In the wake of Get Out’s success, Black horror has become enough of a mainstream commodity that Lionsgate let Chris Rock help reboot the Saw series. But so far, most of the films greenlit in this era settle for re-skinning old scares with reliably blunt white supremacist boogeymen. Dear White People director Justin Simien’s sophomore effort Bad Hair surpasses those efforts by imbuing his throwback horror flick with a sincere exploration of issues from within the Black community.

On its surface, Bad Hair stretches out a ridiculous premise with the profound good will the filmmakers’ attention to period detail purchases from the savvy viewer. Simien and his collaborators have captured a pitch perfect pastiche of ‘89 adjacent cultural signifiers. The richness of that detail provides a bedrock foundation for both genuine ‘80s horror-influenced scares with a meaningfully satirical edge.

The film stars Elle Lorraine, an absolute find, as Anna Bludso, an executive assistant at MTV-variant Culture, a channel dedicated to Black music. Anna finds her darker skin and natural hair to be barriers to the transition she wants to make from administrative work to being an on-air talent. When her boss is replaced by former supermodel Zora (Vanessa Williams as an evil version of herself), Elle is given more of a chance to shape the brand, but only once she gives into significant peer pressure to get sew-in hair extensions to better fit in. This sacrifice, of course, comes with pretty intense consequences, both materially and spiritually.

The ensuing “haunted hair weave” storyline would be little more than embarrassing parody fodder in a lesser filmmaker’s hands, but Simien balances the absurdity well with some truly dynamic direction, blending J-horror influences in the effects work for the evil coiffure alongside a bevy of other homages, most notably a thrilling Sam Raimi-esque sequence set in a salon. It’s not an easy feat to get an audience to stop laughing at killer hair long enough to be spooked by it, but Simien pulls it off.

But it’s the conversation to be had about the role hair plays for Black women in the workplace and all of the unhealthy Eurocentric beauty standards that plague the community just as much in 2020 as they did in 1989. Through Anna’s relationships with her family, her colleagues and her lone romantic suitor (Jay Pharoah as a VJ), the film takes time to place the viewer in her headspace, showing the claustrophobic perspective of the expectations set for her by society and what she is willing to tolerate to achieve her dreams.

It’s a thorny but worthwhile conversation to have, but at its slightly bloated runtime, it feels like the fun stuff, like the music video recreations and spot-on costume design, detract from the deeper thematic work at play beneath the horror. That said, Bad Hair hits so many notes right, that its few flubbed features barely detract from one of the only strong horror flicks to hit this barren Halloween season.

Summary
Simien's throwback horror flick provides a sincere exploration of issues from within the Black community.
70 %
Inventive nostalgia
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