Bad Things had its world première at Tribeca Film Festival 2023
Bad Things opens with a blonde woman carrying a chainsaw from a building across the snow to a car full of her friends. The woman is Ruthie Nodd (Gayle Rankin), the building is the hotel ‘Comley Suites’ in America’s Northeast that she has just inherited from her grandmother, the friends are her girlfriend Cal (Hari Nef), Ruthie’s secret bit on the side Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) and Cal’s ex Maddie (Rad Pereira), and the chainsaw is for chopping up a fallen tree that has got entangled in the car’s wheels. These four are looking for a relaxing weekend break together, as Ruthie decides what to do to do with her bequest.
Yet ever since 1974 when Tobe Hooper had a vicious family of laid-off Texan slaughtermen preying upon any unassuming visitors to their home, the chainsaw has also become a tool associated with the horror genre. What is more, Comley Suites, though altogether less isolated than the Overlook Hotel, nonetheless recall Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) for being (mostly) empty, off-season and snowbound, for having a forbidden room (off limits, according to Ruthie, along with the entire third floor because of flooding issues), and for supposedly being haunted by the ghosts of those who had died there in the past. “Women do bad things here,” as Maddie explains – and the film’s very title promises that there is more of that to come, with history destined to repeat itself, trauma to resurface and the repressed to return.
Ruthie has her own history here. The property has been in her family for decades, and as a child she was once mistakenly left alone there by her mother without food or electricity for three whole days in the middle of winter. Ruthie has only recently reconciled with her mother at her grandmother’s funeral, and now receives an unhealthy deluge of texts from her, apologising for not being there and expressing the maternal love that has for so long been absent. For Ruthie, this hotel is full of bad memories.
The dominant pinks of the hotel rooms and corridors suggest a specifically feminine interiority, and indeed the only visitors here – apart from the handyman Brian (Jared Abrahamson), and two realtors (Austin Jones, Patrick Kelin) who have found a buyer for the property – are all female. Even the motivational speaker on ‘methods in hospitality’ whom Cal has recommended that Ruthie watch on her phone is a woman – the confident, red-dressed Ms Auerbach (a show-stopping Molly Ringwald) whose words on fixing the mistakes of the past Ruthie takes very much to heart. Writer/director Stewart Thorndike is continuing the queer approach to genre that she began in her feature debut Lyle (2014), and here creates a house of horrors that is also a psych(ot)ic stage for Sapphic longing and angst, as Cal’s pressure on Ruthie to come and stay with her in the hotel drives a destructive wedge through Ruthie’s double-dealing inner conflicts.
As secrets out, as things go bump in the night, as ghosts – real or imagined – emerge, and as a figure in a mask stalks the guests, the negative energy of the place comes to resonate with the frictions between its four latest arrivals, ambiguating the narrative, at least at first, between supernatural and psychological interpretations. Certainly there is a lot of denial, delusion and derealisation unfolding here – and when the truth can no longer stay hidden away, at last bad things happen (again), with the chainsaw, too, making an inevitable, altogether less salubrious return. This may be the story of a lesbian love quadrangle gone terribly, tragically wrong, but here love was withdrawn long ago, leaving everyone to take their assigned rooms and to play their prescribed parts in the unraveling psychodrama.
strap: Stewart Thorndike’s queer horror checks a complicated lesbian love quadrangle into a haunted hotel full of negative energy
© Anton Bitel