It’s ‘The Shining’ revisited. But instead of the grand Overlook Hotel, it’s more of an inn called Comley Suites. And with a queer, female-led twist. In ‘Bad Things,’ writer-director Stewart Thorndike’s sophomore feature (2014’s ‘Lyle’) follows Ruthie (Gayle Rankin), who inherited the hotel from her late grandmother. The hotel has been long isolated, and Ruthie is thinking of selling it and moving on with her life.
However, her girlfriend, Cal (Hari Nef), sees it in a different way. She hopes to resume hotel operations with Ruthie. When Ruthie, Cal, and two of their pals, including Maddie (Rad Pereira) and Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones), head to the hotel for a weekend getaway, it isn’t all fun and relaxation. This is especially true with Ruthie, who doesn’t seem pleased coming to the hotel.
Apparently, the hotel triggers Ruthie’s traumatic childhood past, which concerns her estranged relationship with her mother. She dislikes talking about her mother and even tends to behave erratically. For instance, she scorns the presence of Brian (Jared Abrahamson), who does maintenance at the hotel, coming to the pool while she and her pal are enjoying a swim. Complicating matters is the bumpy relationship between Ruthie and Cal and with Fran caught in between.
Then, strange things start to happen in and outside the hotel. One of them encounters the two model joggers, who reportedly went missing without a trace a long time ago. There’s even a supernatural occurrence, namely the hotel’s front door at the entrance that keeps open and shut. Is the hotel haunted, or are they imagining things?
The first thing I like about ‘Bad Things’ is Grant Greenberg’s crisp cinematography. A mix of sharp contrast and rich brightness evokes a deliberate sense of ominous dread lurking somewhere beneath the surface or around the corner. The images stay sharp with no fancy use of filters seen in (most) horror movies. With its matter-of-fact visual styling, this makes the eerie moments and sudden bursts of graphic violence feel more palpable.
Stewart Thorndike deserves praise for her effective use of negative space within the interiors of the hotel. She incorporates these scenes with static and lingering camerawork to create is-something-going-to-happen anxiety and uneasiness. Her homage to ‘The Shining’ is both apparent (the joggers are an obvious callback to the creepy Grady twins) and subtle (the milk raining down from the hotel walls).
But that is not all, as Thorndike explores the metaphorical context within Ruthie’s personal trauma modeled from the late Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror-movie masterpiece. Ruthie is like a female version of Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance. Both may have been from different ages, professions, and backgrounds, but they share something in common: isolation and mental health. In the case of Ruthie, we see how she becomes increasingly disillusioned with the result of returning to the hotel. Her past and current relationship only makes things worse, coupled with a series of strange phenomena that eventually drives her insane to a breaking point.
Just like Jack Torrance went full-on cuckoo at the end of ‘The Shining,’ so does Ruthie, but instead of hunting her victims with an axe, she uses a chainsaw. Not just a crazy woman with a chainsaw as Thorndike gamely references Leatherface from the ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ franchise, complete with Ruthie putting on a mask (a sleep-apnea mask, to be exact, due to her character’s sleep disorder).
All these wouldn’t have worked if not for Gayle Rankin’s fiercely committed performance as Ruthie. Her gradual descent to total madness is subtly portrayed without resorting to acting over the top. It’s an emotionally and psychologically disturbing role that Rankin nails well. The rest of the cast, including Hari Nef, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, and Rad Pereira, deliver solid support in their respective roles as Cal, Fran, and Maddie. Then, there’s Molly Ringwald, looking sharp and radiant in her small appearance as a hospitality guru giving talks, who appears predominantly in a video as we see Ruthie loves watching it from her phone.
‘Bad Things’ is not without its fair share of flaws. The movie may have run a slim 83 minutes, but it tends to feel like a slog reaching the finish line. The supernatural and psychological horror moments are few and far between, making me wonder if only Thorndike ratchets the tension more urgently. I’m okay with watching a horror movie emphasizing the slow-burning dread. But the lackluster thrills and terrors are glaringly obvious in ‘Bad Things.’
Several shortcomings aside, ‘Bad Things’ remains a reasonably compelling mix of horror and drama with above-average acting performances all around.
‘Bad Things’ is currently streaming on Shudder.