We witness a faraway man progressively walking closer to the camera while brandishing a chainsaw in the opening scenes of writer-director Stewart Thorndike’s Bad Things, which is now getting a Shudder distribution following its festival run. Ruthie (Gayle Rankin) doesn’t appear to be using the power tool maliciously, but her mind quickly jumps back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre before she uses it to chop a tree rather than flesh.
This is not the film’s first genre allusion, and it quickly becomes a bit of a joke when we move on to an eerily vacant hotel where most of the action takes place. A setting like this has already prompted parallels to The Shining, but it feels like just one example. Sure, there are a few aesthetic features that harken back to the legendary picture, and one might dismantle their common thematic interest in isolation.
However, Bad Things’ perspective is too fluid to be pinned down to a single entity. There’s even a section that feels like it’s inspired by the current German horror film Schlaf, with a possible spiritual tie to The Eternal Daughter, but it doesn’t capture all of the simmering emotions that are explored here.
It’s an odd picture that’s frequently as lost as the lovely people themselves until falling into a bizarre rhythm that starts to cast its own spell. It’s almost like a satire of multiple genres, with both gothic horror and mumblecore misdirects. The idea is straightforward: we join Ruthie at a little snowbound motel she has inherited and is now allegedly planning to sell. This is alluded to in a somewhat taunting exchange between her and her girlfriend Cal, played by Hari Nef of everything from this year’s Barbie to the anthology series Extrapolations, who has joined her on what they are attempting to turn into a more joyful occasion.
There is continual tension underpinning it all, so it isn’t all fun and games. Maddie (Rad Pereira), their buddy, has brought along someone else who appears to have an ulterior reason for being there. Fran, played by Annabelle Dexter-Jones, who appeared in the series Succession as well as the surreal epic Under the Silver Lake, has a complicated relationship with the unstable Ruthie.
That’s before other darker elements take control of the journey. Much of it slips through the film’s often viscerally frigid fingers as it travels into regions that are more flat than terrifying, but it also grips just enough as it goes along before tearing everything apart.
The location is the most noticeable distinction between this picture and The Shining. Whereas that was far away from everything, Bad Things is still close to the rest of the globe. Cars drive by the façade of the hotel at times, while the characters try to drink away their supernatural and existential fear.
We are frequently kept at a safe distance from really experiencing the misery of this, sometimes literally, as when an uninterrupted shot creeps up on the protagonists while they lay on the ground eating and drinking. The individuals converse before one of them says that they have seen something that should not be there, but no one appears to care.
Large portions of the film have a perceptible lack of urgency, which has buried other major movies this year by robbing them of their punch, reducing what could otherwise be significant disclosures into almost throwaway exchanges. Cal’s recollection of Ruthie being left alone at the hotel as a child, when she nearly lost her fingers due to frostbite, which is depicted in the film’s first and most dramatic moment of dread, passes very swiftly.
This has a halting quality to it, as though the film is unsure of what it wants. Whereas some of the year’s most masterful horror visions have made the most of a simple setting and cut right to the bone by creating something we’ve never seen before, Bad Things has an initial lack of direction that leaves us searching for something more in many of the narrowly framed scenes. It encourages acceptance since the protagonists seem unbothered by everything around them, yet it may veer dangerously near to complacency at important times.
When it gets past these more inert components, especially in the last act when everything it’s been hinting at comes to the forefront, horrible Things isn’t so horrible because Rankin is allowed the space to really dig her teeth into the material. While she has been a powerful supporting presence in previous series such as Kindred and Perry Mason, the last chapter of this film makes the most of her presence.
She must catch a level of dark humour and chilling dread for it all to work, which she does magnificently. When Ruthie fully unravels, she takes us through the gamut of emotions, from unnerving wrath to crushing terror and, finally, desperate pleading. As her screams reverberate through the night, we are drawn back in for whatever comes next.
Some of this includes an all-time cameo by Molly Ringwald, which, while brief, is better left unspoilt since it generates significant plot elements in the picture. From her first genuine scene with Rankin all the way to the conclusion, Bad Things smashes past whatever hangups it has gathered. This culminates in a few final standout sequences, beginning in a parking lot where any blunders are washed away with blood. It just takes a couple of strokes of that trusty chainsaw, which, while larger than Jack Torrance’s axe, nonetheless makes a horrific impact.