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Shudder Secrets: Bad Things: Motherhood, Paranoia, and a Shining Twist

I have to give writer/director Stewart Thorndike credit. She has a knack for taking classic horror films and updating them for a modern audience. Her previous film, 2014’s Lyle, centers on Leah (Gaby Hoffmann), a young woman grieving the loss of her toddler. She soon suspects that her neighbors are part of a Satanic cult. Lyle has all kinds of Rosemary’s Baby vibes because of how it addresses both motherhood and the occult. It’s a woman’s utter nightmare.

Thorndike’s latest, Bad Things, is the second part of her “mother” trilogy. This feature very much feels like a modern take on The Shining with some specific nods to Stephen King’s masterpiece and Kubrick’s adaptation. Ghosts haunt a hotel in a wintery setting, ratcheting up the paranoia, causing a group of friends to turn on each other. However, like Lyle, Bad Things doesn’t simply repeat a story that horror fans know all too well. Unlike The Shining, Bad Things places motherhood front and center, even if the mother isn’t necessarily present.

The Shining with a Modern Twist

Bad Things stars Gayle Rankin as Ruthie. She inherited a hotel after her grandmother died, but due to unpleasant childhood memories, she’s reluctant to keep the property. Her partner, Cal (Hari Nef), believes it to be a positive business move to maintain the property. After all, what else will they do? It’s unclear if they even have jobs. The two are joined by their friends, the rather pleasant and amiable Maddie (Rad Pereira), and troublemaker Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones). Fran threatens to drive a wedge between Cal and Ruthie, and she’s not afraid to make sexual advances on Ruthie, either.

Like The Shining, Thorndike makes the familiar feel menacing and uncanny. She did this with an apartment complex in Lyle, and she does it with a hotel in Bad Things. The long, pink hallways constantly feel threatening. Ghosts may or may not be present, and it’s unclear what’s real and what isn’t, especially past the halfway point.

Fran is the first to see the spooks, initially seated at breakfast tables. The dead get hungry, I guess. Then the rest of the group faces one danger after the other, including a masked person with a chainsaw who may or may not be one of the friends. The film has a lot of ambiguity. There are also a few direct references to The Shining, including a ghost in room 217. In King’s masterpiece, room 217 featured the dead, bloated woman. Kubrick, for whatever reason, changed it to room 237. Still, the reference is obvious. There’s another scene where Thorndike has milk ooze from the walls, similar to the blood in The Shining. Why this was changed to milk is a bit of a misstep and looks a little silly, but it’s another nod and alteration.

The film’s other flaw is that the ghosts aren’t given much substance, which isn’t true of The Shining. They appear around the corner, and then they’re gone. At points, one of the friends mentions various people who died in the hotel, but none of this is given enough weight. That said, much of the focus remains on the living.

The tricks the hotel plays on the friend group resemble Jack Torrance’s descent into madness, and it becomes increasingly unclear what’s fiction and what’s reality. Are there really ghosts? That’s up to the viewer to decide, and the line becomes increasingly murky, especially as Ruthie’s sanity wanes the longer that she stays in the hotel.

Bad Thing Focuses on Motherhood without a Mother Present

Bad Things doesn’t have a mother character per se, but the theme of motherhood is ever-present. Prior to the grandmother’s funeral, Ruthie didn’t see her mom for years. The source of their falling out isn’t quite clear. Still, Ruthie obsesses over her. She frequently revisits old texts from her mom, and though her mom isn’t with the friend group, she feels like a constant presence in the hotel.

Ruthie also watches videos by a real estate/hospitality guru played by Molly Ringwald. The ending hints Ringwald’s mysterious character just may be Ruthie’s mom, but like much of the film, that’s open for interpretation. Maybe she’s just the mom that Ruthie wishes she had. Regardless, there’s a major void in her life and no friend or partner can fill it. The absence of a mom looms over the film, like one of the spooks creeping down the hallways late at night.

Ruthie is a character who unravels as the runtime proceeds. However, the source of her emotional pain stems from the frayed relationship with her mom. This is a movie about motherhood that doesn’t necessarily feature a mom. Still, Ruthie is desperate for a mentor. Maybe that’s why she constantly watches those videos of Ringwald’s character. She wants a strong female figure/mentor in her life, especially if she decides to keep the hotel.

There are moments when Bad Times sparks more questions than answers. Still, there are some true moments of terror here and a strong performance by Rankin. I’d love to see her in future horror films. The ambiguity may frustrate some viewers, but Thorndike at least offers fresh and interesting takes on horror classics, with the theme of motherhood pushed to the center.

Bad Things arrives on Shudder on Aug. 18. Keep updated on the streaming service’s newest content by following my Shudder Secrets column.