The granddaddy of all horror anthologies will always be the George A. Romero/Stephen King collaboration CREEPSHOW, released in 1982, which was a loving homage to the EC Comics line of the 1950s. Borrowing its format from the previous Amicus anthological films, released under the branded titles of those same EC Comics (Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, specifically), CREEPSHOW presents a handful of stories tied together by what’s become known as the “wraparound” story – at first an introduction to the anthological format, which is slowly revealed to be yet another story with a typically unfortunate resolution for its characters. Anthology films are a tough nut to crack, because their nature leaves them vulnerable to an inconsistent experience. The construction of mini-stories will have them pitted against each other for best and worst, scariest and ickiest, etc. No one anthology can claim flawlessness. (Not even the aforementioned CREEPSHOW, because the “meteor shit!” story starring not-at-all-an-actor Stephen King is still one of the worst things of all time.) CREEPSHOW 2 would continue the legacy of its predecessor, dialing back on Romero’s purposeful comic book direction and focusing on a more straightforward horror experience.
Years later, and produced by Spike Lee, TALES FROM THE HOOD would come down the pike and result in — quite honestly — the best horror anthology since then. Written by X-FILES/ MILLENNIUM writer favorite Darin Scott and director Rusty Cundieff, TALES FROM THE HOOD borrowed the same basic construction from the Amicus films of the early ‘70s, along with minor elements from a host of other anthologies, and infuse a detectably angry tone that examines an array of African-American issues. The segments touch on urban crime, drug use, and – depressingly relevant even today – racism within police and political culture. TALES FROM THE HOOD, unlike many other urban horror films, wasn’t intent on pandering. It didn’t play up to stereotypes or fall back on cliché. Every story contains both a darkness and a hard truth about being a black man, woman, or child in America. This approach can, at times, make it hard to watch. But, having said that, make no mistake: TALES FROM THE HOOD also wants to entertain – in the same way the anthological horrors before it endeavored to do.
“Welcome to my Mortuary” sees a trio of teens dropping by a rundown mortuary where its owner, the mysterious and eccentric Simms (with an incredible performance by Clarence Williams III), apparently has come across a load of drugs and is looking to sell. (Every time he refers to it as “the shit,” it’s undeniably hilarious.) Williams III serves as the de facto Crypt Keeper, in that as they descend deeper into the bowels of the house where “the shit” is stored, he pulls back the lid of a random coffin to reveal the corpse inside – and the insidious tale of horror that put them there. For anthologies that try to beef up their wraparound stories, they generally come off as perfunctory, but the concept of a mortician telling stories about the corpses in his funeral home is actually a stroke of genius and is the best use of the device I can think of in the genre.
“Rogue Cop Revelation” sees a “routine” pullover of a prominent black politician (played by CREEPSHOW 2’s Tom Wright) by racist white cops (among them Wings Hauser) go very wrong. Similar to the very story from CREEPSHOW 2 which starred Wright, his character is again killed and his perpetrators flee, assuming they’ve gotten away from it, but he returns from the dead to set that record straight. And his undead politician manages to be more unnerving than his undead hitchhiker. (Maybe because said undead politician lacks CREEPSHOW 2’s gigantic flailing puppet tongue.)
“Boys Do Get Bruised” (featuring a role for director Rusty Cundieff) is the only story that doesn’t lend itself specifically to the black experience, instead presenting a young boy named Walter who tells his teacher that “the monster” at his house hurts him at night, which soon reveals itself to be an abusive stepfather (played by comedian David Alan Grier). Where it lacks in one regard, it makes up for with an intense and unflinching look at in-home domestic abuse, with Grier playing a legitimately intimidating bastard. Though the intensity of the story is a little undone by its end, falling back on a sudden and inappropriate silliness, it still results in being the most realistic of the bunch, leaving it difficult to watch.
“KKK Comeuppance” feels the most traditionally EC Comics – a take on the Zuni doll story from another horror anthology, TRILOGY OF TERROR – which sees an openly racist politician (wonderfully played by Corbin Bernsen) being stalked through his newly acquired plantation home by a handful of “pickaninny” dolls allegedly possessed by the spirits of all the slaves who died there. As suggested by its name, this story is the most daring, with the audience seeing a politician flaunting obviously racist rhetoric in public, producing campaign videos lambasting affirmative action, and nearly using the word “spook” in front of reporters. This story’s moral/warning is the most direct, but if you still need a bit more convincing, then just wait for the (multiple) scenes where Bernsen’s politician beats paintings and dolls reflecting African Americans with an American flag. It ain’t exactly subtle. Much of this story’s power comes from the audience constantly asking, “Should I be enjoying this?” — especially when Bersen is chasing slave dolls around the house while shouting “you little nigglins!” In 1995, seeing a character portrayed as a former KKK member operating from a plantation house and referring to the black protestors on his lawn as a “damned minstrel show” running for political office might have seemed a bit TOO over the top – because, how could anyone in his or her right mind ever vote for such a sleaze? – but then the 2016 election happened, so… let’s move on.
The final story, “Hardcore Convert,” is by far the angriest and carries with it the most significant message of them all. A young black youth nicknamed “Crazy K” is wounded in a street shootout, and after recuperating in prison, agrees to take part in a highly experimental rehabilitation program in exchange for early release. Heavily influenced by the horrors of JACOB’S LADDER, HELLRAISER, and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, “Hardcore Convert” is little concerned with entertainment value and more focused on nauseating and angering its audience with very real historical images of the massacres committed against black men and women since their earliest days as natives in America, the message being – after all the horrors they have faced – black-on-black crime needs to stop before everyone wipes each other out.
TALES FROM THE HOOD concludes with a return to the wraparound story, which unfolds in a not-so-surprising way, but also unfolds with a degree of cartoonish insanity that, as the credits roll, will leave a smile on your face. In spite of the anger, frustration, and depravity you’ve already witnessed and experienced, overall, that was the point of TALES FROM THE HOOD in the first place – to entertain. And it certainly does.
I have no qualms with saying that TALES FROM THE HOOD – easily dismissible thanks to the influx of cheap and trashy urban horror films saturating the DTV market – ranks as one of the best horror anthologies ever made. Funny and dark in equal parts, and depressingly more relevant than ever before, TALES FROM THE HOOD packs a punch to an almost punishing degree, as each story reveals not just a horror in the streets or of the unknown, but within the mortals who brought those stories to life and succumbed to their own morality. A pseudo-blaxploitation meets horror anthology, TALES FROM THE HOOD takes an old approach, injects it with some ingenuity, and creates from it an excellent addition to the genre that has the balls as well as the brains to speak some hard truths.
Tags: Anthology Films, Anthony Griffith, Art Evans, Christopher Young, Clarence Williams III, Corbin Bernsen, Darin Scott, David Alan Grier, Duane Whitaker, EC Comics, Gravediggaz, Horror, Inspectah Deck, Joe Torry, Lamont Bentley, MC Eiht, Michael Massee, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Paula Jai Parker, Roger Guenveur Smith, Rosalind Cash, Rusty Cundieff, spike lee, Tom Wright, Wings Hauser, Wu-Tang Clan