Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Sundance ’20: Bad Hair

It is 1989, when you could still see music videos on television. Musical tastes are changing, but Anna Bludso has a keen sense of trends. She should be a producer or an on-air presenter for her African-American-targeted cable channel, but her follicle issues hold her back. Image is key in the superficial music industry, so she will change hers drastically. The immediate results will be dramatically positive for her career, but deadly for her co-workers in Justin Simien’s Bad Hair, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

As a child, Bludso’s older sister damaged her hair with a toxic treatment. Her scalp still bears the scars and so does her self-image. It has made her meek and submissive in office situations. Despite her talent for trend-watching, she is still an assistant at Culture, the music network about to be rebranded “Cult,” by the new white corporate president and Zora, the glamorous former super-model he has appointed as the new network director. Bludso manages to score some points in an initial meeting, but her scraggly hair just won’t cut it, so she splurges for a killer weave from the “in” stylist.

Suddenly, Bludso looks the part and then some. Her new hair hurts a little but it is worth it—at least until it starts showing an appetite for blood. Many of its victims sort of have it coming, in the EC Comics tradition, but Bludso might be in long-term danger herself.

Killer tresses—they are not just for K-horror anymore. Yet, Simien deserves some credit for taking the time to fully establish his characters and their office politics before getting down to the gory business. The late 1980’s fashion, décor, and overall vibe are also perfectly rendered, but don’t worry genre fans, there is still plenty of disgusting body horror in store for you.

Elle Lorraine hits all the right notes in a star-making lead performance, from office doormat to upstart diva and finally reaching full genre freak-out. Vanessa Williams is also delightfully vampy as Zora. Frankly, it is also a little crazy to see Blair Underwood playing Bludso’s gray-haired father, a professor of folklore, but he makes it work.

Simien nicely balances humor and horror, before spectacularly unleashing the climatic bedlam. Similarly, his sly depiction of the late-1980s music scene manages to be satirical, but in a way that also inspires nostalgia (the transparent Janet Jackson analog is a good example). Recommended with surprising enthusiasm for fans of body (or make the hair) horror and the 80’s pop culture it sends-up, Bad Hair screens again this Friday (1/31) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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