Tales from the Hood (1995)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: April 18th 2017
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
I have long considered Tales from the Hood to be one of the best horror offerings of the 90s, but even that might be an understatement (especially for that very wrong crowd who considered the decade to be a godless wasteland for the genre). Upon rewatching it for the umpteenth time recently, it dawned on me that it’s much more major than that, and even speaking about it in such terms almost feels like a dismissal. No, Tales from the Hood is one of cinema’s greatest statements, a confrontational screed detonated right in the heart of a tense racial chapter in American history. Released in the middle of the O.J. Simpson trial and just years after the LA riots following Rodney King’s abuse at the hands of police, Rusty Cundieff’s film was—and still is—a stark portrayal of the issues haunting the African-American community. It’s one of the most vitally important films of the 90s, period—it just happens to be masquerading as a riff on Amicus horror and EC Comics.
As unassuming as that seems, it makes for an inspired pairing: those old horror standards always had a mean streak running through them, and Cundieff’s preoccupation with social justice is a natural conduit that only makes them even more pronounced. Tales from the Hood is a wicked howl against injustice, one that manages to articulate centuries of frustration and rage amidst a disarming funhouse aesthetic. You arrive at Tales from the Hood much like its trio of unsuspecting gangsters: just as they expect a routine drug deal at the local mortuary, audiences might presume this to be a silly Blaxploitation take on Tales from the Crypt. Scatterbrained caretaker Mr. Simms (Clarence Williams III) is the Cryptkeeper by way of Don King, a wild-eyed, cackling huckster spinning insane yarns out of the corpses and trinkets scattered about his abode. The three drug dealers who have arrived at his doorstep are initially bemused, if not a bit exasperated; however, as the night wears on, each is more shaken than they’ll ever let on.
Likewise, audiences immediately realize Cundieff isn’t fucking around with an opening segment that tackles police brutality. It does so head on: within a minute or so, rookie African-American cop Clarence Smith (Anthony Griffith) witnesses his fellow officers brutalizing a local civil rights activist (Tom Wright). Cundieff doesn’t shy away from the violence, as his camera pushes in on the savage beating while Billie Holiday’s haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit” scores the scene. He insists on forcing the audience to confront this inhuman treatment at the hands of those who are meant to protect and serve, these “pillars of the community” who wind up murdering a good man and smearing his name solely because of his skin color. But unlike in real life, this slain leader doesn’t merely become a martyr. Instead, Martin Morehouse reaches out to Clarence and implores him to bring his crooked companions to his final resting place, where he returns from the grave to exact revenge on everyone—including Clarence himself.
There’s that wry sense of comeuppance you associate with the EC tradition, and the gnarly, goopy gore certainly invites the audience to delight in it; however, there’s also a righteous anger underpinning this segment that acts as an overture for Cundieff’s provocations. He literalizes Morehouse as a steely-eyed martyr with an image of him nailed to the cross, a vengeful Christ figure looking to rain down Old Testament hellfire and brimstone. He pointedly seeks not to just claim the lives of the men who killed him, but also the black brother who stood by and did nothing to stop it, thus starting a thread about black-on-black violence that’s woven throughout Tales from the Hood.
It’s picked up quickly by the next segment, which twists the traditional childhood monster-in-the-closet tale into an allegory for domestic abuse. Walter Johnson (Brandon Hammond) is the shy kid in Richard Garvy’s (Cundieff) elementary school class, the one who’s constantly bullied by the other kids and takes it seemingly in stride. Richard is alarmed, however, when he discovers bruises covering the boy’s body. When pressed about it, Walter is quick to blame a monster that visits him every night, a story his mother is equally as quick to shrug off. He’s clumsy, she insists, though the severe nature of these injuries certainly suggests otherwise. It isn’t until Richard finally pays a visit to the house that he uncovers the truth: a monster does terrorize every night in the form of his abusive stepfather (David Alan Grier in a revelatory, savage turn).
Again, all of this builds to gore comeuppance, complete with a delightful body-twisting gag courtesy of Walter’s mysterious abilities. On its face, the climax is the stuff of childhood fantasy—if only all abused kids were able to turn the tables on their tormentors like Walter. But there’s something especially grisly about this ending that only highlights the stark reality of it all. No matter how absurd the supernatural climax is, this is an awfully bleak segment offering little in the way of escapism. For so many children, Grier’s stepfather is all too real: a cowardly brute whose contempt for his lot in life is visited upon a mother and a child who should never know such horrors.
In the film’s signature vignette (wonderfully titled “KKK Comeuppance”), Cundieff redirects his ire towards institutionalized racism. Specifically, he turns his eye towards the Deep South, where southern senator (and ex-Klansman) Duke Metger (Corbin Bernsen) all but drapes himself in the Confederate flag and whistles “Dixie” as he launches his presidential campaign from a former plantation. And not just any plantation: this was once the site of an abhorrent slave massacre, and the legends surrounding it have grown in the decades since. Local lore insists that the souls of those slaves were transferred into voodoo dolls that still rest somewhere on the premises. Metger laughs off the tales before predictably discovering they’re very true.
Cundieff’s affection for previous anthologies is at its most obvious here, as this segment riffs on the Zuni fetish doll segment from Trilogy of Terror to great effect. It’s arguably the lone episode of Tales from the Hood that’s mostly gleeful, perhaps because it’s inherently so: I mean, who doesn’t want to delight in watching a dyed-in-the-Confederate wool racist being terrorized by bloodthirsty dolls? Of course, like the rest of Tales from the Hood, “KKK Comeuppance” proves to be only so flippant—an undercurrent of rage and retribution guides it too, as Cundieff stages some semblance of a reckoning for America’s historical sins. Metger’s attempt to fend off these vestiges of black culture with the American flag is pointedly futile: for once, an atrocity committed in the shadow of that flag is thwarted, a small but poignant victory in this context.
The sense of triumph is short-lived, however, as “KKK Comeuppance” gives way to “Hardcore Convert,” Cundieff’s messy, angry fit of rage about black-on-black violence. Gang member Crazy K (Lamont Bentley) has killed scores of black men as his community’s most notorious hitman, and, just as it looks like his end is drawing near following his latest shootout, he’s ironically “saved” by the police. While in jail, he’s selected to undergo an experimental behavioral rehabilitation program straight out of A Clockwork Orange. During a positively searing montage, we learn that Crazy K’s reign of terror is even more horrifying than previously imagined. His numerous victims—including the innocent children caught in the crossfire—haunt him as his brain is pummeled by images of the KKK hanging and burning black bodies, effectively conflating his sins with theirs.
A turn of events that’s actually more shocking than the film’s climactic reveal, “Hardcore Convert” is a different sort of reckoning, one that reveals just how thoroughly toxic African-American life has become. It’s not just the white supremacists and the crooked cops threatening from without; rather, decades of negligence and marginalization have pushed many to gnaw away from within. Cundieff’s obvious reservations about gang culture and its unrepentant adherents (to the end, both Crazy K and the frame story’s drug dealers remain unremorseful) suggest that toxic masculinity is just as destructive as being an Uncle Tom PR man for the likes of Duke Metger. Many African-Americans can’t even find sanctuary within their own culture, which has been twisted, glorified, and even commodified by the era’s gansta rap ethos.
Not that Cundieff is exclusively laying blame at the feet of this culture, but Tales from the Hood does reveal his trepidation about it. In many ways, it feels like a pointed response to its glamorization, as he takes both a trio of drug dealers and the audience on a ghoulish, candy-colored tour through a mortuary that ultimately reveals that black life is a living hell. It’s all fun and games until you realize your corpse has been earmarked for a casket. There’s a frankness to Tales from the Hood that positions Cundieff as a genuine Blaxploitation provocateur in the mold of Jamaa Fanaka and Melvin Van Peebles. Tales from the Hood—for all its fiendish, funny wickedness—is a reality check for and about black people.
Ironically, Hollywood—namely distributor Savoy Pictures—had no clue what to do with such an unapologetically black film, so they marketed it as a total goof, completely underselling its sincere, relevant social commentary. Such a fate put it on the path towards slowly becoming a cult favorite: even as someone who has fond memories of watching it on cable, I find that it’s somehow even more relevant with every viewing. If timelessness is one of the hallmarks of greatness, then Tales from the Hood has few peers in this or any other genre. How can we scoff at any of it in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore? How can we consider it to be absurd when David Duke recently ran for the Senate? When actual white supremacists occupy the White House and turn a blind eye towards the black-on-black violence that continues to plague communities?
Of course, it’s further ironic that Cundieff would much rather Tales from the Hood not feels so timeless, but it captures an unfortunate reality: for African-Americans, the past is always prologue, present, and future, and prophets like Cundieff go unheard, his throaty howl muted to a stifled scream diminished and diluted across cable airwaves.
During the past five years, Scream Factory has plucked many deserving titles from relative obscurity, and Tales from the Hood continues that winning tradition. It was only about six years ago that I was stoked to discover an affordable copy of the film’s lone, shoddy non-anamorphic DVD at a record store (I was, of course, all too eager to fork over the cash regardless). Now, that disc can be retired thanks to a definitive Blu-ray release that both restores the film’s aesthetic glory and boasts a decent amount of supplements.
For starters, Scream has ported over Cundieff’s commentary from the laserdisc (!) release that was curiously omitted on HBO’s old DVD. They’ve also brought along a vintage 6-minute EPK supplement featuring brief snippets from the cast and crew (including executive producer Spike Lee). The true highlight, however, is “Welcome to Hell,” a newly-produced 55-minute retrospective that’s similar to previous Scream Factory documentaries. This one features a ton of participants, ranging from Cundieff to various actors (Bernsen, Griffith, and Wings Hauser). Even the legendary Chiodo brothers weigh in on their contributions in the form of the killer dolls they designed in “KKK Comeuppance.” In a nice bit of brand synergy for Scream Factory, Cundieff and co-writer Darin Scott mention the influence on previously-released From a Whisper to a Scream on Tales from the Hood (Scott also served as a writer on that underappreciated anthology, which leaves me wishing he did more of these—he especially gets the structure of the format).
In a more just world, this would release would be more of a coronation for Tales from the Hood, which makes a strong case for being the greatest American horror anthology ever made. However, this Blu-ray will hopefully serve as more of a wake-up call: given its relative obscurity during the past decade or so, it’s ripe for rediscovery and the appraisal that’s eluded it for two decades.
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