Maybe AMC layoffs have impacts its output, but Shudder hasn’t been quite as prolific in 2023 as compared to previous years. Of course, the horror streaming platform continues to make offbeat and unique horror offerings available to wide audiences. Following on Bad Girl Boogey and Attachment, Shudder’s latest release, Bad Things, marks another entry for queer horror this year. While it’s an under-the-radar release, writer and director Stewart Thorndike’s sophomore feature-length thriller has been likened to a queer re-imagining of The Shining. To date, critical consensus mostly leans on the ‘fresh’ side of the Tomatometer.
Following her grandmother’s passing, Ruthie inherits her local hotel, the Comely Suites, in a small suburban town. Despite her mother’s insistence the they sell the hotel, Ruthie arrives with her girlfriend, Cal, and two friends, Maddie and Fran, to party and get a closer look at the property. But secrets, doubts, and past relationships join them for their weekend getaway. Ruthie’s relationship with her mother – who’s nowhere to be found – is distant and tense. And the cold winter and isolation slowly exposes tensions and leads to a brutal resolution.
Bad Decisions …
If one’s wondering where the comparisons to The Shining come from, you won’t have to take too long into watching Bad Things to figure it out. From its wintery hotel setting to its own version to The Shining spectral twins – here, it’s two model joggers – writer and director Stewart Thorndike’s clearly references the Stanley Kubrick classic. While it’s a lofty height to set one’s sights on, Thorndike immediately exploits the cold, isolated setting. Much of this thriller settles into with an uneasy atmosphere that lingers throughout her psychological horror movie. Neither a body count horror nor a thriller contingent on jump scares, Bad Things relies on the tensions amongst its characters to drive its unease.
While it’s a lofty height to set one’s sights on, Thorndike immediately exploits the cold, isolated setting.
And this is the inherent strength of Bad Things. Thorndike slow burns an initially compelling mystery from the basic table-setting of the principal characters and relationships between them. There’s an almost unpredictable quality to the horror elements in this thriller. In between the paranoia and relationship drama, Thorndike introduces the spectral joggers, a disturbing dining room scene, and walls bleeding not blood but what appears to be breast milk – an eventually obvious nod to Ruthie’s complex, estranged relationship with her mother. For over half of the movie, Bad Things gets good mileage from these elements to create psychological horror.
Bad Things …
Overall, Bad Things captures a certain midnight movie vibe. It’s the sort of thriller you might have found on local cable television late at night when other stations went off the air. That vibe stands out as its strong suit, while the storytelling inevitably runs into problems. Half of the movie defines itself – quite effectively – by its ambiguity and mystery, Yes, Thorndike offers morsels here and there. A young male caretaker tells us that Ruthie’s mom should be in the hotel – her car is still parked outside. And Ruthie’s friend and ex, Fran, is clearly more than melodramatic. And Ruthie herself doesn’t just have a complex relationship with her mother – references to her past suggest dangerous neglect. Yet Thorndike scatters too few narrative breadcrumbs to truly stick the finale’s landing. In other words, the climax errs to far on the side of incomprehensible as opposed to ambiguous.
That vibe stands out as its strong suit, while the storytelling inevitably runs into problems.
No where is this more evident than in the relationships between the thriller’s characters. All of the performances from the four principals leads are strong. In particular, Gayle Rankin (Ruthie) fully captures her character’s growing paranoia while Annabelle Dexter-Jones (Succession) lends here ‘Fran’ an appropriate nervous energy. We also know that the characters come into the movie with existing and past relationships that provide much of the fodder for the thriller’s tensions. But we never really know much about these characters outside of some expository revelations. Rad Pereira’s ‘Maddie’, for instance, often feels superfluous to what’s happening around their character. And we never learn enough about Ruthie’s relationship to her mother to fully grasp much of what unfolds in the final act.
Bad Things marks an impressive feature-length effort and follow-up to their 2014 debut for writer and director Stewart Thorndike. As a psychological horror, Thorndike maintains a consistently firm grasp over the atmosphere and ambiguity of their story. There’s a compelling, weaving mystery underlying the thriller’s vibe that maybe doesn’t quite hits its full impact. Thorndike leaves a few things too murky to offer a fully satisfying ending. Nevertheless, strong performances and more than enough unnerving moments make Bad Things a worthwhile watch for horror fans.