Aspen Shortsfest: Horror at the salon in Mariama Diallo’s ‘Hair Wolf’
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Hair Wolf’ at Aspen Shortsfest
Where: Wheeler Opera House, Aspen; Crystal Theatre, Carbondale
When: Aspen Saturday, April 7, 8 p.m.; Carbondale Sunday, April 8, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $20 ($15 for Aspen Film members)
Tickets: Wheeler box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: www.aspenfilm.org
The horror comedy “Hair Wolf” brilliantly, bitingly plays with anxieties around neighborhood gentrification in Brooklyn and cultural appropriation, through a surreal plot about zombie-like white girls descending on a black hair salon in search of selfies and braids.
The 12-minute short, which plays Aspen Shortsfest on Saturday, was born out of a weekend morning in Brooklyn, when writer-director Mariama Diallo spotted a discarded hair braid on a sidewalk.
“It seemed like a remnant of some sort of tussle,” she recalled. “It told a story, just this singular image. And it was funny to me. It provided an entry point to thinking about hair as a cultural emblem.”
Naturally, a high-concept racial satire told through comedic horror begs comparisons to Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning “Get Out.” Diallo wrote the film last spring, in a post-“Get Out” world, but the young filmmaker is a lifelong horror fan who has long been working toward making horror projects laced with social commentary.
“Horror is the best genre to sneak in a message,” she said, pointing to classics like “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Exorcist,” “Carrie” and David Cronenberg’s body horror as key influences. “What I loved about ‘Get Out’ is that, for the first time in a major way, it was looking at the black experience as something that could be deconstructed through horror. So ‘Get Out’ was huge for me. I loved it. And when I made ‘Hair Wolf’ it wasn’t directly inspired by ‘Get Out,’ but that film was never far from my mind.”
Though “Hair Wolf” is emphatically surreal and packed with jokes, it is still actually terrifying. When the main white Hair Wolf villain, referred to as Beckula, says “Your hair is so beautiful, can I touch it?” it drips with deadly menace. And when she does shove her hand into a hairdresser’s huge double-poofs, it’s portrayed as an evil act of violence.
Diallo nimbly handles the comedy, horror and social commentary in “Hair Wolf.”
It’s a film of its political moment (“All lives matter” is dropped in as a barbed punch line) that has legitimate jump-scares and laughs. Diallo said pulling off the complexities of tone started with the choice not to cast comedians.
“The concept is so absurd that it does a lot of the comedy work on its own,” she explained. “What felt important to me was not to have any kind of winking from beyond the screen. I thought it would be more effective if I really stuck to the horror narrative, that for these characters, they’re really living in a horror film. It’s real for them. And what they’re terrified about is so ridiculous that it helped heighten the tension.”
The distinct look of the film uses richly saturated comic-book color and menacing shadows and, of course, some epic hairstyling to heighten the atmosphere. Diallo said she first conceived the film’s aesthetic based on the pastel palette of old-school hair products with a ’70s vibe, “like the vintage ads I’d see in the braid magazines that they have lying around in a black hair salon.” But as she got down to work with her director of photography, Charlotte Hornsby, it evolved into the more striking bolder neons and a hyper-stylized ominous midnight-in-the-graveyard look.
“Hair Wolf” won the Short Film Jury Award for U.S. Fiction at the Sundance Film Festival this winter, which opened doors in the industry for Diallo. She’s currently developing a non-comedic horror feature.
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