Friday, February 12, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Tales from the Hood (1995)

As the amusing title indicates, Tales from the Hood is actually Tales from the Crypt with an African-American spin. Overtly concerned with issues of race in 1990s America, this is a horror anthology that -- while exhibiting a strong social conscience -- also features a commendable sense of balance. Two stories deal with white racists (on the police force and in politics, respectively) who victimize people of color, while the other two tales feature violence in the black community perpetrated by fellow blacks. Virtually every macabre tale in the anthology is closely related to real life, 1990s events, as well.

Today, Tales from The Hood’s best remembered story is likely “KKK Comeuppance,” which feature a white racist (Corbin Bernsen) terrorized by ambulatory black slave dolls, a kind of off-kilter tribute to the 1970s Karen Black TV-movie, Trilogy of Terror.

The first story featured in Tales from the Hood is “Rogue Cop Revelation” is a revenge-from-beyond-the-grave-style story, pure and simple, with racist cops paying the cosmic price for framing and murdering an innocent black political activist. Said activist, Clarence, returns from the grave and murders the offenders one at a time, in gruesome and extremely gory fashion. Wings Hauser plays the lead bad cop, named “Strom” after Dixie Party candidate and late U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond from South Carolina. Early in the tale, the police stop Clarence in his car and nearly beat him to death for being a “political agitator.” The visual of several white cops circling and beating a black man -- defenseless on his knees -- blatantly echoes the videotaped Rodney King beating transmitted on CNN. Later, a fire on a city street brings to mind the imagery of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots that the King verdict spawned.

But the cops in this story aren’t merely physical abusers. They are drug dealers interested in framing and discrediting black community leaders and destroying the black culture. In one especially incendiary scene, a white cop actually urinates on Clarence’s grave. The word epithet “nigger” is bandied around a lot here too, but again, that’s accurate to the historical record of the 1990s: LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman, detective on the O.J Simpson case, was reported to have used that offensive descriptor by four witnesses at the trial, and was even captured using the term on audiotape. The point of all this: blacks and whites have very different views of the police force, based almost entirely on context of race.

In “Rogue Cop Revelation,” the scales of cosmic justice are righted when the evil cops are murdered by the resurrected Clarence. And importantly, a black cop who does not help Clarence is judged just as guilty as the bad cops here. His crime: race betrayal.

Tales from the Hood’s second tale, "Boys Do Get Bruised," involves child abuse in a black family. A school teacher, played by director Rusty Cundieff comes to suspect that a little boy, Walter (Brandon Hammond) is being beaten at home by his mother’s new boyfriend. Little Walter calls the boyfriend a “monster” and draws terrifying pictures of him.

The Twilight-Zone style twist at the end reveals that Walter -- like Anthony in "It's a Good Life" -- has the power to give life and breath to his drawings. Meaning that he cannot only draw monsters…he can erase and crumple them too. Again, there’s some powerful imagery here. Walter’s mother is beaten savagely with a belt in one sequence, and in another, there’s an all-out battle for survival in the family kitchen, the “hearth,” of this house. David Alan Grier plays the abuser in this story, and is actually pretty terrifying. Child and partner/spousal abuse is by no means an African-American occurrence alone, but it is important to remember how often domestic abuse occurs in “the hood” of the film’s title: an urban neighborhood with low incomes, high unemployment, crowding, and too many guns (and too much alcohol consumption).

In Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective: Defining, Understanding, and Combating Abuse, Dr. Kathleen Malley-Morrison and Dr. Denise A. Hines wrote that living “in neighborhoods with the lowest per capita income was associated with four times the risk of partner violence in comparison to neighborhoods with the highest pro-capita income.”(Sage Publications, 2003, page 137.) Tales from The Hood thus laments the conditions that have given rise to the “monster” played by David Alan Grier, and imaginatively locates the "cure" for such problems in the creative imagination – in art -- and in the education of the next generation.

The film's third vignette, “KKK Comeuppance” features a fictionalized version of the controversial figure David Duke (1950 - ), a former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who ran for the governorship of Louisiana in 1991 and ultimately won 55% of the white vote in that election. In favor of segregation and separatism, Duke was convicted for tax fraud in 2002.

In Tales from the Hood, the David Duke figure is named Duke Metger. Like his real life model, he’s former Klansman and governor of a Southern State who ultimately seeks the Presidency (as Duke sought that high office in 1988 and 1992). Metger lives in an opulent old plantation where black slaves were once abused, and now – in the era of Newt Gingrich’s Angry White Man and the congressional elections of 1994 -- rails against affirmative action, reparations, and any other governmental intiative that he deems might benefit African-Americans.

Forecasting comments made in the 200s by Don Imus, Metger also refers to blacks as “nappy-headed” and even mocks Rodney King by sarcastically asking, “Can’t we all just get along?” Duke gets his comeuppance when the souls of the murdered slaves come to life inside small, angry dolls buried under the plantation’s floorboards. Tellingly, Duke actually uses an American flag to bludgeon both the slave dolls and the “Voodoo Mother” who gave them life, a visual representation of America’s perceived hostility to the African-American experience and history.

The special effects in this vignette remain astounding, even fifteen years later, and Corbin Bernsen gives a go-for-the-gusto performance as the villainous, racist Metger. He makes the most of a distasteful role, and he’s one of those villains audiences will love-to-hate. Some might accuse this particular story of lacking subtlety or nuance, but the details of Metger’s beliefs and history so closely parallel those of David Duke's public life that the argument doesn’t hold water. In other words, it’s hard to believe anybody could be so utterly hateful to other human beings, no matter their skin color, but if you’ve ever listened to David Duke speak, you know "KKK Comeuppance" is no exaggeration.

The final tale, “Hardcore Convert” gazes at a vicious black figure, an ignorant, vicious gang banger named Crazy-K. Life is cheap to Crazy-K, and he commits murder (over money and drugs) as easily as he exhales. He is incarcerated, in the course of the story, with a “white power” Nazi, and the message comes through that Crazy-K’s anti-social behavior is only doing the Nazi’s work for him; confirming the white world’s opinion of many blacks as anti-social thugs and criminals.

Crazy-K undergoes a “behavior modification” program while in prison, and is told by his tormentor/doctor (Rosalind Cash) that “you’ve got to take responsibility to break this chain” The behavior modification regime in this case involves a viewing of real-life, documentary photographs and images of violence perpetrated against blacks in American history. This montage, -- a kind of homage to Clockwork Orange's Ludovico Technique -- begins with images of whites killing blacks but by the end of the presentation we see blacks murdering blacks and a sub-culture devoted to “gangsta” values. This sequence is simultaneously a critique of white and black violence, and as such a perfect summation of the film’s viewpoint, that indeed, blacks have been victimized by whites in American history. But – importantly -- they’ve also been victimized by themselves...and even if they can’t change the fact of the former -- the fact of ignorant white racism -- they can change the latter. And need to do so.

Ultimately, director Rusty Cundieff, -- who studied journalism at Loyola and also majored in the philosophy of religion -- does a terrific job crafting a horror film that is simultaneously poignant and entertaining. It’s an audacious, fearless enterprise, and Tales from the Hood is frightening, funny, even-handed and also remarkably moral.

The film's wraparound segments, involving a grinning Clarence Williams III (and titled "Welcome to My Mortuary") are also on point with the film's message. Williams plays Simms, an undertaker who greets three young "gangstas" and tells them the macabre tales that make up the film's duration. What these youngster soon learn, however, is that there is more on Simm's mind than simplestorytelling. It's no coincidence that these young men have come to him, and to his mortuary, and that's the film's take away point: about a generation of boys "in the hood" facing the specter of early and violent death, reliving a cycle of seemingly inescapable violence.

Again, I've always insisted that the best horror films are those that reflect the reality of their times. Tales from the Hood is a product and genre curiosity of the 1990s, the era of Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, the Clarence Thomas Hearings, the L.A. Riots, Clinton as our "first black president" and so forth. As these examples make plain, it was a span when race relations were once more front and center in the American conversation, and Tales from the Hood doesn't shy away from commentary on that dialogue.


  1. Good take on an underrated film... shamefully hard to find, since the DVD is OOP.

    For the few who still have laserdiscs, the LD release had a pretty good commentary by director Curdieff, which wasn't ported over for the DVD.

  2. Great review and analysis, John. I remember seeing this awhile back on cable without too much expectation. I was surprised to find it with more depth than I expected. I hope the studio comes out with this again, and with the commentary track Robert H. mentions. Thanks for this.

  3. I love this movie. Highly underrated. I saw it in the theater on a whim during those horror-lite early 90s and it was a true surprise. And yes, Corbin Bersen is FANTASTIC! I think he really came into his own when he started making horror films. I adore him. Still, I really feel this is David Alan Grier's film... Wow, who knew?

  4. Anonymous2:00 PM

    The movie still scares the mess out of me. I'm surprised no one has mentioned the classic twist ending yet. Oh and the zombies have in the first story has haunted me for years!


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