BAD THINGS (Tribeca 2023) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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In 2014, two women-directed reimaginings of Ira Levin’s 1967 novel Rosemary’s Baby hit the screen, which – whether intentionally or not – marked a kind of unspoken yet important feminist reclamation of the story and its historical association with child rapist Roman Polanski’s famous 1968 film adaptation. While fellow Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland reset Levin’s horror classic in an updated Paris for her two-part NBC miniseries, Stewart Thorndike’s smaller indie feature Lyle presented a far less color-by-number version, but one with notably more punch. Reduced on more than one occasion to the handy descriptor “lesbian Rosemary’s Baby”, while not exactly inaccurate, this does a disservice to the powerfully intelligent and emotionally impactful way that Thorndike and her collaborators (including a spectacular Gaby Hoffmann and Ingrid Jungermann in the lead roles) reworked the original story and made it something wholly their own.

Jump to 2023, and the second film of Thorndike’s planned ‘motherhood’ trilogy has just made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Bad Things on the surface at least is a million miles away both stylistically and geographically from Lyle’s cool urban Brooklyn. The film follows Ruthie (Gayle Rankin) who has just inherited from her grandmother a run-down, largely abandoned hotel frozen in the 1980s with its pale pink, apricot and peach heavy décor. The inheritance has brought Ruthie into sudden, unexpected contact with her mother, who have been estranged for many years until the funeral. Feeling pressure from her mother to sell the property and share the profits with her, at the urging of her partner Cal (Hari Nef) Ruthie decides they should spend the weekend at the hotel with their friend Maddie (Rad Pereira) to see if Cal’s dream of turning it into a viable enterprise has potential. When Maddie unexpectedly brings along Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) – who Cal and Maddie have a complicated past history with – the stage is set for complex interpersonal dramas to unfold, compounded only further by possible phantoms, a TED talk addiction, the ghost of infidelity and a chainsaw looking for somewhere to happen.

Thorndike’s eponymous ‘bad things’ begin bad, and get much, much worse across the film’s runtime as Ruthie and her friends struggle to keep up appearances. It is, admirably, a film where two-dimensional, ‘likeable’ women characters are blissfully absent, and Thorndike is very much in her comfort zone giving air time to the kinds of women that normally get reduced to villains or ignored completely. Just as Lyle riffed on Rosemary’s Baby, Bad Things is in a conscious yet informal dialogue of sorts with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining which works as a strong foundation but never collapses into anything as basic as fanfic (that Thorndike had a small but memorable role in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut adds even a further intertextual dimension to this connection).

But it is, in keeping with the focus of her trilogy, the strange yet omnipresent way that the figure of mother is woven into the story that makes Bad Things much more than the slasher/haunted house/queer melodrama hybrid it otherwise offers on the surface. Starring the great Molly Ringwald as a recurring figure in the motivational TED talks that Ruthie watches compulsively on her phone in an attempt to ground herself as things begin to spiral increasingly out of control, the film teases out things like motherhood and mentorship in curious, intriguing ways. Even though largely invisible in the film itself, Thorndike grants Ruthie’s mom a privileged place in the story, reminding us that the maternal bond doesn’t necessarily need an overpowering physical presence to make itself felt. A wild film on its own merits and a fascinating one when considered alongside Lyle, Bad Things guarantees that Thorndike’s unfolding ‘motherhood’ trilogy has been well worth the wait.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).