A sly mix of haunted house melodrama, slasher pic mayhem and retro-blaxploitation iconography, spiced with dollops of grisly, dark comedy, “Bones” should grab a few fistfuls of dead presidents while tricking and treating ticket buyers during the Halloween season. With vet rapper and sometime actor Snoop Dogg providing marquee allure, New Line release could score sufficient crossover success to launch a new horror franchise, a la “Nightmare on Elm Street.” But even if its appeal doesn’t extend beyond what’s euphemistically known as the “urban audience,” film could click in theatrical crypts before a long and profitable haunting of vidstore shelves.
Speaking of vid: Plot concocted by scripters Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe bears more than a passing resemblance to “Urban Menace” (1999), an ultra-low-budget direct-to-video thriller directed by the frightfully prolific Albert Pyun. That pic features Dogg as the vengeful ghost of a murdered preacher who returns to the hood to snuff out old enemies, new gangstas and not-so-innocent bystanders. Similarly, “Bones” has Dogg cast as a vengeful ghost of a murdered numbers racket boss who returns to the hood with pretty much the same agenda. In both pics, Dogg contributes more presence than performance — yet that’s more than enough.
Lenser-turned-helmer Ernest Dickerson (“Juice”) does a nifty job of evoking the look and style of ’70s blaxploitation fare in scattered flashbacks that establish Jimmy Bones (Dogg) as a sharp-dressed, smooth-moving prince of the inner city, a benign protector and provider for the community.
Trouble starts when corrupt cop Lupovich (Michael T. Weiss) tries to embroil Bones in a scheme to market crack cocaine, something Bones refuses to allow on his turf. So Lupovich opens fire, then forces three of Bones’ intimates — Jeremiah (Clifton Powell), Shotgun (Ronald Selmour) and Eddie Mack (Rocky Harris) — to deliver the coup de grace with Bones’ own knife. Peal (Pam Grier), Bones’ girlfriend, is a helpless witness to the bloody quietus.
Bulk of “Bones” is set more than two decades later, in and around a decrepit, long-shuttered hotel where Bones met his untimely end. Jeremiah has prospered as a respectable businessman who lives far away in a comfortable suburban home. Without his knowledge, however, his two adult sons, Patrick (Khalil Kain) and Bill (Merwin Mondesir), are seeking business opportunities in the old neighborhood. Specifically, the siblings — who know nothing of their father’s long-ago criminal activities — want to reopen the hotel as a trendy dance club, with a little help from Tia (Katharine Isabelle), their half-sister, and Maurice (Sean Amsing), their comic-relief best buddy.
Unsurprisingly, the would-be entrepreneurs are not exactly greeted with open arms by folks who knew Bones back in the day. Shotgun lives across the street from the boarded-up hotel, heavily armed and eternally watchful for evidence of Bones’ return. (Shotgun knows that the urban legends are true: Every so often, some damn fool enters the haunted hotel and never checks out.) Psychic Pearl, now a fortuneteller, stays far away from the scene of the crime, and insists that her daughter, Cynthia (Bianca Lawson), do the same.
Complications arise as Cynthia falls for Patrick, Pearl is troubled with nightmarish visions, Tia adopts a mangy black dog she finds in the hotel — alas, she doesn’t notice the critter’s fiery red eyes — and something starts to stir in the basement where Bones was buried decades ago.
Dickerson deserves credit for generating enough suspense throughout “Bones,” and for springing shocks with sufficient frequency, to distract from plot holes and logical lapses. In this, he receives invaluable aid from lenser Flavio Labiano, production designer Douglas Higgins and visual effects supervisor Ariel Shaw, who rise to the challenge of making the haunted hotel appear increasingly hellish as the story progresses. Of particular note are scenes in which entire walls morph into jet-black bas-reliefs of damned souls in netherworldly torment, looking like something Hieronymus Bosch might have sculpted out of chocolate pudding.
Another highlight: Bones speaks to the severed heads of old enemies, and the heads — not at all happy to be reunited with their former colleague — respond in kind.
Perfs are fine across the board. Pam Grier should please longtime fans with her deft balance of sensuality and seriousness. Among the younger co-stars, Kain and Lawson register strongest impressions, even during pic’s annoyingly obvious sequel-friendly coda.