Collins’ Crypt: It’s Time You Finally Discover TALES FROM THE HOOD
If Scream Factory hadn't announced it in January, a cynical horror fan might think that Tales From The Hood's Blu-ray was only being released thanks to the surprise smash success of Get Out, which as of this writing is domestically the highest grossing film ever made by a black filmmaker (it will likely be topped by Fate of the Furious, but since both films are from Universal I guess they won't mind). Not that socially conscious horror movies are rare, but these two are unique in that unlike other high profile releases that deal with race in a horror setting (such as The Purge films and Attack the Block), these are actually made by black men. Not that you need to be a minority to have something to say (just ask George Romero), but it's depressing/fascinating that in the 22 years since Tales From The Hood hit theaters, pretty much the only other "aware" horror movie from a black filmmaker to hit major multiplexes across the country just came out last month.
(I'm sure there are others, but barring a major memory lapse they were limited/DTV films, at least here in the US. I suppose one could make a case for Bones, which was directed by Ernest Dickerson, but that was a straight up revenge movie that happened to star black people - there wasn't much "commentary", per se.)
Of course, had Tales been a bigger hit, perhaps this wouldn't be the case. Savoy marketed the film as a comedy for some reason, downplaying its social commentary in favor of the effects and a voiceover that suggested something closer to the Tales from the Crypt movies (the first of which, Demon Knight, had premiered just a few months earlier and was the year's biggest horror hit at that point, so I can at least see their reasoning). The ruse didn't work though; it opened in ninth place (below Mad Love, the movie my sister was going to see when I hitched a ride with her to be part of a very sparse Hood crowd) and ultimately grossed a mere 11 million dollars. Unless you count Grindhouse (and you shouldn't, but BoxOfficeMojo does) it remains the last horror anthology film to hit wide release, with the recent revival (the V/H/S films, Southbound, etc.) all confined to smaller indie theaters and VOD. So its box office failure kind of killed two potential "waves" - an anthology revival, and the return of mainstream horror with something to say.
Again, these sort of films aren't rare - just a few weeks before Hood hit, the Candyman sequel opened (to slightly bigger success), but again, the others were all directed (and usually written) by white guys, who didn't have quite the same perspective that a black man would. Hood writer/director Rusty Cundieff had previously made the comedy Fear of a Black Hat, which basically took a Spinal Tap kind of approach to a thinly veiled parody of NWA, but downplayed much of the humor for his follow-up, which (despite Savoy's claims) was largely played straight. And for good reason, as this was a particularly turbulent time thanks to the Rodney King trial and subsequent riots, as well as the OJ Simpson murders* - the time to take a page from the '60s and '70s horror films that were angry responses to Vietnam and Nixon was now. Cundieff had already established himself as a man who had some thoughts on these matters, and knew that downplaying the comedy could get those conversations started.
That said, Tales IS a *fun* movie, and (like Get Out) knows that the audience needs to be entertained, not preached to. And so even a dumb white kid like me was able to enjoy its four tales of racially-charged revenge, and I was happy to discover while watching the new Blu-ray (probably the first time I've seen the movie in twenty years) that the film holds up nicely. Its low budget shows at times and the digital FX in the finale just look that much worse on a crystal clear high def image, but the script and performances more than make up for it, and the film remains (sadly, at times) just as relevant now as it did in 1995. And it's funny that I actually remembered it as more of a horror-comedy like Demon Knight or whatever; the wraparound segment, featuring Clarence Williams III as a mortician, is where the only real humor occurs, thanks to Williams' spirited performance as he tells three would-be robbers a few stories to explain how this or that corpse ended up in his mortuary. His repeated questioning of "the shit" never stops being funny, and I've always been tickled by one of the guys comparing the idea of a zombie to refried beans - but these segments only take up about ten of the film's 95 minutes, so "comedy" is not an appropriate genre to place on it.
Smartly, Cundieff's tales are about universal themes (police corruption, abuse, etc.) without constantly demonizing white people, which could have been a major turn off. There's no pigeonholing or blaming along racial lines in the film, and I think that's part of the reason the film is a favorite among horror fans in general, and why it holds up as well as it does. The first segment is a straight up "back from the dead to exact revenge" tale not unlike The Crow (incidentally, one of the bad guys getting his due is Michael Massee, who played Funboy in that film), except the killers are corrupt cops and the ghost is Martin Moorehouse, a black politician who is cracking down on corrupt cops. They beat him after pulling him over for a traffic violation, so the parallels to Rodney King are hard to ignore, but since they kill him as well (and plant drugs on him, ruining Moorehouse's reputation in death) Cundieff can indulge in supernaturally-charged revenge. One year later, a zombified Moorehouse rises from his grave and kills the three white cops who murdered him - and also the black rookie who failed to intervene or testify against his fellow officers. He isn't spared because they share a skin color - there's right and wrong, and he was wrong.
(Fun trivia: Moorehouse is played by Tom Wright from Creepshow 2, and yes, he gets to hold onto the hood of another moving vehicle. Dude's got a niche in anthology horror films.)
The second story doesn't even feature any white people, and is equally the most universal and the most far-fetched story in the bunch (it's also my favorite, for what it's worth). Our protagonist is Walter, a little boy who keeps showing up with bruises and attributing them to monsters. His teacher (Cundieff) wants to get to the bottom of it, and goes to the child's home one night to talk to the parents. It doesn't take long for him/us to understand who the monster is: his stepfather, played by David Alan Grier (stunt casting for the time, as he was then primarily known for In Living Color and thus seeing him as an abusive "monster" was fairly eye-opening). His attack on both his wife and stepson is scary enough to qualify as horror, as Cundieff doesn't shy away from showing full blown physical violence, including a punch to the boy's face, but the film offers up a fun twist: the boy has the power to kill his tormentors by damaging the "monster" drawings he made of them. So he folds the paper just before Grier is about to punch his mom again, and his arm snaps backwards. I won't spoil the rest of his comeuppance for those who haven't seen it, but I will say that Screamin' Mad George did the effects for what follows, so you can imagine it ain't pretty.
The third story is the one that might resonate most with viewers watching for the first time today, as it deals with a racist politician who is too ignorant to understand why the awful things he says and does get minorities all worked up. The character's name is Duke Metger, an obvious allusion to David Duke and Tom Metzger, but it's hard not to think about President Pumpkin, who like Duke here is actually charismatic in his own way and coasts on his ability to charm (he even has an African American image consultant!). Duke is played by Corbin Bernsen, who has made a career out of playing sleazy dudes that you still kind of like, another one of Cundieff's very smart choices. It would have been easy to present a completely unlikeable pile of sentient slime (like Steve Bannon!) and let the audience enjoy seeing him get killed, but where's the fun - or suspense - in that? By humanizing the character just enough and hiring a likable guy to play him, we can actually engage with the film as intended - as a suspenseful horror film. Sure, seeing a bunch of stop-motion dolls (courtesy of the Chiodo Brothers) isn't likely to strike fear in the hearts of anyone except hardcore automatonphobics, but it's not like we're watching the clock waiting to see this guy get his just desserts.
The fourth story tackles gang violence, and is the only one without any overt supernatural elements. A black thug named Crazy K (Lamont Bentley) is shot by other black thugs, but survives his wounds and is taken to a facility where he can agree to rehabilitation in exchange for receiving no jail time for his own murders, all of other black men (a white supremacist in a cell next to his thanks him for helping him in his efforts to rid the world of black people). As it turns out, the rehab takes a page from Clockwork Orange, subjecting Crazy K to images of the KKK and historical lynchings juxtaposed with modern gang violence, after which he hallucinates his victims (including a little girl who was shot by one of his stray bullets) questioning why he killed them. Then there's a twist that leads into the wraparound segment, which is pretty clever and hearkens back to the likes of Tales That Witness Madness and Tales From The Crypt (the 1970s movie), tying the two narratives together instead of just being a bunch of unrelated stories like in Creepshow and its first sequel.
And that's the other thing about the movie that frustrates me about its box office misfortune - even if you ignore the fact that it wasn't generic, forgettable crap like so many other horror films of the time (Hideaway or Vampire in Brooklyn, anyone?), it's still one of the best horror anthology films in terms of structure. For starters, it's one of the rare ones that offers four stories, which I think is the perfect balance, as the more common five story ones tend to wear out their welcome, and three stories means if one's a stinker you're stuck with it for far too much of the runtime. The film was produced and co-written by Darin Scott, who had already proven his chops in this particular field with From A Whisper To A Scream (which also offered four stories, it should be noted), so the melding of their sensibilities was ideal for this particular film. And by tying the wraparound into one of the stories, it ultimately satisfies as a full movie experience, unlike say V/H/S which has the usual mix of highs and lows, but doesn't really come together as a full MOVIE the way this (or the old Amicus ones, or something like Trick 'r Treat) does, because ultimately the wraparound has no real payoff or even much of a point to it at all. You can omit the framing segments and the movie's appeal wouldn't change, whereas here if you took it out you'd be missing not only some of its more delightful moments, but also the actual conclusion of its fourth segment. It really should be one of the models for any filmmaker looking to make their own memorable anthology, as you walk out feeling you just saw a complete narrative as opposed to a bunch of shorter ones.
It remains to be seen if Get Out will inspire a wave of racially (or even socially) charged horror films; it's just as (if not more) likely that other studios see its success as "proof" that audiences want more movies about creepy families or something. But hopefully there will be more, because these troubled times should be making people angry and using horror films to get some things off their chest just as the likes of Romero and Craven did throughout their careers. If any good can come from a Trump presidency (even one as hopefully brief as it will prove to be) it's that we might get some fascinating and thought-provoking horror films out of the deal - ones that help movies like this get recognition for helping to pave the way. I wouldn't be shocked if a young Jordan Peele was one of the few people that saw Tales From The Hood in theaters as a teenager, planting the seed in his still impressionable mind that someday he could do the same thing Cundieff, Scott, etc were doing here. Let's hope there were others.
*Jacob wrote up the parallels between the film and the OJ trial a few months back - read his piece here!