The anthology horror film dates all the way back to the 1940s, with the British film Dead of Night and since then there’ve been countless dozens of films with multiple shorts focused on the singular theme of scaring the pants off of people. I’ve covered some of these films in this column before (like Tales from the Crypt), and spoke about the anthology format recently with Mick Garris, and the important thing is whether the stories within are engaging and scary. But, none of these films has ever been as socially and politically minded as 1995’s still-relevant Tales from the Hood.
For those of you who remember video stores, Tales from the Hood was a box I’d seen many, many times. It’s hard to forget a grinning skull wearing sunglasses and sporting a gold tooth. That image gave me a very specific idea of what kind of movie this was going to be; more a parody of anthology horror geared toward the African American community. But it’s not at all. Director Rusty Cundieff and producer Darin Scott, who both co-wrote the script, were clearly huge fans and students of horror and anthology horror specifically, but also wanted to throw in satire and issues on top of some gnarly effects and horrific images. And Spike Lee executive produced, so this wasn’t by mistake.
Like all good anthology horrors, this one has a compelling wraparound gimmick: three gang bangers drive to a funeral parlor late one night in order to buy a huge shipment of drugs (or “the shit”) from the proprietor. When they arrive, they find Mr. Simms (Clarence Williams III) who looks and acts, you know, like a creepy evil guy. As he walks the trio (one brave, one scared, one dopey and funny) toward where the drugs are kept, he tells them stories about the various dead people he has in the home. “Unless you’re scared.”
The first story concerns a black rookie cop (Anthony Griffin) whose white partner (Michael Massee) and a couple of other white cops (Wings Hauser, Duane Whitaker) beat a black community leader (Tom Wright) to death for his hardline stance on ending the police precinct’s corruption and drug dealing. Not only do they kill him, they shoot him up with drugs to make him seem like a hypocrite. The partner convinces the rookie to tow the line and protect the fraternity of cops over anything else. He does, but soon quits and becomes a drunk because of guilt. He is visited by visions of the community leader who asks the rookie to bring the other three cops to his grave…and maybe you can guess what’s next…ZOMBIE REVENGE.
The second story finds a teacher (director Cundieff) worrying about a student who constantly comes in with bruises and cuts. The boy says he’s visited by a monster every night and he draws pictures of it (and some bullies) because a girl tells him if he destroys pictures of scary things, they’ll go away. The teacher visits the student’s home and finds the boy’s mom (Paula Jai Parker) is clearly not the perpetrator (but is real flirty with the teacher). However, it’s soon apparent that her boyfriend (David Alan Grier, in a chillingly violent performance) is the actual–very human–monster…and maybe destroying a drawing works better than we thought.
Story three takes place in the South, where a racist former KKK member (Corbin Bernsen) is running for office, is living in a former supposedly accursed plantation house, and has hired a black PR guy to help clean up his image. Naturally, the black and Jewish community are supremely against this man. The home, we’re told, is famous for being where an elderly slave woman made wooden dolls for all of the slaves who died on the plantation…do you think maybe they’d come to life and want to kill the racist white guy?
And the final story sees a gang banger (Lamont Bentley) gunned down in the street after gunning down a rival, only to have the police arrive and save him. He’s sent to prison–because he’s killed a TON of people–but he’s selected for a rehabilitation program by Dr. Cushing (Rosalind Cash) who puts the young thug through sensory overload–mixing violent gangsta rap music with images of gangland violence and photos of lynchings and murders of black men. The idea is to make him see that he’s doing as much damage, killing as many black lives, as the Klan or Neo-Nazis. (Very Clockwork Orange, yes?) He’s then put in a deprivation chamber where he has hallucinations of all the people he’s killed. Surely, if this doesn’t change him, nothing will.
At first blush, it probably feels like these stories are heavy handed in their politics, and they are. But that’s a good thing, and largely refreshing. If horror has a message, it’s usually very subtle, but this movie feels like it’s shoving your face in the message, and the message continues to be relevant. Black people getting murdered by white cops; domestic violence running rampant and often going unreported; young black men murdering each other in the streets; and–help us all–deplorable, unrepentant racists gaining political power. It’s a cautionary tale that seems way too prescient for being 22 years old.
But what makes Tales from the Hood work much better than just a piece of didactic caution is that the filmmakers treat it like a horror movie first and a message movie second. The scary elements in it are truly horrific, and attention is paid to the effects–the puppets and other effects were done by Chiodo Brothers, of Killer Klowns from Outer Space fame–so that everything looks as gruesome and gnarly as possible. Cundieff and Scott also clearly have reverence for horror films past; the zombie community leader is played by Tom Wright, who played the zombie hitchhiker in Creepshow 2 and Rosalind Cash as the homage-named Dr. Cushing is best known for ’70s horror and blaxsploitation flicks like The Omega Man and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde. Hell, Clarence Williams III was Linc Hayes in The Mod Squad.
Tales from the Hood was not particularly well received at the time and my guess is that it hasn’t remained in the public consciousness. Thankfully, Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray offers the best way to watch this movie that’s just as much troublingly real as it is deliciously macabre. It wears its message on its sleeve, but there are far worse things for a horror movie to do, especially if they’re making you jump or cringe in the process.
Images: Focus Features/Scream Factory