The horror genre has never widely been accepted or received the respect it deserves, many narrow-minded critics and uneducated audience members incorrectly classifying it as lowest-common-denominator sleaze, a sorry excuse for violence and bloodshed with nothing going on beneath the surface. The reality, oftentimes, couldn't be further from the truth. There is no other kind of art with the power to provide such heightened levels of emotional catharsis and pointed metaphor, all under the guise of eliciting fright in the viewer. When "Tales from the Hood" was released in May 1995, it had been advertised and marketed as a lightweight, urban-set throwaway with barely a suggestion of the thoughtful thematic layers with which writer-director Rusty Cundieff and co-writer Darin Scott were working. Those who took a chance on it in theatersor later found it on cable or home videodiscovered something altogether more potent, even vital, than the trailers and TV spots led them to believe. Indeed, this controlled, diverse, thrillingly spooky, exceptionally well-structured anthologythe rare omnibus, like 1982's "Creepshow
" before it, without a weak segment in the bunchrepeatedly rises to the level of shrewd social commentary, blisteringly relevant in 1995 and perhaps even more so over two decades later.
"Welcome to My Mortuary" provides the threaded wraparound for which its other four tales of the macabre surround, and it's a doozy. When dealers Stack (Joe Torry), Ball (De'Aundre Bonds) and Bulldog (Samuel Monroe Jr.) pay a visit to Simms Funeral Home to collect the drugs they have been led to believe mortician Mr. Simms (Clarence Williams III) is holding, the quirky undertaker first insists on giving them a tour of the deceased, sharing the sordid sagas of how each corpse met his ghoulish demise. Clarence Williams III is devilishly unforgettable as the story-spinning Mr. Simms, at once unnerving and hilarious (his repeated promise to give his visitors "the shit" they've come for is one of cinema's best-delivered profanities).
In "Rogue Cop Revelation," rookie police officer Clarence Smith (Anthony Griffith) becomes tortured with guilt and a drive for retribution when his white colleaguesStrom (Wings Hauser), Newton (Michael Massee) and Billy (Duane Whitaker)pull over and subsequently murder black city councilman Martin Moorehouse (Tom Wright). One year later, the broken-down Clarence begins to receive instructions from beyond the grave. It is no coincidence Tom Wright, who so indelibly portrayed the unstoppable dead hitchhiker in 1987's "Creepshow 2
," has been cast as the ill-fated, vengeance-seeking Martin Moorehouse. In many ways, this role mirrors that one to spectacular effect, but Cundieff and Scott wisely add their own twist and moralistic angle to the proceedings.
In "Boys Do Get Bruised," elementary school teacher Richard Garvey (Rusty Cundieff) grows concerned when new student Walter (Brandon Hammond) shows up to class with bruises on his body. Walter says a monster is responsible, and, as Richard is about to find, the truth isn't far from this wild claim. Creative and deviously fantastical, this stark story seamlessly blends tension and terror with excellent practical effects and the very real dilemma of familial abuse. Paula Jai Parker is especially strong as Walter's mother, torn between keeping a shameful secret and protecting her son.
It is followed by arguably the standout segment, "KKK Comeuppance," wherein Duke Metger (Corbin Bernsen), a racist Southern senator running for governor, takes up residence in an old plantation home haunted by the tortured slaves from century's past. These aren't average, everyday specters, however; legend has it voodoo practitioner Miss Cobbs (Christina Cundieff) transferred their souls into her hand-crafted collection of dolls. Corbin Bernsen is on fire as incendiary politician Duke Metger, pushed to the brink as his sins of bigotry come back to terrorize him, and Charles and Edward Chiodo's stop-motion effects wizardry are dazzlingly old-school. With dashes of inspiration deriving from the Zuni fetish doll episode in 1975's "Trilogy of Terror" and the breath-stealing troll installment in 1985's "Cat's Eye," "KKK Comeuppance" is impossible to resist. The amusingly clever use of a painting of the long-dead Miss Cobbs and her dolls to hint at what may be hiding around the corner keeps tensions high and the creepy fun striking at a lightning clip.
The final installment is also its most sobering and incisive. In "Hard-Core Convert," ruthless gang member Jerome "Crazy K" Johns (Lamont Bentley) narrowly survives a shootout and is sent to prison. He receives a sudden chance at freedom with one catch: he must first agree to an experimental behavior-modification therapy session led by Dr. Cushing (Rosalind Cash). Jerome jumps at the chance, but is not prepared for the nightmarish reality check he is about to receive.
"Tales from the Hood" is a blazing entertainment in its own right, imaginatively spry and suitably chilling, but its loaded subject matter ensures it also has the power to enlighten and make one think. Touching upon an array of hot-button topicspolice brutality, domestic violence, racism, black-on-black crimethe picture mostly avoids heavy-handed sermonizing in favor of tight, efficient, unapologetically provocative storytelling. The use of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" in one segment adds to its stinging indictment of the heinousness unfolding on the screen, while the deliciously lurid closing moments tie together all that has come before.
Following a notorious low point for horror films in the early 1990s, a clear turnaround began with 1994's "Wes Craven's New Nightmare" and John Carpenter's "In the Mouth of Madness," culminating in the explosive sleeper success of 1996's groundbreaking "Scream
." Sitting quietly within this new renaissance period was "Tales from the Hood," one of the smartest genre offerings of the era and, quite possibly, the best anthology of its decade. For those turned off for too many years by the title and their own hasty preconceived notions, it is high time to reconsider. In terms of what it says and how it says it, the perceptively sinister "Tales from the Hood" hasn't aged a day.