Thorndike finds the unsettling kind of horror she’s looking for."

It’s the first time that Ruthie (Gayle Rankin) has been back to the hotel for a long time, though it will be a while before we find out why. She’s just inherited it from her grandmother, and her three friends think they’re there for an enjoyable weekend of hanging out and drinking and enjoying the facilities before she sells it. For her, the visit seems more like an intentional effort to get over the traumatic incident which she experienced there in the past, and to reconcile some of her difficult feelings about her mother. Over the two days which follow, the different ways in which each member of the group relates to the building and the wider situation will threaten to pry them apart, and the consequences of that will ultimately be fatal.

Although many critics have jumped immediately to comparisons with The Shining, and director Stewart Thorndike does reference that with some of her shot choices, there are other and more complex ideas related to the haunted hotel which have deeper cinematic roots. Here one might think more of Psycho or Hammer’s Daughters Of Darkness with their association between the hotel and the feminine, especially the maternal. Thorndike’s characters move in two different directions. Though the group initially aims for a shared experience, its members are separated: the hotel brings them together but gives them plenty of room to become separated, even frighteningly lost. Ruthie, meanwhile, wanders around trying to find some space only to be drawn back, again and again, to the past, to the feminine, to the maternal influence which she seems unable to escape.

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Early on, the mood is fairly optimistic. The friends explore together. They put on bikinis and take a dip in the pool. A handyman, Brian (Jared Abrahamson), who is also Ruthie’s mother’s lover, comes in and stands around looking confused because they don’t have anything for him to do, or because he’s walked into what looks to him like a porn movie scenario and found himself equally irrelevant. Ruthie and Cal (Hari Nef) are quite serious about their relationship, whilst neither Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) nor Maddie (Rad Pereira) evidences any interest in men. In fact, Maddie used to date Cal, a potentially uncomfortable point which everyone involved seems to have got over – but Cal has already had to forgive Ruthie for one sexual infraction with Fran, and Fran doesn’t seem to have realised that further flirtation might be inappropriate.

It’s here that things begin to break down, although an earlier scene in which Ruthie glimpses Fran through a window and mistakes her for her mother carries a lot of weight. Ruthie also becomes increasingly obsessed with an online hospitality industry advisor (Mollie Ringwald), whom she seems to imagine in a similar role, whilst Fran becomes obsessed by the notion that the building is haunted – we have learned at the outset that it has been the site of several deaths.

It’s in this fracturing of feminine figures within a familial, uterine space that Thorndike finds the unsettling kind of horror she’s looking for. Notably, Maddie, who is non-binary, is the most stable person present, though this also leaves Pereira with the least to do. As unease escalates into violence, the film takes its time to reveal the real instigator, but viewers need not worry that the chainsaw glimpsed early on, when it’s used for removing a blockage from the road, will not be put to use in the fashion which the genre demands. There is, in fact, a loving recreation of an archetypal chainsaw shot towards the end which will pay back fans of more conventional horror for time spent sitting through a psychodrama which they may or may not feel able to engage with.

It’s the development of this drama which is at the core of the film, and it struggles because, Ruthie aside, we don’t really get to know any of the characters very well. Thorndike is interested in how they behave collectively – as well as in establishing that they don’t need a man to threaten them, and are perfectly capable of doing bad things on their own – but this really needs to be balanced by a bit more individual colour, especially given the heightened emotional landscape. This is something which she did well in her previous feature, Lyle, and which one hopes she will return to in what promises to be the third part of a trilogy of female-focused psychological horror films. in its absence, the film struggles to find cohesion. We feel the threat building in the pastel-coloured corridors only to find ourselves abruptly elsewhere, trying to catch up on who’s doing what, losing the opportunity to connect effectively with the underlying themes.

In a pivotal scene towards the end, Ruthie is trapped outside the hotel. Shivering in a landscape defined by snow and ice, she has theoretically escaped the threat, yet she quickly realises that she could die out here and becomes anxious to return to the warmly glowing pink building. Does she own this hotel or is she owned by it? Either way, the connection cannot be easily severed. Like Lyle, Bad Things falls a little way short of its potential, but it’s swollen with promise and occasionally teeters on the brink of genius.

Reviewed on: 17 Aug 2023
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A weekend getaway for four friends at a snowy resort turns into a psychological tailspin and bloody nightmare.
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Director: Stewart Thorndike

Writer: Stewart Thorndike

Starring: With Gayle Rankin, Hari Nef, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Rad Pereira, Jared Abrahamson, Molly Ringwald

Year: 2023

Country: US


Tribeca 2023

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