THE FILM 4/5
“This is some dead people shit.”
Welcome to the ‘hood of horrors! It’s a place where your worst fears can come to life. A place where it’s hard to tell nightmares from reality. A place where you will discover Tales From The Hood. Stack, Ball and Bulldog arrive at a local funeral parlor to retrieve a lost drug stash held by the mortician Mr. Simms (Clarence Williams III). But Mr. Simms has plans for the boys. He leads them on a tour of his establishment, introducing them to his corpses. Even the dead have tales to tell and Mr. Simms is willing to tell them all. And you better listen – because when you’re in the ‘hood, even everyday life can lead to extraordinary terror.
The granddaddy of all horror anthologies will always be the George A. Romero/Stephen King collaboration Creepshow, released in 1976, and which was a loving homage to the EC Comics line of the 1950s. Borrowing its format from the previous Amicus anthological films, released under the branded titles of those same EC Comics (Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, specifically), Creepshow presented a handful of stories tied together by what’s become known as the “wraparound” story – at first an introduction to the anthological format, which is slowly revealed to be yet another story with a typically unfortunate resolution for its characters. Anthology films are a tough nut to crack, because their nature leaves them vulnerable to an inconsistent experience. The construction of mini stories will have them pitted against each other for best and worst, scariest and ickiest, etc. No one anthology can claim flawlessness. (Not even the aforementioned Creepshow, because the “meteor shit!” story starring not-at-all-an-actor Stephen King is still one of the worst things of all time.) Creepshow 2 would continue the legacy of its predecessor, dialing back on Romero’s purposeful comic book direction and focusing on a more straightforward horror experience.
Years later, and produced by Spike Lee, Tales from The Hood would come down the pike and result in — quite honestly — the best horror anthology since then. Written by X-Files/Millennium writer favorite Darin Scott and director Rusty Cundieff, Tales from the Hood would borrow the same basic construction from the Amicus films of the early ‘70s, minor elements from a host of other anthologies, but infuse a detectably angry tone which examined an array of African-American issues, consisting of urban crime, drug use, and – depressingly relevant even today – racism within police and political culture. Tales from the Hood, unlike many other urban horror films, wasn’t intent on pandering. It didn’t play up to stereotypes or fall back on cliché. Every story contains both a darkness and a hard truth about being a black man, woman, or child in America. This approach can, at times, make it hard to watch. But, having said that, make no mistake: Tales from the Hood also wants to entertain – in the same way the anthological horrors before it endeavored to do.
“Welcome to my Mortuary” sees a trio of teens dropping by a rundown mortuary where its owner, the mysterious and eccentric Simms (with an incredible performance by Clarence Williams III), apparently has come across a load of drugs and is looking to sell. (Every time he refers to it as “the shit,” it’s undeniably hilarious.) Williams III serves as the ipso facto Crypt Keeper, in that as they descend deeper into the bowels of the house where “the shit” is stored, he pulls back the lid of a random coffin to reveal the corpse inside – and the insidious tale of horror that put them there.
“Rogue Cop Revelation” sees a “routine” pullover of a prominent black politician (played by Creepshow 2’s Tom Wright) by racist white cops (among them Wings Hauser) go very wrong. Similar to the very story from Creepshow 2 which starred Wright, his character is again killed and his perpetrators flee, assuming they’ve gotten away from it, but he returns from the dead to set that record straight. And his undead politician manages to be more unnerving than his undead hitchhiker.
“Boys Do Get Bruised”(featuring a role for director Rusty Cundieff) is the only story that doesn’t lend itself specifically to the black experience, instead presenting a young boy named Walter who tells his teacher that “the monster” at his house hurts him at night, which soon reveals itself to be an abusive stepfather (played by comedian David Alan Grier). Where it lacks in one regard, it makes up for with an intense and unflinching look at in-home domestic abuse, with Grier playing an unbelievable and legitimately intimidating bastard. Though the intensity of the story is a little undone by its end, falling back on a sudden and inappropriate silliness, it still results in being the most realistic of the bunch, leaving it difficult to watch.
“KKK Comeuppance” feels the most traditionally EC Comics – a take on the Zuni doll story from another horror anthology, Trilogy of Terror – which sees an openly racist politician (wonderfully played by Corbin Bernsen) being stalked through his newly acquired plantation home by a handful of “pickaninny” dolls allegedly possessed by the spirits of all the slaves who died there. As suggested by its name, this story is the most daring, with the audience seeing a politician be obviously racist in public, producing campaign videos lambasting affirmative action, and nearly using the word “spook” in front of reporters. This story’s moral/warning is the most direct, but if you still need a bit more convincing, then just wait for the (multiple) scenes where Bernsen’s politician beats paintings and dolls reflecting African Americans with an American flag. It ain’t exactly subtle. Much of this story’s power comes from the audience constantly asking, “Should I be enjoying this?” — especially when Bersen is chasing slave dolls around the house while shouting “you little nigglins!” In 1995, seeing a character portrayed as a former KKK member operating from a plantation house and referring to the black protestors on his lawn as a “damned minstrel show” running for political office might have seemed a bit too over the top – as how could anyone in his or her right mind ever vote for such a sleaze? – but then the 2016 election happened, so…let’s move on.
The final story, “Hardcore Convert,” is by far the angriest and carries with it the most significant message of them all. A young black youth nicknamed “Crazy K” is wounded in a street shootout, and after recuperating in prison, agrees to take part in a highly experimental rehabilitation program in exchange for early release. Heavily influenced by the horrors of Jacob’s Ladder, Hellraiser, and A Clockwork Orange, “Hardcore Convert” is little concerned with entertainment value and more focused on nauseating and angering its audience with very real historical images of the massacres committed against black men and women since their earliest days as natives in America, the message being – after all the horrors they have faced – black-on-black crime needs to stop before everyone wipes each other out.
Tales from the Hood concludes with a return to the wraparound story, which unfolds in a not-so-surprising way, but also unfolds with a degree of cartoonish insanity that, as the credits roll, will leave a smile on your face. In spite of the anger, frustration, and depravity you’ve already witnessed and experienced, overall, that was the point of Tales from the Hood in the first place – to entertain. And it certainly does.
THE PICTURE 3.5/5
Tales from the Hood makes its high-def debut in a mostly solid but somewhat conflicting image. There’s a noticeable softness detectable in nearly every frame, especially on background textures, that may or may not be inherent to its source material, but either way it doesn’t offer the kind of crisp image we’ve come to expect from the format. It is, however, yards better than its previous and now out of print DVD release by HBO/Savoy, so there is certainly that to commend. Colors are mostly bright with a minor dimness that becomes noticeable during brighter segments such as “KKK Comeuppance.” The image is very stable, however, with no signs of telecine shudder, not even during the opening credits.
THE SOUND 4/5
The audio presentation fares much better, offering strong dialogue prominence (though the thug talk throughout “Welcome to My Mortuary” can be indecipherable at times). The musical score by composer Christopher Young sounds phenomenal, who has fun traversing different musical styles as the stories call for — from gothic organ to bluesy low-notes to a southern-styled fiddle. Soundtrack selections don’t come into play until the final story, but they marry well with Young’s compositions.
THE SUPPLEMENTS 4/5
“Welcome to Hell,” the sole brand new supplement produced for this release, runs nearly one hour in length and brings back a laudable amount of Tales’ cast and crew to share their memories in the shoot and in what ways they felt they had something more to offer beyond your typical horror film and/or anthology. Bernsen, who appears, confirms why Tales works as well as it did, which was in his reminder that the press agent for his racist character was played by a black actor but who seemed no less racist — signifying that racism against those of a color wasn’t just confined to the opposite color. Sadly, the otherwise impressive featurette fails to discuss composer Christopher Young’s contribution, which was a large part of its effectiveness.
The audio commentary sees co-writer/director Rusty Cundieff riding solo, and seems to have been the one recorded for the film’s laserdisc release but which was not included on the DVD. He gets a little more into how Spike Lee got involved with the film, and talks about his approach and influences. (The packaging incorrectly states that co-writer Darin Scott is present on this track.)
The complete list of special features is as follows:
- NEW Welcome To Hell: The Making Of TALES FROM THE HOOD – Featuring Interviews With Director/Writer Rusty Cundieff, Producer/Writer Darin Scott, Actors Corbin Bernsen, Wings Hauser, Anthony Griffith, Special Effects Supervisor Kenneth Hall, And Doll Effects Supervisors Charles Chiodo And Edward Chiodo (56 minutes)
- Audio Commentary With Director/Writer Rusty Cundieff
- Vintage Featurette
- Original Theatrical Trailer
- Original TV Spots
- Still Gallery
I have no qualms with saying that Tales from the Hood – easily dismissible thanks to the influx of cheap and trashy urban horror films saturating the DTV market – ranks as one of the best horror anthologies ever made. Funny when it wants to be, dark when it’s willing to be so, and depressingly more relevant than ever before, Tales from the Hood packs a punch to an almost punishing degree, as each story reveals not just a horror in the streets or of the unknown, but within the mortals who brought those stories to life and who, mostly, succumbed to their own morality. A pseudo-blaxploitation meets horror anthology, Tales from the Hood takes an old approach, injects it with some ingenuity, and creates from it an excellent addition to the genre that has the balls as well as the brains to speak some hard truths.
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