FrightFest 2022: Bitch Ass

For their gang initiation, 4 teenagers (Teon Kelley, Belle Guillory, A-F-R-O and Kelsey Caesar) are sent to rob a house only to find it inhabited by Bitch Ass (Tunde Laleye), a masked board game fanatic a few pieces short of a Jigsaw.

A retro homage to black horror, Bitch Ass opens with an old-school introduction by genre icon Tony Todd channelling Vincent Price (moustache and all), namechecking its progressive predecessors: Bones (starring Snoop Dogg), Blacula, The People Under the Stairs (usually neglected in Get Out-related discourse), Tales From the Hood, and (of course) Candyman. Unlike all those, Bill Posley’s debut feature has an all-black cast – but this being a slasher movie, their celebrations are short-lived.

Before you can say Candy Land five times in the mirror, our young initiates are embroiled in a string of deadly board games (minus the board), including the most painful take on Battleship since the movie Battleship. Combining elements of Saw, Don’t Breathe and Ready or Not, it goes all in on low-budget camp – not the intense kind but that could be the intent; a conscious decision to avoid torture porn-style sadism, saving the true brutality for flashbacks explaining the Bitch Ass backstory.

Where over-explanation normally ruins a horror antagonist, here it serves the plot to make the pre-masked Cecil (Jarvis Denman Jr.) a sympathetic figure; it becomes a story without a villain, purely victims of circumstance. The film depicts a struggle between violence and intellect, with both Cecil and the gang’s newest recruit Q having college dreams beaten out of them. Bitch Ass is also bad ass for reclaiming the emasculating nickname, given to Cecil by a bully (Sheaun McKinney) who himself feels emasculated by a woman (Me’lisa Sellers) who stands up to him.

That heart makes up for some of the film’s clunkiness, caused by checkered acting, first-draught writing and scrabbled pacing; the first game is Operation, surely the one you build up to. The biggest frustration (not the board game) is an ultra-wide aspect ratio that has clearly been retrofitted as it cuts off the tops of people’s heads – and not in a fun way. Otherwise its visuals are a surprising selling point, complete with playful split-screen effects, video game graphics and Cluedo-esque room titles.

Brisk, charming and wobblier than an endgame Jenga tower, Bitch Ass scores big points for its guillotine version of Connect Four and for having Tony Todd (all too briefly) chew the scenery like a Hungry Hungry Hippo. That the budget does not stretch as far as life-size Buckaroo is probably a blessing in disguise. Even with Hasbro money to play with, Blumhouse (Ouija, Escape Room, Truth or Dare) has shown that games do not guarantee fun. But Bitch Ass teaches us a valuable lesson on that operating table: get the heart in the right place, and the rest is theatre.

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