Bitch Ass

Bitch Ass (2022)

Bitch Ass had its world première at SXSW 2022

Bill Posley’s Bitch Ass opens in Academy ratio, with the title Hood Horror Movie Nights written in a cheap-looking font, and with the show’s host tapping out minor-key notes on a piano surrounded by cobwebs and dusty VHS cassettes. Turning to camera, he says: “I’m sure you’re all familiar with the Hood Horror stories of old: Blacula, Bones, People Under the Stairs, Tales from the Hood and Candyman – but I’m willing to bet that you’ve never heard of this particular story before. This is the tale of the first black serial killer to ever don a mask. His name is Bitch Ass”. At this point the camera cuts away to a VHS cover with the title ‘Bitch Ass’ emblazoned on its front in red. An old TV set comes on, a staticky FBI warning appears, the image lengthens to widescreen format, and Bitch Ass begins.

In other words, Bitch Ass comes bathed in the warm glow of nostalgia. It harks back to an Eighties heyday of video slashers and splatter, and even features key flashback scenes set in 1980, while even the year in which its principal narrative plays out is not our own present, but 1999; and the fictive host of Hood Horror Movie Nights, with its knowingly retro bargain-basement aesthetic, is played by Tony Todd, who is brought back to cameo in films like this for his legacy value as much as his acting talent, and who indeed gives a knowing laugh and eye-twinkle as he name-checks the film that launched his career as a horror icon back in 1992. Of course, what unifies his listed ‘stories of old’ is that they all belong to what has recently been termed ‘horror noire‘ – genre films either made by or prominently featurring black people – and notably, every single character in Bitch Ass, whether victim, killer or bystander, is African-American. The (chronologically) last film on the host’s list is Ernest R. Dickerson’s Bones, released in 2001, and so while Bitch Ass is very much a film made in the post-Get Out era, it looks back to a time (or times) long before that – as indeed did Bones, which itself resurrected a ghostly avenger from 1979 for the new millennium, and also brought back Pam Grier, famed as a Blaxploitation star of the Seventies, for a leading rôle.

A key image in Bitch Ass is that great signifier of Eighties play, the Rubik’s Cube. One such Cube features at the centre of the opening credit sequence, ‘Bitch Ass’ (real-name Cecil, played variously by Tunde Laleye and Jarvis Denman Jr.) is a devotee of the cubic puzzles, and the film’s screen is occasionally split into nine squares in imitation of a Rubik’s grid. This hints at the approach of Posley and his co-writer Jonathan Colomb to their storytelling. For they bring elements from different horror films – especially the Psycho, Saw and Collector series, ‘gangsta’ movies, home invasion flicks and revenge slashers  – and spin them around together to form something that is not exactly original, but certainly a new recombination. There are plenty of films about killers who are variously black, serial or masked – but as the host suggests in his introduction, have we ever seen all three of these combined together in a single on-screen character? 

The other point of the Rubik’s Cube is that Bitch Ass is a ludic film whose different pieces, spread through rooms of a house and across two timelines, must be fitted together to solve the narrative puzzle – not that it is especially complicated – and events are regularly interrupted with animated displays of scores and loser tallies. Spade (Sheaun McKinney, Eric Wright), leader of the 6th Street gang, sends four new recruits to rob the home of a rich old woman (Sherri L. Walker) who has recently died. Among the four is the conflicted Q (Teon Kelley), a young man who shares the dream of his mother Marsia (Me’lisa Sellers, Ashlei Foushee) for him to go to college and get out of the neighbourhood, but who also knows that he will never be able to afford this without resorting to crime. What the four house robbers do not know is that Spade has chosen this particular address because he has a very old grudge against the reclusive man he calls Bitch Ass, grandson of the deceased owner – and what in turn Spade does not know is that Cecil also bears a grudge, not to mention deep scars, from his last encounter with Spade (and Marsia) some 19 years earlier, and has been waiting for this moment of vengeance ever since. The trap is set, and the games are about to begin. 

Once the kids are in the Grandma’s spooky old place – with its ‘Game House’ shed to the side – there is the usual splitting up (always dumb in a horror movie, but less dumb if you are looking for loot and unaware that you are in a horror movie), the usual cat and mouse, the usual twists and kills – and twisted kills – all set to the rules and rhythms of Cecil’s beloved games, which he has tweaked and customised with life-or-death stakes. By the end, all the connections between these characters have been clearly laid out, apart from the question of who Q’s father is, which is raised only to be left hovering in the air. That said, you can probably hazard a guess as to daddy’s identity, and in any case there is an (openly promised) sequel that could unequivocally resolve this.

Cecil, though, is hardly the most engaging of antiheroes. Unlike many of the Reagan-era heavy-breathers that have inspired him, he speaks – but he is nonetheless a rote, robotic villain with very little of interest to say, while his overdetermined back story (bullied in different ways both at home and on the streets) never really takes him beyond mad (in every sense) avenger, with an unhinged adherence to arbitrary rules of his own making. For Bitch Ass to become the sort of beloved horror franchise icon that the filmmakers seem to want him to be – and that Todd’s Candyman certainly is – he will definitely need to up has game. Meanwhile this throwback slasher can be savoured for its morally challenging playing field where victims are also perpetrators, and where nothing is black and white – not least because, in a radical move for horror, everyone is black.

strap: Bill Posley’s all-African-American retro slasher has a murderous masked avenger playing with his home-invading victims

© Anton Bitel