Never has a Bad Hair Day had such dire consequences.
Six years after writer-director Justin Simien stirred things up with the timely and insightful social satire “Dear White People” (which led to a Netflix series), he’s stretching the envelope again. His 1980s-set horror comedy “Bad Hair” combines thought-provoking commentary about how Black women have felt pressured through the decades to “do something” about their natural hair with a wild B-movie fright fest with shades of “The Ring” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” And oh yes, we get some pitch-perfect takeoffs on old-school music videos; you DO remember music videos, yes?
When someone gets a killer weave in “Bad Hair,” it’s a KILLER WEAVE. The year is 1989, and the smart and kind but unassertive Anna (newcomer Elle Lorraine, making an impressive splash) is working as a production assistant at Culture, an MTV-esque channel aimed at Black audiences. With ratings stalling and Culture in danger of losing its cred, the smarmy head of the network, one Grant Madison (James Van Deer Beek, looking like he wandered off the set of “American Psycho”), brings in the famed former supermodel and media personality Zora (Vanessa Williams, having a blast playing the Wicked Witch of the 1980s West) to shake things up. The brutally blunt Zora sees potential in Anna but would like her — as well as some of the more prominent on-air personalities at the network — to adopt a more sophisticated and glamorous look, starting at the top with a weave.
Laverne Cox has a scene-stealing cameo as Virgie, who runs a mysterious salon and gives Anna a long, luxurious weave, which causes Anna tremendous pain but also gives her the confidence to step up her game and take charge at work, and in the on-and-off relationship she has with a cocky, womanizing VJ (Jay Pharoah). But here’s the thing: Anna’s hair has a mind, a very evil and violent mind, of its own. From time to time, it actually seems to hunger for human blood, and it grows and grows and grows and GROWS, with tendrils that can penetrate human flesh or suffocate a victim or become a noose around the neck.
And let’s just say Anna isn’t the only Black woman in Los Angeles with lethal hair.
Writer-director Simien knows how to execute classic horror-movie scare moments, and there are a lot of them in “Bad Hair.” The special effects are of the drive-in movie variety, but there’s something blood-curdling about the sounds the possessed hair makes when it’s out for the kill, resulting in some fantastically disgusting gross-out moments. (The Bernard Herrmann/Hitchock movie type score by Kris Bowers is effectively creepy as well.) “Bad Hair” also works as a spot-on take on late 1980s pop music, with Simien writing songs and producing videos-within-the-movie that perfectly mirror works by the likes of Janet Jackson (Kelly Rowland is terrific as a Janet-like pop star) and Bell Biv DeVoe.
As the body count piles up, Anna learns more about the mythology behind what’s happening with her hair, which ties in to slave history and Native American superstition. She also learns it’s not as simple as taking out the weave, because, well, because the spirits of witches are living within the hair, or something like that. You just kinda have to go with it.
“Bad Hair” is filled with sharp and often funny extended cameos by the wonderful cast, including Blair Underwood as Anna’s learned Uncle Amos Bludso, who knows a lot about lore and legends; Usher as a performer known as Germane D; Judith Scott as Anna’s former mentor, who is distressed to see Anna falling under Zora’s spell, and Lena Waithe as Culture on-air personality Brook-Lynne, who knows she’s in the middle of something straight out of a horror movie and delivers some hilarious commentary even as she’s running for her life.
With a running time of 1 hour 55 minutes, “Bad Hair” might have benefited from a quick trim (sorry), and it’s a real mess at times, but you won’t soon shake off its genuinely scary and originally twisted delights.
The Chicago International Film Festival presents a screening of “Bad Hair” at 7 p.m. Friday at the ChiTown Movies drive-in, 2343 S. Throop St. Tickets: chicagofilmfestival.com