Gayle Rankin Dominates Bad Things‘ Uneven Hotel Hellscape

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Gayle Rankin Dominates Bad Things‘ Uneven Hotel Hellscape

Stewart Thorndike’s hotel hellscape Bad Things has all the makings of a claustrophobic slasher—with shades of Norway’s snowy resort hack ’em up Cold Prey—but that’s hardly the outcome. An abandoned labyrinth of empty bedrooms and joyless ballrooms echo isolation horrors with a sterilized Holiday Inn Express flavor, mimicking how other filmmakers have translated the sounds of silence into unpredictable mania. Reality seems inconsequential as characters exist in a purgatorial realm of indecision and self-destruction, which Thorndike sometimes fails to command. Bad Things wants to be quirky, callous and cutthroat before an explosive ending, but never aggressively combusts as we’d hope—even with chainsaws and flesh-cutting blades in play.

Ruthie (Gayle Rankin) inherits a run-down, abandoned hotel from her grandmother that she intends to sell, lest she confronts traumas from her childhood. Ruthie’s partner Cal (Hari Nef) insists they update the joint and return it to profitable glory. Ruthie, Cal, their friend Maddie (Rad Pereira), and tag-along Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) plan a private getaway at the hotel to assess damages and whatnot, despite the new owner’s protests. There’s something Ruthie fears about the wretched place, and unfortunately for the group, they’re about to find out firsthand.

Thorndike’s more interested in psychological warfare between volatile personalities than hunter-stalker brutality. Bad Things presents characters with moral dilemmas and tests their willpower, quickly plunging into a race against snuffing out or fighting against earned consequences. Bloody imagery is largely saved for the final chapter, which messes with the pacing as tension remains conversational between friends who are quick to backstab, gossip and embrace the hotel’s eerily bad-faith atmosphere. Thorndike’s screenplay is less a slasher subversion and more a slow-burner that chooses catty mind games over Saw traps.

Paramount to the film’s success is Rankin (Sheila the She-Wolf from Netflix’s Glow), an actress with astounding physical expressiveness. Rankin’s ability to outwardly project a mental breakdown is top-notch, authentic as her speech quickens with desperation or her body twitches and tweaks with rigid discomfort. She’s the catalyst behind every spiral in Bad Things, wielding social awkwardness and unease, plastered onto sunken facial configurations, as weapons that instigate confrontational bickering or emotional wounds. Rankin stands out as a rogue agent who brings the interpersonal horrors of Thorndike’s story to life, like an at-odds combination of Jack and Wendy Torrance.

It’s the fever dream approach to Bad Things that struggles to solidify into something transfixing and cohesive. Thorndike utilizes ghostly suburbia visuals, like synchronized joggers outside windows, as this film’s The Shining twins, or supernatural visions of breast-feeding women who vanish like hallucinations, but its speculative haunts are sporadic and uncontrolled. Merits are softened by the film’s wishy-washy inability to sustain anything terrifying or toxically intriguing, which undercuts the revving, flailing nods to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or the bitter relationship thrills gone viciously awry. Its tonality never clicks into place, suspended in a weightless state that doesn’t always serve Thorndike’s heavier intentions.

Bad Things is a poisonous performance piece balanced by standouts and letdowns, earning its recommendation based on Rankin’s unhinged chemistry with her supporting cast members (all solid themselves). Thorndike’s vision is steamy and surreal, but lacks spear-tipped sharpness. Particular dreamlike decisions can confound, and while we love to see Molly Ringwald in any capacity, only some of the ambitious storytelling swings pay off. What it’s doing is good enough, but there’s never that final shift that punches Bad Things into overdrive.

Director: Stewart Thorndike
Writer: Stewart Thorndike
Starring: Gayle Rankin, Hari Nef, Annabelle Dexter-Jones
Release Date: August 18, 2023

Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.

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