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One of the great treats of the horror genre is when a film successfully makes you scared of what in ordinary life is totally innocuous. When presented with the idea of a killer doll, or a homicidal car, or murderous birds, you may initially laugh, but excellent storytellers have turned those concepts into classics like Child’s Play, Christine, and, well, The Birds. There’s an extra hurdle that all of these titles have to surmount getting the audience to take the subject matter seriously, but when the hook is in, the results can be phenomenal.
In the case of Justin Simien’s Bad Hair, there is a particular emphasis on the “can be” in that last sentence. As you can probably surmise from the title, the generally-not-so-terrifying subject at hand in this film is hair – with a specific focus on the rise of pinchbraid extensions in the 1980s – and Simien uses the story to both freak out the audience and make a statement on the implications of the weave as it reflects on black culture. By the end of the second act, you’re invested in the journey of the protagonist, a deeper mythology is installed, and even horror fans with blood lust get satiated. The hook sinks in.
However, the third act can’t quite capitalize. Rather than continuing to go the clever route, Bad Hair instead opts for the wild route, and it serves to undercut the film as a whole. There are still some smart moves made, including a well-executed question-answering reveal at the end, but mostly it lets its best ideas go astray.
Primarily set in 1989, the story centers on Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine) – a young woman living in Los Angeles and struggling to break into the world of music television after years working as an assistant. Her rent is long overdue following a $500 price hike, and making her situation direr is that her boss, Edna (Judith Scott), has decided to leave following a management change that will see her programming undergo massive changes. The good news is that Anna’s new boss, Zora (Vanessa Williams), recognizes her potential, but also isn’t precisely shy about suggesting that Anna’s self-maintained hair styling is holding her back.
Pinchbraid extensions, particularly those done by a stylist named Virgie (Laverne Cox), have become all the rage, and while Anna can’t afford it, she gets the money when her mother (Michelle Hurd) gives her a loan to compensate for her rent increase. Anna has trepidations about her hair being handled following a traumatic childhood incident, and the process winds up being so painful that she passes out, but when she wakes up in the chair she has long, straight, beautiful locks.
Anna’s new hair is an instant hit, as colleagues begin treating her with more respect, and Zora takes her ambitions more seriously. These benefits have significant consequences, however, as not only do the protagonist’s values begin to morph, but she also comes to discover that her hair extensions have an extreme hunger.
The commentary in Bad Hair isn’t subtle, but it’s effective and smart.
The subject of hair in black culture is material that Justin Simien has explored in the past, specifically in Dear White People, as the expanded commentary here is welcomed and well implemented. Running parallel in Bad Hair to Anna abandoning her original style in favor of straight locks is her using her more powerful position to help dilute the black culture influence at the network where she works and suggest that her co-workers follow her lead in order to get ahead. The title has two meanings: societal perception of Anna’s natural hair, and the evil weave that gets sewn into her head.
The movie doesn’t make any attempt to sneak this messaging by the audience, but it doesn’t need to because of how well (if you’ll pardon the pun) it’s woven in.
Bad Hair feels like it loses confidence in its best ideas.
As strong as Bad Hair’s set-up is, it doesn’t stop it from veering off and working against itself. After doing such an excellent job building its themes and setting up the stakes, the movie goes off the rails with a violent scene at a salon (the details of which are too spoilery to share here) and then abruptly stops doing anything to try and take itself seriously. Instead of crafting something clever and interesting, the film instead opts to go a needless and traditional monster movie route that not only doesn’t make much sense, but also regularly kills all of its own tension with moments of unnecessary comedy.
After spending so long feeding the audience a dark story about possessive hair that corrupts its host, the movie seems to give up on its own premise with a philosophy akin to, “If you can’t scare the audience, at least make them laugh.” The tonal change doesn’t work, though, and it just feels messy.
Justin Simien adds a stylistic flair that enhances the material… until it doesn’t.
Similar issues found in the plotting are also present in Justin Simien’s stylistic approach to the story. Through the majority of the film are some excellent aesthetic touches (such as a rotating camera capturing the first meeting between Anna and Zora, building anticipation as you patiently wait for the boss’ emotional responses to the underling’s proposals), and even some horrific images presented (such as the hair getting a bit thirsty during Anna’s time of the month). It’s wholly different material than his freshman feature effort, but the horror genre suits him well. For the most part.
It’s with the tonal change towards the end of Bad Hair that the questionable stylistic choices begin. Deaths of key and important characters are treated comedically cinematically, and wild growths of out-of-control hair trends away from freaky and more towards ridiculous. And in reflection it’s really not clear why.
Overall, the disappointing aspects of the film are made more disappointing by the fact that they clash so harshly with everything that works in the movie – and while that doesn’t totally drain all of its worth, it also leaves it wanting when it comes to reaching its full potential. Justin Simien’s Bad Hair will make for fun watching for those looking for a new release to check out this Halloween, but it also probably won’t become a part of everyone’s annual celebrations of the holiday.