Tales from the Hood (Rusty Cundieff, 1995)
With Montreal’s daunting 3 week long genre celebration known as the Fantasia Film Festival staring me in the face, I (with 13 year old daughter Azia, again, next to me) continued the necessary prep work of horror viewings; in this case, with the return to this year’s fest of director Cundieff and his collaborator Darin Scott with a sequel a mere 23 years after (!) their original 4-story (plus wraparound) Tales from the Hood, a horror anthology in the tradition of the long-running tongue-in-cheek EC comics based television series “Tales from the Crypt” (that had just wrapped up the year before after a seven year run) as well as a slew of similarly-titled English horror films in the 70’s brought to us in all their finger-wagging moralizing glory by England’s Amicus Productions, but this time, in novel fashion, with a Black American twist (usually referred to as “urban themed”, which I always thought was odd – What? Only black people live in the city?) it was time to pre-empt the Nightmare on Elm Street screenings and finally catch up with it.
And, wow, what a wonderfully underrated gem it turned out to be. Deftly balancing between genuine scares (for instance, the demonic creature the quiet boy conjures up to deal with his abuse in the second tale is powerfully done) and the tongue-in-cheek comic approach that so many of these types of films try to achieve but rarely do (with the always committed Clarence Williams III’s wild-haired, crazy-eyed mortician storyteller being a wonderful example of it working in sublime fashion), I’m surprised that this effort hasn’t reached anything more than cult status, as it deserves far more.
Along with the nice mixing of the broad and the scary, director Cundieff displays some real chops at capturing moments of resonant intensity. The opening beating to death of the black politician the rookie black cop helplessly witnesses (and is forced to help cover up) is a particularly powerful moment that transcends the playfulness of much of the surrounding material (yet doesn’t feel out of place). Same goes, even more effectively — quite brilliantly so — with just about the entire fourth story, dealing with a violent black gang member placed in a sort of “A Clockwork Orange”-style experimental program (the filmmakers are clearly movie fans, even naming the main sinister doctor Cushing… get it? Well, if you don’t, you shouldn’t be reading this in the first place!), forced to watch endless hours of raw footage of street violence (with much of what’s shown to him and us being real footage) eventually leading to the mentally disintegrating thug being confronted by the physically ravaged ghosts of those he’s killed visiting him in his cell (all to a not unfamiliar, though incredibly effective in this case, strobing effect, allowing for the powerful sudden appearances and disappearances of the apparitions). The idea might be a bit on the nose (it certainly isn’t playing it for satire, as Kubrick’s “Orange” was), but it’s carry-through is so intensely realized it’s easy to overlook how didactic its message is. For instance, the scene of the gangster locked in his cell having a tense conversation with a hate-filled white nationalist is truly frightening, far beyond the more innocent scares of the zombie, say, in the first tale (which, don’t get me wrong, also works, just much differently). Even more startlingly, the fact that this fourth tale is played out with the experimental technicians wearing outfits that wouldn’t feel out of place in Roger Vadim’s erotic comic book movie Barbarella doesn’t work against it.
With the stories moving between intense and serious, such as that last segment, to the more playful (yet still filled with moments of frisson) like the third tale about a racist Southern Senator (played with delicious scenery chewing relish by Corbin Bernsen, seemingly prepping for his equally indulgent, though much more celebrated romp as the vengeance-seeking madman with the dental tools in Brian Yuzna’s The Dentist just a year later) who gets his violent flesh-chewed comeuppance by a gaggle of sharp-teethed black slave dolls come to life (done with some really great stop-motion effects, with Cundieff cleverly providing a nicely done series of reveals of the growing number of resurrected dolls through a painting on the wall of the Southern mansion), a consistent through-line begins to reveal itself; with a black police officer who doesn’t fight back against injustice in the first tale (he might be haunted by guilt, say the filmmakers, but it’s not enough – only action is), a domestic abuser (and those who enable him) in the second one, a black Uncle Tom figure who unashamedly helps prop up Bernsen’s racist Southern politician for personal gain in the third and the violent gangsters who help destroy their communities (ultimately allowing a wish-fulfilment for racist whites) in the fourth and wraparound, it’s the kind of thematic underpinning that’s extremely delicate to handle (and that almost no, if any, white filmmaker has a right to tackle), it’s a smart injection of the travails of the black experience in America with the broader enjoyment of the grizzly more-universal morality tales of EC Comics.
I also have to mention, along with the appropriately bombastic Christopher (“Hellraiser”) Young score, it was exceedingly nice on my ears to hear the aggressive hardcore gangster rap riffs rolling though the film. I find even the weakest of that 90’s in-your-face art form, as misogynist as it often is, a welcome respite from the political emptiness spat out in the corporate- and consumer-controlled environment by so much of today’s celebrated young musicians (and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” playing over the police brutality scene comes as a surprise; a brilliant and sensitively rendered moment and a powerful reminder of another way, from a different time, of Black Americans expressing their suffering through music).
Why didn’t I seek out this film sooner, especially as it’s in a genre tradition I adore? Perhaps I had dismissed the merging of the urban black elements with the genre (as it appears so many did). Whatever the reason, I’m glad to have finally caught it. It’s a terrifically underrated example of the horror anthology film, in the deliciously grizzly tradition of EC Comics with a smart twist in perspective. Can’t wait to see the sequel now (though I’m already missing the fevered maniacal pitch of Williams III as the devilish host from the next go-round!).