When the four friends at the center of Stewart Thorndike's Bad Things arrive at the Comley Suites in a wintry part of the northeast U.S., they're carrying a lot more baggage than the typical tourists. Ruthie (Gayle Rankin), who has inherited the abandoned place from her recently deceased grandmother, is dealing with negative memories associated with it, as well as current mother issues. She's accompanied by her girlfriend Cal (Hari Nef), their friend Maddie (Rad Pereira), and Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones), with whom Ruthie has an unresolved romantic history. In other words, Ruthie is haunted by her past even before a few real ghosts start showing up…
Bad Things, which world premiered at this month's Tribeca Film Festival ahead of its August 18 debut on Shudder and AMC+, is the second horror feature from writer/director Stewart Thorndike. Her first, 2014's Lyle, was a queer-centric variation on Rosemary's Baby, and her new movie similarly takes inspiration from The Shining (complete with a scene set outside Room 237) with an LGBTQ focus. "I am compelled to reframe these stories, the ones I love the most," Thorndike acknowledges. "It's sort of about taking these narratives and reframing them from a female queer perspective."
She then reveals that Bad Things' story and the protagonists' tensions are also partially based on personal experience. "I had to take a drive with someone for many hours," she recalls. "We didn't know each other that well, but we were going to carpool because we both had to get somewhere. He brought along a woman who had just lost her mother, and it was really weird to have to drive for eight hours with someone who was freshly grieving, and also thought of me as a threat or was trying to figure out what the dynamic was between us all, because maybe she had designs on him. I'd always wanted to capture the very strange dynamic of that.
"I had originally set it at this farmhouse I used to go to, this little tiny house in New Hampshire," she continues. When she decided to reconfigure the story with a hotel setting, finding just the right place to shoot took her a while. "I went looking for the right hotel for years, going and visiting so many, knocking on doors; it was insane. In fact, now I still feel like I'm doing something wrong if I pass a hotel and don't go scout it [laughs]! So it's kind of nice to have that behind me. But anyway, I would leave notes on closed-down hotels, because I realized there was no way I'd be able to afford shooting in an active hotel. The only way we could take over one for filming would be finding one that was closed down, or was off-season, and there aren't a lot of those. But during COVID, there were more, and this one had closed down for the pandemic."
So in a sense, shooting during that troubled period actually served to her advantage. "In a way," Thorndike says, "though we almost lost the location because people had reserved it as a backup to house students who got moved during quarantine. But I just taped a note to the door of this hotel, and a few months later, someone called me, and I went over there, and I was like, oh, this is the place! It was this jewel box of potential. It just called to me, and I knew the movie had to take place there. It's kind of pink and vagina-y; it's a feminine hotel, and you don't find many hotels like that. I knew I didn't want the classic old, creepy, cobwebby building, but I also didn't want the Residence Inn or franchise kind of feel, so there really wasn't a lot left outside of that."
With its long hallways and many empty rooms, the location provides the perfect setting for the foursome to get lost in as drama plays out between them and supernatural presences come out to play. The actors bring an effective mix of contrasting personalities to the table, and Thorndike sings their praises: "The cast are all powerhouses and brought a huge amount of vibrance and pain and all these qualities to the story that I hadn't written, but immediately became theirs. I had a very clear idea of the dynamics between the characters, and then they brought wildly different and rich layers to that. Casting is really everything, especially when you have these amazing, fierce actors like I had."
Thorndike eschews the visual gloom that marks so many fright features as things become more intense and frightening for the group. As she noted above, she wanted to give Bad Things a different feel from the traditional modern Gothic and set the majority of the film during the day. "I guess I'm just not interested in doing it in the dark," she says. "I think there's something really dreadful about horrors happening in the day, where there's no place to hide. I used to have some depression when I was a kid; I call it my bad thoughts, and they would often come on really fast during the day. I remember just staring out the window and seeing sun on the sidewalk, and I'd get this sense of dread. For me, that's just where horror is the most disturbing, and also beautiful. And I like the idea of beauty and disturbing going together.
"I also think this is what happens when you let women or marginalized groups who usually don't get to tell stories into the mix," she notes. "You start to get different approaches like this into the narrative. Like, why does horror always look so dark and baroque? There's a highly stylized quality to a lot of the genre. So it's also the visuals that change when you let other people tell their stories."
Look for more from Thorndike on Bad Things at this site closer to its release.