“Death… it comes in many strange packages.” -Mr. Simms
With Get Out recently cleaning up at the box office and filling Rotten Tomatoes with so much woke freshness, the time couldn’t be more right for Rusty Cundieff’s Tales From The Hood to get some long overdue kudos. Released to a smattering of critical appreciation and deeply underwhelming ticket tallies in 1995, the Spike Lee produced horror anthology now feels both strikingly ahead of its time and undeniably dated to its time. Pitched as both a loving homage to EC Comics and the great anthology horror flicks of the past (Dead Of Night, the Amicus series, etc.) as well as an exploration of social ills affecting the black community in the mid-90s, Tales From The Hood is both a gleefully silly scare factory and deadly serious social satire. Sure, the tones sometimes clash, yet for the most part what Rusty Cundieff did here to relative little acclaim is strikingly similar to what Jordan Peele recently achieved with his deservedly adored new genre classic. Cundieff’s film just coats it’s artistic ambitions in a hearty layer of deliberate horror cheese, which makes it a perfect addition to Shout Factory’s ever-growing cult movie Blu-ray collection.
Like all good old timey horror anthology flicks, Tales From The Hood kicks off with a wrap around narrative and a haunting host. In this case a trio of gently comedic 90s gangbangers stumble into a funeral home with plans of ripping it off. They’re stopped by a hysterically creepy mortician played by the great Clarence Williams III (of The Mod Squad fame). Between scene-stealing and teeth-browning comps on a cigar, Williams creates a mugging Cryptkeeper stand-in to set up the horror shorts about three separate corpses. The first is an EC twist on the Rodney King scandal. A crusading black DA is beaten, framed, and murdered by the police only to rise from the grave as a comeuppance zombie to take revenge on the racist cops responsible. It’s both a classic Tales From The Crypt-style revenge/morality horror story executed with playful homage and a vicious indictment of institutionalized racism that feels far more relevant than it should over twenty years later.
Next up comes a tale of a young boy who draws endless pictures at school about a monster who abuses him at home until a concerned teacher to comes face-to-face with the real monster of David Alan Grier’s chillingly cast-against-type abusive father. This short is a bit on-the-nose in an after school special way, but builds to a hell of a climax thanks to Grier’s disturbingly committed performance and some delightfully surreal horror F/X from the great Screaming Mad George (Society, Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master). After that, Cundieff delivers arguably the best short of the bunch in bit of puppet horror insanity featuring a racist Southern politician who stupidly sets his campaign office on the site of an old slave plantation that just happens to be haunted by some possessed marionettes. Pitched with just the right level of dark humour, bitter satire, and goofy Charles Band-esque puppet monster mash (executed with some fantastic stop motion animation), the short laces the tongue in cheek vibe of HBO’s Tales From The Crypt with some pointed social satire that stings between the laughs and shocks.
The final short offers bizarre n’ poignant exploration of gang violence in the tale of a recently incarcerated young man entering a rehabilitation process that exposes him to the inconvenient truth that gangs are killing off their own race one drive-by at a time. It’s heady n’ harsh stuff, so Cundieff cools things off with a morbidly hilarious and appropriate send off that pulls all the shorts together for one final hellish twist. Co-written by Darin Scott (who helped make the brilliant 80s indie Vincent Price-hosted anthology From A Whisper To A Scream that also deserves a wider audience) Tales From The Hood is clearly made by a pair of horror fans who love the history and camp appeal of the subgenre that they are playing with. The flick is arguably a better Tales From The Crypt homage than any of the 90s productions that had the brand name and Cryptkeeper (but not always the same level or moral indignation of the comics). The tone is serious enough to carry the thematic weight and consistent scares, yet also self-aware of the cornball limitations of this stylized n’ silly brand of horror. It’s a romp, just one that hits on enough harsh truths to sting long after the jumps and laughs fade.
The way Rusty Cundieff uses horror to dig into the social horrors facing the black community (both from the outside and within) represents the impact the genre can have at it’s best. The filmmaker has very intelligent and provocative lessons to impart, he just does so through a rollercoaster of suspense, gore, satire, and gentle irony. Few 90s horror movies dared to be so ambitious and Universal did Tales From The Hood a grave injustice by mis-marketing it as empty headed scares with an urban setting 20 years ago. Sure, Tales From The Hood is a hoot, but it’s the horrific truths that linger long after the movie’s sensory assault that makes it so special. That’s what earned this movie a cult audience over the years since it disappeared from theaters, overshadowed by it’s successful soundtrack album (oh the 90s). These days, it helps the flick hold up far better than most genre efforts from that decade. While Jordan Peele’s Get Out (ironically also released by Universal, just through more honest trailers) is certainly a more expertly crafted radicalized horror satire, the basic concept of the film could have condensed well into a short in Rusty Cundieff’s equally intelligent, if infinitely sillier and deliberately crude horror anthology. For anyone who recently saw Get Out and is curious if there’s anything similar out there, Tales From The Hood is as good a place as any to start. Hopefully this new Blu will help get it in front of the right eyeballs.
As usual, Shout! Factory have done a hell of a job scrubbing up Tales From The Hood for HD. The colourful and atmospheric visuals have never looked so clear and film-like. Shout’s presentation is leaps and bounds beyond the old pixelated DVD release and if it’s not the prettiest horror Blu that the company have put out over the last few years, that’s likely as much a result of the decades old prints and a low budget as anything that went wrong in the restoration. It’s hard to believe Tales From The Hood ever looked this good in any theatrical presentation and the lossless audio mix only adds to the impact with some quease-inducing sound design and a damn fine 90s hip-hop soundtrack.
The disc also represents the first time that Tales From The Hood has ever been given respect in the special features department. The centrepiece is an absolutely fabulous hour-long documentary. There are some painfully honest discussions about how the movie was poorly marketed and barely released, but other than that everyone involved is infectiously enthusiastic and proud of their work. In particular, the shared interview between Rusty Cundieff and his co-writer Darin Scott covers everything from their thematic ambitions and cinematic influences to production horror stories and joys. The duo giddily dive into everything that went wrong and right with the film, while various effects artists and crew members pop up to flesh out how specific scenes and tricks were achieved (with special focus on the stop motion sequence, which was actually expanded after some enthusiastic test screenings). Unfortunately no one from the cast pops up in the doc, which is a shame because Clarence Williams III and David Allen Grier would likely have added some extra funnies and factoids with ease. But oh well…it’s still a damn good time.
Next up comes a director’s commentary from Rusty Cundieff that has some overlapping info with the doc, yet still digs deeper into the ambitions, struggles, and successes the filmmaker had with his horror debut. Finally, there’s a vintage ‘making of’ featurette and trailers that serve up nostalgia and evidence of how clueless the studio was in selling the picture. Overall, this is not exactly Shout! Factory’s most loaded release, but given that it’s Tales From The Hood we’re talking about, it’s easily above and beyond anything the growing cult of fans for the film could have expected. This company is great at giving cult horror flicks the HD releases they deserve, but rarely have they put out a title as deserving of reappraisal and appreciation as Tales From The Hood. Timing this release after Get Out couldn’t have been better, even if it was by chance.
Does this deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
Tales From The Hood is one of the most underrated horror flicks of the 90s and it’s about time that this bit of cornball horror brilliance had a few more fans. If you think you might be one of them, you won’t be disappointed.
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