As we’ve learned from the hotels of horror film’s past, there’s no better place to lose your mind. But while often craving the dimension and dread that those other films have, ‘Bad Things’ has more on the mind than crazed cabin fever.
Writer-director Stewart Thorndike says she selected the location for her sophomore film, an exploration of motherhood and feminine rage, because it seemed like a “woman’s hotel.” Cobwebs and spiral staircases are swapped for brass accents and mauve walls. “Vagina-colored,” as Thorndike describes them.
Like the Overlook Hotel, the lodging here — the Comley Hotel — is designed to be a liminal space (production design by Amy Williams). Meaning that in abandoned hotels, rooms aren’t meant to be occupied. They’re meant to serve as places of transition, where new realities can emerge and darkness finds a home. From within this hotel’s walls Thorndike’s setting out to take back feminine rage and horror tropes — rampages and sharp objects aren’t just for Jack Torrance. This time, they’re for one Ruthie Nodd.
‘Bad Things’ follows a group of friends on what’s planned as a snowy, quiet weekend with a group of friends at the abandoned Comley. At the center is Ruthie (Gayle Rankin), who’s inherited the hotel, and mostly wants to sell it and forget about her past there.
We’re told (not necessarily shown) that Ruthie’s partner Cal (Hari Nef) wants to restore the hotel and start a new life of hospitality and domestic bliss. But Ruthie’s had some dark history at the hotel, with a few childhood traumas and an absent mother to thank. She’s angry. That Cal’s brought them there, that Maddie (Rad Pereira) brought along the bruised, yet alluring Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones), that a mother figure isn’t there to guide her through this. Gayle Rankin is up for the task of unearthing this rage in her performance of the ill-tempered Ruthie. This’ll be the source of the ‘bad things’ to come.
When the horror does appear, it’s shy. The film’s scariest moment, a scene involving frostbitten fingers and a roomful of ghosts, is brushed right by — though it proves to be a vital reveal later in the film. Powerful moments get tucked away for long stretches of hotel hangs: suspecting each other of cheating on each other or taking naps. (So many naps!)
The characters, while played solidly by the actors, do little to make up for the lack of texture. When one of the friends asks Maddie what they’ll name their restaurant one day, they respond, unwinkingly: “Spaghetti.” The group turns back to their lunch, twirls of pasta and olive oil all around.
There are certainly lots of ideas here. Thorndike seems to be thinking about ‘The Shining’ and subverting those expectations. She’s reclaiming horror tropes, making them queer and raging. ‘Bad Things’ is also the second in a planned trilogy about motherhood, and I trust that a certain famed psychoanalysts would have much to say about what’s going on here.
According the the director, the intention was to not think about “scary,” but to strip the story down to its key elements and let the terror build from there. A hotel, 4 friends, some dark memories, and a little betrayal could be enough to capture the themes that are meant to be spoken full-throatedly through the halls of the hotel. But the directorial light touch plays as a lack of commitment, a search for tone rather than filling the empty space with dread. No ghosts here, just one empty hotel.
‘Bad Things’ is now streaming on Shudder and AMC+
REVIEW: ‘Bad Things’ Fills an Empty Hotel with Feminine Rage