Director Rusty Cundieff’s Tales from the Hood is an important part of ’90s horror. It takes the twisty, potboiler suspense stories from anthologies like Tales from the Crypt and gives them a primarily black point-of-view, but it also discusses the amount of violence and gang-related activity in the early 1990s. Co-writers Cundieff and Darin Scott compress these ideas into four stories with moralistic viewpoints, with a tale about three drug dealers visiting a mortuary to get “the shit” from an old mortician (Clarence Williams III) providing context to the tales. While Tales from the Hood could have easily devolved into a parody of EC Comics-style horror stories, instead Cundieff and Scott take a surprisingly serious look at societal issues relevant during the film’s 1995 release, making this a time capsule whose age has not dulled the wit and impact of these black perspectives.
The first tale in this anthology is called “Rogue Cop Revelation,” and it follows a group of white police officers after they brutalize a city councilman (Tom Wright) whose campaign promise is to clean up the drug trade in his district. It’s Clarence’s (Anthony Griffith) first night on the beat, a black cop partnered with a corrupt white officer (Michael Massee); after he witnesses the councilman’s murder, he hears the dead man calling his name and petitioning for him to bring the perpetrators to his grave. Eventually, he gathers up everyone including the ringleader Strom (Wings Hauser), wherein the councilman returns from the dead as a zombie to rain down justice on the police officers who committed the hate crime.
For this reviewer, “Rogue Cop Revelation” is probably the best tale out of this series of stories. Its metaphorical imagery is a lot more nuanced than some of the later tales, including a scene where Massee’s character, pierced by a heroin syringe on the street, melts into a graffiti mural as a symbol of his legacy as a corrupt cop. There’s also a lot of legitimately spooky moments; one scenario when Strom is attempting to outrun the zombie in a police car results in a startling moment where the zombie is far away on the street and then suddenly on the back windshield of the car. This is an inventive but still appropriately simple tale of revenge after death, and as a tribute to Tales from the Crypt-style storylines, it works very well.
The second story is called “Boys Do Get Bruised,” involving a teacher named Richard (Rusty Cundieff) who becomes concerned about his student Walter (Brandon Hammond) after noticing bruises on the boy’s arms and his references to monsters in his house. Richard attempts to talk to the parents (Paula Jai Parker, David Alan Grier) about the situation but only makes things worse; turns out that the monster Walter’s afraid of is his abusive father, although Walter has the ability to combat it with his special powers.
“Boys Do Get Bruised” is a fairly good story – and its supernatural twist is a pretty intriguing development – but ultimately it feels a little too on-the-nose with its metaphors. It’s pretty clear from the start that Walter’s monster isn’t actually real, but instead a visual representation of his father; while the tale certainly does a good job of depicting this abusive situation and driving home the morals about noticing inappropriate parental behavior, the lack of character development for Grier’s character in particular – a fairly generic bad dad with no reasoning behind it – limits the emotional impact. Still, Cundieff puts himself into the role of the good guy here with some pretty good acting and “Boys Do Get Bruised” features a darkly comedic series of effects as Grier gets corkscrewed into a pretzel.
Following that is “KKK Comeuppance,” another standout episode on this anthology. Corbin Bernsen plays insanely offensive racist senator Duke Metger, who just so happens to have a black assistant (Roger Guenveur Smith) helping him work on his image (that’s a veiled way of saying “make him look like he’s not racist despite his affiliation to the Ku Klux Klan”). But Metger lives in a house that used to be owned by a black woman practicing hoodoo, with a portrait of her and her dolls on the wall; after offending them, Metger finds that the dolls aren’t just part of a mural but are actually alive, and they’re hungry for some reparations.
“KKK Comeuppance” is a fun story, and it’s one of the more comedic moments in Tales from the Hood (besides the wraparound story). Bernsen is despicable in his role, and he manages it with gusto – Metger is the type of guy who barely realizes the vitriolic things coming out of his mouth are actually offensive, and there are a couple of moments where his racism seems ingrained in his psyche. Even so, the script often finds Metger dropping N-bombs all over the place, making him an unlikable character the audience will actively be rooting against. But the story’s most attractive element are its hoodoo dolls, with some frightening facial characteristics. “KKK Comeuppance” has some great pacing with its episodic length, too, lending it more tension than the usual killer doll plot.
Finally, “Hard-Core Convert” is the last story and the one that ties in directly to the wraparound story in the mortuary. It follows a gangbanger named Crazy K (Lamont Bentley) after he kills a rival in cold blood and then gets shot in the ensuing chaos. He’s taken into custody and given the option to try some psychological rehabilitation treatment, wherein he’s administered a number of violent images by Dr. Cushing (Rosalind Cash) in an attempt to allow him to see the consequences of his actions. The test doesn’t work, though it was all just a figment of his mind anyway before death.
Next to “Boys Do Get Bruised,” this is Tales from the Hood‘s second weakest story, though it does have some important messages about street violence. Bentley does a great job in his role, but ultimately the whole thing feels a little half-baked. This is probably due to the need to segue back into the mortuary scenes with Mr. Simms, a necessary moment that reveals the three drug dealers are actually the same men who murdered Crazy K. “Welcome to the Mortuary” is effective in design – the stories deriving from the bodies of each of the four dead men in the tales – but its ideas are overly simplistic. The film ends with the three guys burning in a hell of their own design, perhaps the most generic ending the audience could have predicted.
Still, as a whole Tales from the Hood is an effective piece of horror with a lot of great takes on EC Comics plots, and it’s a lot of fun to watch. It’s certainly not a perfect representation of those elements, but it’s remarkable how relevant it remains over two decades later; these black perspectives offer up the same problems and systemic issues plaguing society today. Tales from the Hood is an important film, perhaps even more than Tales from the Crypt ever was, and contemporary horror audiences would do well to adopt this into their collection.