The horror genre has seen a few race-bent takes on the classic monster movie canon, and “The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster” is the latest addition to this genre. Newcomer Bomani J. Story found inspiration from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” the novel, rather than the iconic 1931 feature film. While it serves its purpose as a monster flick made relevant for our times, it’s far more fascinating as a rumination on death and the nature of grief.
The film is set in the modern day, and offers an altogether new take on mad scientist Victor Frankenstein. The film stars Laya DeLeon Hayes (you may remember her from CBS’ “The Equalizer” series) as teenage Vicaria, a brilliant young mind warped and driven by deep loss. When Vicaria was a child her mother, a promising medical student, died in her arms after a drive-by shooting. The absence of that maternal presence led her older brother Chris into a gang, where he, too, fell victim to gun violence. Her father works two jobs and uses drugs to cope with his grief. Vicaria sees death as a significant disease worth curing and sets out to reanimate Chris’ decomposing corpse.
But rather than a traditional Frankenstein pastiche where her “monster” has sentience and feuds with his creator, her big brother comes back wrong — he is a confused and vengeful husk that knows only rage and violence. Actor Edem Atsu-Swanzy plays both Chris and Creature, with his imposing stature and a mop of bleached locs obscuring his decimated face. The monster proves impossible to contain, and the siege he lays on the police and his former criminal cohorts creates new trouble for Vicaria, who has plenty of problems already. She’s struggling in school with her white teacher who insists she has ‘attitude issues’ and she’s in hot water with Kango (Denzel Whitaker), the local kingpin she blames for her brother’s death and her father’s addiction. Once the Creature incapacitates one of Kango’s key men, Vicaria must put her science skills towards cooking coke, keeping the very drugs she wants out of her neighborhood flowing freely.
Story spends a lot of the runtime exploring overt social commentary, but it has the relative complexity of an afterschool special. It’s a lot of “drugs bad,” “crime bad,” and very little introspection about the larger picture leading to the neighborhood’s immediate problems. That could be forgiven if it was purposeful myopia designed to mirror this young girl’s limited perspective. But it doesn’t feel that way at all. The film doesn’t seem equipped to present a more prismatic look at the forces plaguing this community.
Really, “Angry Black Girl” comes alive when it focues on Vicaria’s personal experience as a gifted young woman lacking any natural support system to foster her brilliance. Sure, her would-be sister-in-law Aisha (Reilly Brooke Stith), pregnant with Chris’ child, has her back, and so does her father, in the scant free time he has between working and getting high. But the school system doesn’t. There’s no healthy outlet for her to explore her gifts, and they fester and so she ruminates and obsesses over this one dangerous project, defying God and good sense.
The scenes where she is experimenting, before she successfully revives Chris, are particularly haunting. The childlike glee in Hayes’ face as she gets her hands filthy with the blood and guts of her dead brother seems included just to satisfy the horror fans’ lust for gore.”But seeing the mad scientist trope enacted through the confines of a grieving teenager’s mind also underscores something morbid and terrifying.
The sequences showing off the Creature’s devastating predilection towards carnage can be a lot to take in. Story often frames the violent imagery to mirror visions of real-life police brutality. But this film’s true power rests in Vicaria’s heartbreaking little arc. There’s a moment when Jerome (Ellis Hobbs IV), a kid in her neighborhood, has a black eye. When Vicaria asks him how he got it, all he can offer her as an answer is that it doesn’t matter who did it. Only that he plans to make their heart stop. The next time we see him, that revenge plot has failed, and seeing paramedics try to revive him using a defibrillator provides the necessary spark for Vicaria’s own machinations.
The way Story captures this moment of inspiration perfectly captures his vision of a world where the youth know only violence. That omnipresent sense of danger can only lead to supernatural, science-fiction solutions, because no one in Vicaria’s orbit has ever presented better options.
Story shows a lot of promise as a filmmaker, even if “Angry Black Girl” lacks in some of the typical areas for films on this end of the budget spectrum (limited acting prowess from the supporting cast, an overreliance on style to mask production quality). But for now, it remains a fascinating debut in an underrepresented genre.
“The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster” is available to rent and buy on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Apple TV, Vudu, and other digital on-demand platforms.