When your directorial résumé includes both "Juice" and "Tales From the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight," an artistic middle ground is a difficult territory to envision. Yet it's that shadow land between race awareness and popcorn horror that Ernest Dickerson visits in "Bones," and the good fun he finds there makes his eventual retreat to the safety zone of cheap shock-o-rama all the more disappointing.
A ghetto superstar back in the day, philanthropic playa Jimmy Bones (Snoop Dogg, whose line delivery is as laid-back and monotonous as his raps) has been dead since 1979. But what movie monster worth his salt would allow such a minor detail to quell his thirst for revenge? When well-meaning kids invade his dilapidated home to convert it for use as a happening new nightclub, Bones' restless spirit is set free to terrorize the sellouts, cracker cops and Uncle Toms who put him away.
Entwined in this conventional spook-house scenario is a wicked rebuke of urban flight: Good-guy hustler Bones never wanted to leave the 'hood, and suffered at the hands of brothers who had their eyes on a more suburban prize. Wrapping this sociology in the shroud of a creature-feature avenger is a clever method of imparting street knowledge, and Dickerson (cinematographer on seven Spike Lee projects) has the visual goods to sell the argument. He also has ace blaxploitation veteran Pam Grier, who lends her usual grace to the hackneyed role of a fortune-telling priestess whose doom-saying dialogue is among the film's worst.
But for whatever reason, cleverness of any kind is dispensed with about halfway through "Bones," and the film descends into standard-issue schlock 'n gore that has no rationale beyond easily induced nausea. Maybe middle America isn't completely ready for a graveyard-bred payback fantasy, or maybe Dickerson was too lazy to follow through on the implications of his sinister little fable. Either way, Jimmy Bones ends up just another slasher-movie sucka, no more controversial than Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers. He deserved better.