This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors who are currently on strike, films like Bad Things would not be possible, and Autostraddle is grateful for the artists who do this work.
We’ve always told the same stories.
Lost in the discussion around Hollywood’s overreliance on IP is the fact that it’s more about the how than the what. Even before moving images existed as an art form, human beings have told the same stories over and over and over again. What is Macbeth if not a Blockbuster regurgitation of stories past?
The problem is Hollywood tends to regurgitate stories with money in mind instead of artistry. This human tradition of telephone has been co-opted to create cheap knockoffs with a surface twist, instead of a thoughtful engagement with our cultural language.
Enter Stewart Thorndike. With just two movies — 2014’s Lyle and her new film Bad Things — Thorndike has taken on the role of a queer woman Brothers Grimm, filtering our modern mythology of horror films through a new lens. This is not the easy Hollywood update of putting a few queer characters into a franchise reboot — this is deep textual analysis and fuckery presented with a sharpness of filmmaking worthy of its influences.
While Lyle could be described as a lesbian Rosemary’s Baby, Bad Things primarily takes on The Shining. Ruthie is a troubled queer woman with mommy issues who has recently inherited her grandmother’s hotel as the sole proprietor. She’s eager to sell but her girlfriend Cal wants them to take over and run the place. Ruthie’s past infidelity hovers over Cal’s desire for control and Ruthie’s desire for compromise. They decide to spend a weekend at the hotel along with their friend — and Cal’s ex — Maddie and Maddie’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Fran. The inevitable dyke drama would be scary enough, but Ruthie’s grandma’s hotel is no ordinary hotel. It’s haunted. By Ruthie’s past and by literal ghosts.
Thorndike’s approach to horror and psychology can at times feel academic. There’s a lot going on in the film and it’s readymade for discussion and analysis. But what makes it work as a visceral experience is Thorndike’s hilarious and relatable script and her excellent cast. Gayle Rankin as Ruthie finds the perfect balance between sympathetically troubled and dangerously unnerving. Hari Nef as Cal lands every one of Thorndike’s jokes with ease while also providing the film with some of its heaviest emotional moments. Annabelle Dexter-Jones as Fran is sexy and unrelenting like a dykey Alex Forrest. Rad Pereira as Maddie does the most with the least, finding all the specificities and layers to the protective masc archetype. And Molly Ringwald as a YouTube business guru is, well, so very mommi.
It’s noteworthy that Bad Things features two relationships with trans people including a relationship between a cis woman and a trans woman. What’s even more noteworthy is how authentic to their various experiences these characters feel without it ever having to be discussed. This group of friends, these relationships, these dynamics, are recognizable. Cal and Maddie’s transness doesn’t need to be underlined in order for queer audience to see how it impacts their characters.
Bad Things is filled with delicious set pieces, horror scenes that will best be enjoyed unspoiled. I’m sure the film would work on its own, but the way it plays with The Shining is especially delightful. During one moment in the film, the camerawork recalls one of that movie’s most iconic jumpscares. But here nothing happens. Suspense is built from our expectations and then subverted. Thorndike’s film is filled with details like this that layer the film for an audience who has those reference points — and even for those who don’t. Thorndike seems to argue that a movie like The Shining has reached a level of mythology where it’s seeped into our cultural consciousness even for audiences that feel the references rather than recognize them.
The way The Shining book used alcoholism and The Shining movie used American masculinity, this film uses mommy issues. The destruction of the nuclear family becomes the destruction of chosen family. Every reference to The Shining — from a ghost in room 217 to evocations of the blood elevator — also functions as a haunting of parentage. Ruthie is haunted by her mother, the film is haunted by its heterosexual inspirations.
At a time when most movies are derivative without engagement, it’s thrilling to get a film that finds originality in reimagination. Check in for Hari Nef’s delivery of “she’s ruining the weekend,wp_postsextend your stay for a horror film that takes textual queerness seriously. After a nine year gap, Stewart Thorndike has returned with the best horror movie of 2023.