Why Rusty Cundieff’s 1995 social horror anthology is a must see

When one is critiquing a film, the thinking is that objectivity is key. A proper review must not reflect the writer’s personal tastes but must evenly judge if the film is successful at its chosen level and respond accordingly. Well, f**k that. If you eat, sleep and breathe cinema, if you love it so much that it keeps you awake at night, if it makes your pulse pound faster and in many respects informs your view of the world, then objectivity is impossible. In fact, I think the very concept of a piece of film writing being removed from one’s life experiences and leanings is an abstract one, even on an academic level. Art provokes response and every single human being who views that art will respond differently. That’s the beauty of art.

So with that verbose preamble, I’ll say right here, right now that I am crazymadinsane in love with Rusty Cundieff’s savage, smart and socially potent 1995 omnibus Tales from the Hood beyond all reason. Many say Scream saved and redeemed horror in the ’90s. I hate Scream, that self-aware, sneering, smart-ass sitcom thing. And if the studio that released it had been savvier with their marketing campaign, they’d be saying that about Tales. It should have been “the one” that spawned the franchise, that kick-started the trends and Clarence Williams III‘s wild-eyed hell spawn mortician with his Satanic Don King hairdo should have been the guy people were dressing up as for Halloween.
But it was just too black. I mean, look at Scream, with its gaggle of pretty, porcelain white faces staring smugly at the pundits on that copied-to-death poster. A far easier sell to America than the ebony skull with the glowing gold tooth that grinned at you on the awesome Tales one-sheet. Savoy Pictures saddled the movie with a marketing campaign and tagline (“Chill…or be chilled…”) that positioned the picture as a spoof, like a Wayans Brothers skewering of HBO’s then-popular, campy series Tales from the Crypt. Ironically, those Wayans lads would find great success lampooning Scream a few years later.

No, Tales from the Hood is no spoof. It’s not a send-up. It’s funny, certainly, but often that humor — as it should always be in horror films — stems organically from the absurdity of the situations. What Tales really is, is a primal scream about black Americans in the urban ’90s landscape, both marginalized and — even more potently — cannibalizing themselves; its power and relevance has not dulled an ounce.

The film sees a trio of macho, tough-talking and pistol-wielding gang-bangers descending upon the wildly Gothic funeral home owned by the aforementioned mortician Mr. Simms, so deftly essayed by The Mod Squad‘s Clarence Williams III, who they think has a stash of cash and drugs. The punks demand that Mr. Simms cough up “the sh*t” to which the potentially insane embalmer retorts, “you want the sh*t? You’ll be KNEE DEEP in the sh*t!”

Over the next several hours, Williams stalls his antagonists with the grim, supernatural stories of the young, black men who fill the coffins in his basement. We get the story of the crooked, murderous cops (one played by the great Wings Hauser) who beat, frame and murder a crusading black DA while a young rookie cop watches in horror… and ultimately turns a blind eye. Years later, the unjustly slain victim rises from the dead to exact revenge with the now homeless and substance-addicted ex-cop’s help. Another story sees a teacher worried about a little boy who swears his bruises and broken bones are the result of a monster that hides in his home. Meanwhile, the kid’s dad (comedian David Alan Grier in a very dark change of pace role) is getting plenty angry at the images his boy is drawing. The next story sees a sniggering former KKK-linked politico (Corbin Bernsen) defiantly moving into a former plantation slave house and running afoul of ghostly marionettes who demand bloody justice. And the final story, the corker, sees a lethal gang banger left for dead after a bloody street brawl and whisked away to a secret clinic where a majestic doctor (The Omega Man‘s Rosalind Cash) subjects him to a mind-bending, gut wrenching “Ludivico” -esque treatment to make him aware that the real enemy to “his people”…is him. And then there’s that ending…

Oh, that ending. It’s one for the books, baby. Wow.

In style, structure and tone, Tales from the Hood is more of a kissing cousin to Freddie Francis‘ still chilling 1972 Amicus adaptation of EC’s Tales from the Crypt comics, with its somber tone, intense morality plays, Grand Guignol gore, black (in every sense) humor and supernatural punishments. But it’s something else. Something angry and upsetting. Something sad. If Jordan Peele’s brilliant recent smash-hit Get Out is about the way racism now hides behind America’s current grinning, faux liberal facade, Tales is about the pulse on the street, of how poverty and ignorance are causing young black men and women to fall into a chasm, one in which they rage war against themselves.

Cundieff and co-writer/producer Darin (From a Whisper to a Scream) Scott’s film is a masterpiece. It’s a perfect horror film and its messages aren’t so heavy handed that they overtake the pleasures of the genre elements, rather the social spine enhances the film’s fright factor. In case I have not made this clear: I LOVE TALES FROM THE HOOD. It’s a major work. If you’ve missed it, fix that grave error as soon as humanly possible.


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