Sunday, July 2, 2017

Bones (2001)

A group of friends and relations more or less led by one Patrick (Khalil Kain) – and counting a character played by Katherine Isabelle among their numbers - has bought up a rather frightening looking old house deep in the worst part of their city to turn it into a club that is supposed to get their DJ careers rolling. From Patrick’s side, there also seems to be a tiny hope that this operation just might revive the neighbourhood a little.

Well, a revival is going to take place, but it’s not the neighbourhood that’s rising from the grave. In the 70s, the building where the kids are planning to start their club in was the home of Jimmy Bones (Snoop Dogg) the sort of socially responsible black gangster the neighbourhood is clearly missing now. As we will learn in a series of flashbacks, Jimmy Bones was killed right in the building too when he didn’t go along with plans to supply his turf with hard drugs. Yes, Snoop Dogg’s against drugs in this one. To make matters worse, the kids are the children of one of the people responsible for Bones’s death.

There are various attempts by locals – among them Jimmy Bones’s former girlfriend turned professional clairvoyant Pearl (the great Pam Grier) – to warn the kids off, but it is of course only a question of time and deaths until Jimmy Bones returns to take his vengeance. At least Patrick has time to romance Pearl’s daughter Cynthia (Bianca Lawson) in the meantime.

This is the somewhat infamous attempt by New Line Cinema and Snoop Dogg to turn the rapper into a new Freddy Krueger – one assumes with one eye on the underserved market of black horror viewers and the other on fans of Snoop. The film has a pretty horrible reputation among a lot of horror fans, and I certainly didn’t remember it with fondness going in. However, this is by far not as bad a film as I thought it was. As a matter of fact, the first hour of it or so is definitely one of the better examples of late 90s/early 00s effects-based horror. It is certainly better than most Nightmare on Elm Street films, as dubious as that particular compliment is once you’ve started in on film number four and what follows there.

The film’s not so secret main weapon is director Ernest Dickerson, a man who really deserves better than Hollywood does him. In the film’s earlier stages, he manages to achieve something this kind of horror film very seldom even shows interest in: turn the disposable meat characters it laughingly calls its protagonists likeable enough you don’t exactly want to see them die. Sure, these guys and girls are not portrayed with much psychological depth, but they are more than just walking, talking slasher tropes – and not just because your generic slasher hardly ever contains more than one black character. Which makes them much more interesting to watch than usual in this sort of film, but also becomes a bit of a problem once Bones is actually revived, because then they turn into disposable victims of the usual quipping supernatural slasher of this era, something the film can’t milk for emotional resonance as it is meant as a franchise starter for its killer more than as an actual story.

For the first hour or so, Bones actually tries to be a more interesting horror film than it turns out to be, using elements of urban myth that feel like actual folklore (the black dog that needs to eat to feed Bones’s revival is a particularly fine choice), featuring some visually very imaginative scenes that build up the supernatural threat and tell the backstory. The flashbacks are well realized too, Dickerson using audience knowledge of blaxploitation films and how they looked and feel to position them not in the real 70s but an idealized version that contrasts the grim now. On paper, they’ll also give Jimmy Bones an excellent motivation to take vengeance on the people who caused this destruction but once he’s starting to let maggots rain on people who have fuck all to do with any of this, motivation is going right out of the window.

That hints at the true problem of the film’s final thirty minutes or so. While they do contain a handful of decent kills and a visually very nice stint in the spirit world, they also see Jimmy Bones the spirit of vengeance turn into Jimmy Bones the franchiseable killer of whomever, complete with the random un-thematic supernatural powers that didn’t work for the later Nightmare on Elm Street films either. The finale just seems random, containing scenes that could have come from every other horror film of its style and time; a particular shame in a film that up to that point really did make the most out of specificity. That part of the film also suffers from Snoop’s limited range, to be frank. While he’s certainly effective as the soft-spoken and kind-hearted gangster of the flashbacks, he never convinces as an evil (or even just angry) supernatural force. He’s just to damn chill for an exciting villain.

All that is a bit of a shame, too, for the film’s first hour would have deserved a much more interesting finale as well as a much more interesting supernatural killer.

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