Written by: Rusty Cundieff, Darin Scott
Directed by: Rusty Cundieff
Starring: Clarence Williams III, Corbin Bernsen, Joe Torry
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Welcome to hell, motherfuckers!"
When Clarence Williams III bellows the final line of Tales from the Hood, it’s the cherry on top of an inspired sundae that mixes the urban flavoring of Blaxploitation films with the EC Comics styling of Amicus’s horror anthologies. For whatever reason, it never occurred to anyone that these two should have been mashed up at the height of their 70s powers, but Tales from the Hood arrived about twenty years later to right that misdeed. Not content to simply deliver a conciliatory, better-late-than-never effort, Rusty Cundieff crafted a film that both revels in its roots and cleverly updates them.
Not only is its title an obvious riff on Tales from the Crypt, but so too is its frame story, which features its own sort of crypt keeper in Mr. Simms (Williams), a mortuary attendant that’s visited by a trio of teenage drug dealers. While these three are itching to buy a stash of “the shit” from Simms, the elderly mortician instead decides to play horror story host by revealing the macabre details behind the latest corpses to arrive at the funeral home. Each victim fell prey to supernatural circumstances of some sort, and it soon becomes clear that this trio has stumbled into a sinister haunt whose true horrors have yet to be unleashed.
Their eventual fate should come as no surprise to those familiar with Tales from the Crypt or Vault of Horror, but that comes with the territory of making such a transparent love letter to Amicus. This is one of those tributes that comes with a lot of heart, though; instead of merely aping the rhythms and beats of Amicus, it also knows its grace notes, so it expectedly delivers a symphony of violence, revenge, and supernatural comeuppance that treads the line between genuine darkness and comic book silliness. Tales from the Hood also blends in the soul of a socially conscious film, as it explores both contemporary and timeless ills, many of which were (and are) relevant to the African American population.
For example, the opening number, “Rogue Cop Revelation,” is clearly inspired by the Rodney King incident and features a horrific instance of police brutality that leaves a local Black Rights activist (Tom Wright) dead. A black cop (Anthony Griffith) witnesses the crime but remains silent until he’s visited by the dead man’s spirit a year later. Thirsty for vengeance, he rises from the grave to take revenge on the white cops that brutally murdered him. “Rogue Cop Revelation” takes the “undead vengeance” staple and infuses it with black rage as it attempts to exorcise the demons of mistreatment by law enforcement officials; it makes for a natural fit, and the 90s update allows for a more graphic and gory aesthetic than its 70s predecessors, as Wright’s ghoulish zombie dismembers his victims in crowd-pleasing fashion.
The anthology then moves on to something a bit more universal in “Boys Do Get Bruised,” which chronicles young Walter’s (Brandon Hammond) transition to a new school. It doesn’t take long for his teacher (Rusty Cundieff) to notice some peculiar behavior and even more peculiar bruising; when pressed, Walter claims to be visited by a monster who abuses him. A good old fashioned monster-in the-closet story, “Boys Do Get Bruised” is among the stronger segments in the film since it approaches its difficult subject matter from a distinctly childlike perspective that allows for a nice double twist at the climax. While the monster conceit harks back to the film’s EC roots, it also introduces another supernatural concept that’s more reminiscent of the Twilight Zone. The result is one of the film’s more memorable effects gags, a gloriously practical body mutilation that’s adrift amongst the sea primitive CGI effects found in the film.
As its title implies, “KKK Comeuppance” is arguably the most obvious of the segments that finds an abhorrent, gleefully racist southern senator (Corbin Bernsen) running for governor. He not only wears his past affiliation with the Klan as a badge of honor, but he also moves into an old, infamous slave plantation, presumably just to rile up the local black citizens aware of its nefarious history. The joke’s on him, though, as the house is full of secrets that come back to haunt him in the form of voodoo dolls, so this one actually feels more inspired by the finale in Asylum more than anything else in the Amicus canon (in a way, Tales from the Hood is excellent if only for its insistence on shoving so many classic reference points into one film).
At any rate, this probably the film’s most memorable segment, if only for Bernsen’s indomitable candidate; his brazen bigotry might come off as a joke or some sort of caricature if it weren’t rooted in such a terrifying reality (look no further than the latest round of GOP candidates as evidence that this “joke” still persists). Like the opening segment, a lot of the appeal lies in seeing horrible things happen to racists, only this time it’s dolls doing the trick; in this respect, “KKK Comeuppance” functions as a better Puppet Master film than most entries in that series (particularly the ones that were being released around the same time as Tales from the Hood). The effects are a tad crude and the concept silly (as it almost always is), but it comes with an intriguing, creepy backstory involving a slave revolt at the plantation. As such, the segment is also the richest, most accomplished from a narrative standpoint and best captures the spirit of Tales from the Hood (despite being the furthest removed from the film’s urban trappings).
It’s been said before, but most anthologies have an odd duck and manage to end on a dull note, and Tales from the Hood can’t escape either of these eventualities. Its final segment, “Hardcore Convert,” takes us back to inner city streets and bungled drug deals, as “Crazy K” (Lamont Bentley) gets involved in a gang-related shootout that leaves him bleeding out. To his dismay, he’s saved by the police but lands in jail with a life sentence; however, he’s offered a chance at reform when he’s tapped by a social scientist (Rosalind Cash) who wants to run him through an experimental psychological conditioning program. This episode dispenses with the film’s supernatural slant and instead takes its cue from A Clockwork Orange as it explores black-on-black violence in rather shallow fashion. Despite the strong concept, “Hardcore Convert” becomes a mess when Cundieff isn’t quite sure what to do with it, so he opts for sort of an empty and obvious twist in an effort to rush to the film’s finish line.
He crosses it in satisfying fashion by returning to the frame story; even though its ending is telegraphed the second you realize this is a riff on Tales from the Crypt, there’s something admirable about its transparency. Cundieff seems to truly relish the climax no matter how predictable it is, sort of like a comedian who knows he’s got a killer punchline but delivers it with his own sort of panache. Tales from the Hood isn’t quite as understated as its more ethereal predecessors, but it’s no less satisfying in its table-turning; in this case, the ending carries a dollop of socio-political moralizing, as the damned are condemned for perpetrating the circle of violence explored by the film’s segments. Of course, Tales from the Hood is far from preachy; at its heart, it truly is an unabashed update of the lurid, pulpy thrills that are unique to the anthology format. As such, it paints in broad strokes (particularly when it comes to characters) but etches a colorful, garish canvas that results in one of the 90s most purely entertaining horror offerings.
Unfortunately, its lone DVD release also hails from that decade, and it shows: the transfer is murky, non-anamorphic and is ridden with artifacts, while its special features are sparse (there’s a six minute featurette, a TV spot, and a trailer). Even worse, HBO didn’t bother to replicate the cool chrome effect found on the VHS box art. There is some good news, though, since Tales from the Hood is currently streaming on Netflix, where the transfer looks to be slightly better, so you no longer have to agonize over tracking down the underwhelming, out of print DVD. Instead, a touch of a few buttons can transport you straight to this hellish hood, where you’ll find one of the most rewarding anthology films from the post-Amicus era. The road to hell has rarely been lined with so much entertainment. Buy it!
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