'Bad Things' Review: Gayle Rankin and Hari Nef in a tame queer ride on 'The Shining'

‘Bad Things’ Review: Gayle Rankin and Hari Nef in a tame queer ride on ‘The Shining’

Stewart Thorndike’s psychodrama horror begins with the main character carrying a chainsaw, trudging menacingly through an empty, snowy parking lot outside an abandoned building. The scene is like a giant sign that reads: Horror Tropes Ahead.

And Thorndike knowingly accumulates them. Chainsaw-wielding Ruthie (Gayle Rankin) has arrived with three other women at the secluded hotel she inherited from her grandmother for one last weekend before selling it. The film never claims the goofy touch at the outset, which reveals Ruthie using the saw to cut through a log lodged under the tires of the Uber that took them there. Instead, Bad things it is perfectly competent and uninspired or, more accurately, inspired by The brilliantfrom the hotel setting to tracking shots down a narrow corridor and a set of ghostly twins.

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Bad things

The bottom line

Psycho-horror effective but not very original.

Place: Tribeca Festival (US storytelling contest)
Launch: Gayle Rankin, Hari Nef, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Rad Pereira, Jared Abrahamson, Molly Ringwald
Director-writer: Stewart Thorndik

Rated R, 1 hour 23 minutes

Thorndike’s major twist is that the four main characters are queer women, a change that helps expand the range of the genre but doesn’t per se renew the horror tropes it leans on. The mixed result is unoriginal but not entirely homage, always watchable but never as gripping as it could have been.

One of the deliberately awful things about the hotel is its aesthetic, that of an ’80s chain, with beige carpets and boldly patterned bedspreads. Ruthie is ready to sell. Her girlfriend Cal (Hari Nef) wants them to keep it and run the hotel together. Their friend Maddie (Rad Pereira) has joined in for the weekend, bringing along Fran (Anabelle Dexter-Jones), a troublemaker no one else wants there.

An early conversation between the friends pokes fun at horror clichés, alluding to hotel deaths and model twins who went jogging and never came back. As with most solid ghost stories, Thorndike does a good job of playing with point of view to keep viewers guessing what’s real and who might be upset. When the runners reappear outside, are they ghosts or figments of the characters’ imaginations, stimulated by the power of suggestion? Except the ShiningIn tracking shot style, Grant Greenberg’s direct and ghostly cinematography leans toward psychological explanation. On the haunted side of things, there are some eerie sounds and doors that mysteriously open at night. And you know the chainsaw has gotta be bloody used by the end. Both Fran and Ruthie are actually set up as likely suspects.

Those supernatural tropes land begrudgingly, though. The most interesting strand of the film concerns the cross-relationships between women. We eventually learn that Ruthie once had a fling with Fran, which Cal has forgiven but won’t tolerate a second time around. Maddie was with Cal, who left her for Ruthie. Fran constantly reaches out to Ruthie, who answers about her, jeopardizing her relationship with Cal. The hermetic setting intensifies those hothouse dynamics, which the actors often bring to life beyond what Thorndike’s stripped-down script gives them to work with. Rankin, always strong (Sheila la Lupa in INCANDESCENT and a formidable Ophelia in Oscar Isaac’s Hamlet at the Public Theater), makes Ruthie a mess of conflicts. Nef, despite some strict readings, makes Cal the most sincere and likable of the bunch. Dexter-Jones (Naomi Hon Succession) is adept at playing edgy characters like Fran. Pereira has an underwritten and functional character to play.

Ruthie obsessively watches a video of a hospitality industry expert, played by Molly Ringwald, dressed head-to-toe in blood red: dress, pantyhose, and stilettos. Both object of desire and surrogate mother for her, her character hints at what is behind the confusion in Ruthie’s mind. In her traumatic childhood, she was neglected by her mother, once left alone for days in the empty hotel.

Thorndike’s first film Lyle (2014) was another psycho-horror, about a pregnant woman mourning her first child, and she said that Bad things is the second in a trilogy on motherhood. But here the maternal theme is too blunt and not deep enough. In another twist The brilliant, milk flows down the walls of a room instead of blood. It’s a jaw-dropping moment, a jarring tonal faux pas. Like the witticism of the opening scene, it’s like nothing else in the film.

To emerge, Bad things it required a deft balance between horror and relationship drama. Erratic in his use of each, a subtle sheen remains on both genres.