[Deep Focus]
Better days

A kid from the good neighborhood unwittingly explores his family's urban roots in Bones, a violent, colorful horror potboiler that delights in revisiting the sins of the father upon the son. Helmed by Ernest Dickerson, a director whose greatest achievement is still his 10-year stint as Spike Lee's cinematographer, Bones's violence, humor and themes aren't enough to overcome its general shapelessness.

An impressively laid-back Snoop (née Doggy) Dogg plays Jimmy Bones, who was a street hustler operating out of an imposing brownstone-like house in a poor but vibrant black neighborhood somewhere in Los Angeles circa 1979. He balks when another dealer, in cahoots with a crooked cop, proposes they partner to introduce crack to the community. Bones pays with his life, his killers betraying not only Jimmy Bones but also their neighborhood, which will in time be ravaged by addiction and poverty. Some 20 years later, a group of kids purchases the building with designs on turning it into a nightclub. (One of the kids is Katharine Isabelle from Ginger Snaps!) As they undertake a restoration of the space, horror-movie adversities ensue, and Jimmy Bones comes back to life to take his revenge.

Bones actually boasts a pretty solid scenario. It's a creepy urban parable with a fondness for 70s street culture and exploitation movies and a moral underpinning. (It makes sense that the marijuana-friendly Snoop would be the star of a film in which a dope-pusher chooses death rather than condoning the sale of crack to his people.) But under the guidance of director Ernest Dickerson, it never gels, instead meandering among gory set pieces generally borrowed from better films. The best of them are a rain of maggots cribbed from Suspiria and a still-funny talking-heads gag that appeared to more outrageous effect in Re-Animator.

Bones is as explosively bloody as any American horror film in recent memory, and Dickerson strives to introduce erotic undercurrents. The result as an occasionally potent and disturbing charge of sex and violence. But those moments are interspersed with and diluted by tired horror-film tropes: walls of writhing flesh, gateways to hell, and your garden-variety psychic phenomena. The problem might be simply that Dickerson has no knack for horror. Though both Bones and Dickerson's previous genre entry, Demon Knight, benefit from his eye for photography and his affection for visceral imagery, neither of them manages to build convincing-enough atmosphere to sell the striking weirdnesses contained within.

On the heels of his turn as a wheelchair-bound drug dealer in Training Day, Snoop's performance here comes as another pleasant surprise. In the 1970s flashback scenes, he may play the part just a little too cool. You have to wonder what girlfriend Pam Grier finds so irresistible. Returned from the grave, however, he's a sideways-glaring menace who drawls lines like, "I'm on a natural high—a supernatural high" with exactly the right degree of sly conviction. Grier is always a pleasure, but her performance here feels a little uneven, perhaps because she barely has a character to work with. Unfortunately, the film doesn't follow a strong narrative thread—the story of the teenagers does eventually intersect that of Jimmy Bones, but the film doesn't spin either yarn satisfactorily and the title character is actually underused. Still, Bones isn't afraid to spill gallons of blood or sacrifice its characters in search of a smile or a shudder, making it a welcome break from limper fare like Joy Ride. That's a pretty weak endorsement, actually, but horror fans these days take what we can get.

Directed by Ernest Dickerson
Written by Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe
Cinematography by Flavio Martinez Labiano
Starring Khalil Kain, Merwin Mondiser, Sean Amsing, Pam Grier, and Snoop Dogg
USA, 2001

Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Screened at Loews Palisades Center, West Nyack, NY

DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer