I love old horror anthology films. Dead of Night, from 1945; the Amicus anthologies from the late 1960s and ’70s; Creepshow; Tales from the Darkside. So I’d been meaning to watch Tales from the Hood (1995) for a while.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. At best, I thought, it would be the same fun but cheesy, EC Comics-like fare as all the other movies above (except Dead of Night), only with more black actors. Not that cheesy is bad, mind you. I like cheesy horror. But at worst, and what I actually feared, the movie would be an In Living Color style parody of a classic horror anthology.
Thankfully, it was the real thing.
Three young gangstas go to a funeral home late at night, to retrieve a packet of drugs (or “the shit,” as everyone keeps calling it) from the undertaker, Mr. Simms, who supposedly found the drugs in an alley. Mr. Simms (a brilliant Clarence Williams III, from the 1960s TV show The Mod Squad) is a weird, sinister old guy who takes the young men on a tour of the funeral home while fetching “the shit.” Creepiness ensues.
I could watch Clarence Williams III say “the shit” all day….
The supernatural aspects of the stories are the old classics: karmic retribution, sympathetic magic, revenants, creepy dolls. Very EC, very Amicus. Shivery, but also a bit silly. The actual scary parts of each episode are the situations that lead up to the supernatural: the human things, as the director puts it.
…the scariest things that happen to you are the human things that happen to you. We wanted to use the supernatural as a redemptive element as opposed to the thing that you’re running away from. It’s the thing you’re cheering for.
— Director Rusty Cundieff, Indiewire Interview, 7/2018
Rather than the EC standbys of cheating spouses, bullying bosses, or rich people with greedy relatives, we get situations that speak to the film’s target audience: police brutality, domestic violence, gang warfare, racism and white supremacist movements. It’s sad, and yes, scary, how not dated this 23 year old film feels, in that respect.
The stories display great affection for the horror anthology form; the actors are great, and so is the music. The effects — practical effects! — are cool and fun. The framing story is nicely tied into the rest of the film, something that isn’t always true in this genre. While the structure follows the Amicus pattern quite closely, I noticed a subtle difference. In Amicus films, the stories are about the people whom “the host” encounters: the people trapped in the crypt or the train in Tales from the Crypt or Dr. Terror’s House of Horror; the customers of the spooky antique shop in (the very badly named) From Beyond the Grave. Here, the stories focus on the people in the various caskets lying around the funeral home, rather than on the three gangsters who visit Mr. Simms. A small difference, but it did make the obvious-in-retrospect ending feel slightly like a twist.
If you are a fan of the old horror anthologies from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, then I recommend Tales from the Hood. It’s a fun and worthy member of the genre. If you prefer more modern, harder core horror, then you should give this a pass — along with all the other movies that I mentioned at the beginning of the post.
I hear that Tales from the Hood 2 is (finally) coming out soon, with Keith David (The Thing) as Mr. Simms. My expectations aren’t high — tastes and styles in horror have changed since 1995, and the original Tales from the Hood was probably old-fashioned even then. I’m not sure how the filmmakers will manage the balance. But I definitely plan to see it.
For my takes on the individual stories themselves, read on…..
In the first story, Rogue Cop Revelation, Clarence, a young black rookie cop, sees his partner and two other cops pull a black man over on false pretenses (we see the cops break the man’s tail lights after pulling him over), then savagely beat him nearly to death. Turns out the black man is a crusading city councilman trying to clean up drug related corruption — and the cops are dirty. When Clarence protests, two of the policemen pretend to take the victim to the hospital, but instead shoot him full of drugs, put more in his car, and push him and it into the river. In the meantime, Clarence’s partner threatens him to “not break the code.” Clarence says nothing, but quits the force in disgust, becoming a drunk. He is tormented by visions of the murdered man, who demands vengeance.
I read an interview with Rusty Cundieff, the director and co-screenwriter, where he said that this story particularly upset white audience members. They felt the police brutality was too over the top, too exaggerated. Ironically, one of the few things that I did find dated about this film was how restrained the human elements of this episode felt. Primed as I am by recent headlines, I kept expecting the cops to just shoot the councilman (and later, the drunk Clarence) and then claim “resisting arrest.” Even the fact that the cops were drug dealers and the councilman a crusader seemed conciliatory. The story was about these cops, and this victim, not about larger institutional issues.
The second story, Boys Do Get Bruised, was my favorite. A young teacher (played by the director) discovers that the new boy in his class, Walter, is covered in suspicious bruises. Walter claims that “a monster” visits him in his room every night. He even draws a picture of it: green, with claws and horns. Naturally, the teacher investigates. The reveal is what you expect, and the ending… cathartic. See the spoilers section below for more (or don’t, if you want to see the movie first).
David Alan Grier, known at the time as a member of the comedy sketch show In Living Color, appears in a decidedly non-comedic role. He does scary well.
In the third story, KKK Comeuppance, Corbin Bernsen (LA Law, Psych) plays Duke Metger, an ex-Klansman now running for Governor of a southern state. The episode opens with an offensive anti-affirmative action ad that the writers (Cundieff and Darin Scott) say is based on an actual political ad running at the time. Metger lives in an antebellum mansion whose owner massacred all his former slaves in a rage when the South lost the Civil War. Legend says an old voodoo woman gathered the souls of the murdered slaves and put them in little dolls that are concealed somewhere in the house. Of course, Metger doesn’t believe the legend.
It’s customary for these anthologies to have one comedic episode. The Amicus films all did; so did Creepshow. Tales from the Hood doesn’t really, but this would be the closest. Bernsen’s southern racist is so stereotypical and over the top that it is almost funny. Wings Hauser’s good-old-boy cop in Rogue Cop Revelation was much darker and more frightening. Roger Guenveur Smith has a brief but enjoyable role as an oily African-American “groomer” whom Metger has hired to make his image more palatable for the campaign.
The dolls are creeeepy and the stop-motion animation and puppetry nicely done.
See the spoilers section for more comments.
The last episode, Hard Core Convert, is my second favorite. Crazy K is a vicious thug who guns down another gangster on the street, and is gunned down by that man’s friends in turn. Before they can finish him off, the police arrive and kill Crazy K’s attackers. K is imprisoned for life, when a mysterious Dr. Cushing (that’s gotta be a shout out, right?) offers him a shot at rehabilitation.
Shades of Clockwork Orange: “rehabilitation” involves being strapped down nearly naked on a rotating torture table (the Gyropsychomodulator!!) in a mad scientist’s basement lab, by an assistant in a sexy nurse costume straight out of some 1980s MTV video. After K is strapped down, Dr Cushing forces him to watch some truly horrific — and real — imagery of black lynchings and murders by whites, along with visions of black gang-on-gang shootings and violence. At some point in this montage, an old photo of hooded Klansmen flashes onscreen, followed immediately by three black gang members pulling white ski masks over their heads, guns in hand. It’s not subtle, but it’s effective.
Rosalind Cash (Charlton Heston’s girlfriend in The Omega Man; John Emdall in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) is, as always, a pleasure to watch as Dr. Cushing. Rick Dean is electrifying as a psychotic, tattooed white supremacist who dreams of exterminating all black people — and points out with smug certainty that all the people K has killed were black. “You’re cool with me, n—-r. I like you. I like you a lot.”
In a clear case of “I read too much for my own good,” I interpreted this episode as a variation of a well known weird tale, thus missing the more obvious (and probably correct) interpretation. See the spoilers section for more details.
– In Boys do Get Bruised, there’s a scene where David Alan Grier whips off his belt and beats Walter’s mom. In the original cut, this scene was so long and so brutal that the movie almost got an X rating. The filmmakers had to cut the scene shorter, and it’s still hard to watch.
– According to the 2017 feature that comes with the Shout Factory Blu-Ray, KKK Comeuppance was supposed to end with Metger’s staff discovering Metger’s body hanging from the ceiling, with the American flag as a noose. The studio requested an altered ending, which the filmmakers did willingly after the studio gave them more funding for the effects. Cannibal zombie dolls look cool, but I wish they’d kept the original ending. It feels like a more poetic punishment, and it ties in thematically with the lynching imagery in Hard Core Convert.
– The story that I connected to Hard Core Convert is “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce. A condemned prisoner, about to be hung, hallucinates a lengthy escape sequence in the moments when he is dropping to his death. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a similar story, “The Secret Miracle.” Anyway, I saw the whole episode as Crazy K’s dying hallucination.
But an alternate interpretation, put forth by an IMDB reviewer, is that Dr. Cushing is God, or an angel, trying to convince Crazy K to repent and reform. When he refuses, She drops him back into his body at the moment of the shooting (and changes history) so that he dies. Or I guess you can combine the two — it is Crazy K’s dying hallucination, but God enters into it, trying to inspire K to repent. But he doesn’t, which is why Mr. Simms has him now. That has some similarity to God’s implied intervention in “The Secret Miracle,” come to think of it. I’m just embarrassed that I missed the idea that Dr. Cushing is a divine being. Apparently God don’t like gangstas.