Studio: Scream Factory
Director: Rusty Cundieff
Writer: Rusty Cundieff, Darin Scott
Producer: Darin Scott
Stars: Corbin Bernsen, Lamont Bentley, De’aundre Bonds, Rosalind Cash, Anthony Griffith, David Alan Grier, Brandon Hammond, Wings Hauser, Michael Massee, Sam Monroe, Joe Torry, Clarence Williams III, Tom Wright
A mysterious mortician tells four horror stories of corrupt cops, domestic abuse, a racist politician, and gang violence.
With its practical effects, matte paintings, and stop-motion animation, the production values of “Tales from the Hood” definitely date the movie to the era in which it was made. Its content on the other hand, most certainly does not.
Director Rusty Cundieff and producer Darin Scott co-wrote their socially conscious horror anthology under the influence of Rodney King’s beating, Jesse Helms’ reelection, and rising gang culture issues that deeply impacted black communities at the time. Now I am writing this review in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, Donald Trump’s presidency, and a staggering homicide rate that has Chicago on its heels.
It’s ridiculously depressing to compare those parallels and realize names change, but stories remain the same. The scariest thing about “Tales from the Hood” is that despite being two decades removed from its 1995 theatrical debut, its subtext about corrupt authorities, domestic abuse, racist politicians, and urban violence is as relevant now as it was then.
“Tales from the Hood” isn’t just crafty about fashioning a fright film from timely topics that could be taboo to tap for entertainment. While striking the necessary notes for its wide range of commentaries, “Tales from the Hood” pays equal attention to spanning an extensive scope of horror hooks that include monsters, murder, a mad scientist, vengeful ghosts, even killer dolls. Cundieff and Scott have their fingers on the pulse of the public as well as on the entire genre itself.
Clarence Williams III plays horror host Mr. Simms, a mysterious mortician telling tales of the corpses adorning his funeral parlor to three wayward hoodlums. Williams’ weirdly wide-eyed stare and Shatner-esque rasp set the overall atmosphere right off the bat. “Tales from the Hood” is serious about its stories, yet there is a tinge of campiness squaring its style in an EC Comics tone.
The first standalone segment, “Rogue Cop Revelation,” involves white cops beating a civil rights leader to death, and a black rookie riddled with guilt over not doing enough to stop it. The film’s Gaines/Feldstein influence is in full effect here, culminating in a climax featuring a comeuppance courtesy of a wronged zombie and a final twist ensuring an unhappy ending for the protagonist too. This is textbook “Tales from the Crypt” storytelling and “Tales from the Hood” has it down pat.
Cundieff and Scott’s screenplay is made brilliant by how broad it is thematically. “Tales from the Hood” has much to say about black social issues specifically, yet it isn’t superficially focused solely on racial divisions.
“Boys Do Get Bruised” concerns Walter, a battered boy who insists a monster at home regularly beats him, although his teacher suspects someone human is to blame. The tale takes place in an urban setting, except its topic of a dysfunctional family in a broken home is accessible outside of the environment depicted. This particular problem isn’t determined by race. It’s a community issue that is widely relatable.
David Alan Grier, known best at the time for his comedic contributions to “In Living Color,” is excellently cast against type as an abusive powder keg who longs to have his fuse lit. One of the anthology’s strong suits is its smart sense of how to layer humor without undermining horror, a technique well evidenced here. Grier’s attacks are reprehensibly awful, but an air in the approach of how he is played and how Cundieff directs him permit occasional laughs to relieve the tension.
This is also the case for “KKK Comeuppance.” Corbin Bernsen’s racist politician, an ex-Klansman running for governor, is irredeemably vile. His hate is in every self-assured sneer and the spittle of each unflattering epithet. However, Cundieff has Bernsen give him a buffoonish tint that makes him a comically appealing caricature.
“Tales from the Hood” is neck deep in hard subject matter that can come across far nastier in another context. What you come to realize is that conceits and effects that initially appear cheesy are actually constructed to let you laugh and to cheer without becoming mired in the material’s darkness.
If animated puppets didn’t bite at Corbin Bernsen’s flesh, tone would be far less enjoyable and far more terrible. If a reanimated corpse didn’t have a glowing green crack pipe in its ribcage when taking revenge on abusive cops, the brutality of racially motivated murder would consume the mood. “Tales from the Hood” knows it needs a little levity, and it hones that edge expertly.
Every anthology has a lesser entry, and “Hard Core Convert” fits that bill here. “Tales from the Hood” tackles black on black crime in this story of an unrepentant gangbanger forced to face the long history of murdered men to which he helped contribute.
“Hard Core Convert” doesn’t quite know what message it means to impart with its payoff, seemingly satisfied to identify the issue and then not truly evolve a character or story around its concept. The greater purpose appears to be setting up a transition back to the wraparound to tie everything together.
The strength of the other three stories and the demented delirium of the framing device give “Tales from the Hood” leeway to indulge in one underwhelming effort. As a total package, the anthology is top of the line in tone, intent, and enjoyment.
Rusty Cundieff, Darin Scott, and a visibly committed cast created something special, and it’s a small shame that their film didn’t birth a perennial series. Though the greater shame is that a chief reason “Tales from the Hood” ages so well is because society isn’t moving fast enough to improve the complex issues the film addresses.
Review Score: 85
Scream Factory Collector’s Edition: Scream Factory’s reputation for outstanding high-definition transfers makes discussion of presentation moot. If anything, the Blu-ray looks ‘too good,’ as seams in effects or the space between a pulled punch and a flopping actor are more visible because of crisp video.
Packaging earns additional kudos for its reversible cover. As excellent as Joel Robinson’s colorful collage is for the updated art, it’s nice to have the option of flipping over to the distinctive poster image of a gold-toothed skull in sunglasses.
Welcome to Hell – The Making of Tales from the Hood: An all-new hour-long mini-documentary is the highlight of the disc’s Special Features. There isn’t anything by way of behind-the-scenes footage, however. Supplemented by contextual clips from the film, “Welcome to Hell” edits together a series of sit-down interviews with director Rusty Cundieff, producer Darin Scott, a handful of FX people, and actors Corbin Bernsen, Wings Hauser, and Anthony Griffith. This means most of the minutes are weighted toward “Rogue Cop Revelation” and “KKK Comeuppance,” as there aren’t any other cast members on hand to dish about the other two stories or wraparound.
It’s disappointing that we don’t get to catch up with folks like Clarence Williams III or David Alan Grier. But several secrets are shared about the various makeup teams that worked on each segment, along with interesting insight about the true story behind “Boys Do Get Bruised,” among other anecdotes.
Audio Commentary with Director Rusty Cundieff: The box mistakenly mentions that commentary also includes producer/co-writer Darin Scott, but Scott actually isn’t on the track. Cundieff goes it alone for 98 minutes and frankly, it’s a dull director’s commentary. It’s too bad because Cundieff becomes visibly animated several times when paired with Scott in their “Making Of” interview. He’s missing that energy on his solo audio track however, leaving his commentary to trail off in a monotone that is light on essential trivia or revelatory information.
Additional Special Features: Aside from standard inclusions such as a trailer and TV spots, a five-minute vintage featurette is the only notable bullet point here. It’s mostly made up of clips and too short to have replay value. But it’s the closest thing there is to on-set footage and brief reflections from Williams, Grier, executive producer Spike Lee, and others.