Sunday, July 17, 2016

Tales from the Hood

Executive produced by Spike Lee and directed by Rusty Cundieff, Tales from the Hood (1995) does what the best horror does: uses the fantastical monsters and scares to comment on real-world issues. Tales from the Hood is an anthology in the tradition of Tales from the Crypt told from an African American perspective. In addition to the expected zombies and ghosts, the movie presents all too-real horrors, including police brutality, domestic abuse, gangster life, and the legacy of slavery.

The film opens at the Simms Funeral Home where three teenage gang members show up to buy drugs the mortuary's strange owner (Clarence Williams III) claims to have. As he leads them through the building, he relates four tales about his most recent "customers." This sets up the stories that comprise the movie.

"Rogue Cop Revelation:" A black, rookie cop named Clarence (Anthony Griffith) witnesses three white officers beat, frame, and murder black city councilman Martin Moorehouse (Tom Wright) for going after crooked police officers who've been dealing drugs in the community. A year later, Clarence is a drunk and off the force when he begins hearing the voice of Moorehouse, who commands Clarence to bring the murderers to him.

"Boys Do Get Bruised:" Young Walter (Brandon Hammond) begins at a new school where his kindly teacher Mr. Garvy (Cundieff himself) notices bruises on the boy. When asked, Walter claims the monster in his house caused them. He even drew a picture of the monster, believing if he destroys the picture, he'll destroy the monster.

"KKK Comeuppance:" Gubernatorial candidate Duke Metger (Corbin Bernsen) sets up his campaign in a former plantation mansion where his ancestor murdered his slaves rather than free them. Metger, a former Klansman, ignores warnings that the souls of the murdered slaves now haunt the mansion in Hoodoo dolls, and they will not rest until they receive reparations.

"Hard-Core Convict:" Violent gang leader Crazy K (Lamont Bentley) survives being shot but is arrested and sentenced to life in prison. However, Dr. Cushing (Rosalind Cash) offers him freedom if he agrees to undergo behavior modification treatment. Plunged into darkness, he confronts the ghosts of the people he's killed.

Tales from the Hood is a thought-provoking film, and it's not hard to watch it and spot some uncanny parallels to the real world. The murder of Moorehouse in the first story reminds the viewer of the beating of Rodney King that occurred only a few years prior, and King's famous quote "Can't we all just get along?" is mocked by one of the cops, Strom (Wings Hauser), just before he pisses on the murdered man's grave. Man, Strom (as in Strom Thurmond) was just asking for it, wasn't he?

Meanwhile, Metger is undoubtedly a parody of real-life politician David Duke, a  former Grand Wizard of the KKK who did run for governor of Louisiana and lost, but he did win a majority of white votes. These white characters are openly racist, corrupt, self-serving, and in positions of power. The film is arguably more relevant today than it was 20 years ago, considering the number of recent high profile deaths of black individuals at the hands of police officers and the presidential candidate for the Republican party in 2016 can receive support from the real David Duke. In the movie at least, justice prevails; in the tradition of the best just desserts stories, the scales of justice weigh against the corrupt through supernatural means - i.e. the dead coming back to life - when human law fails and these villains exhibit no remorse, regret, or conscience toward their actions.

But Tales from the Hood is not a just a cathartic, revenge-against-whitey diatribe. The film turns its gaze onto the inner-city black community and points out the sins there. Clarence stood by and did nothing when Moorehouse was being murdered, the monster in Walter's house is not a boogeyman in the closet but his abusive stepfather Carl (David Alan Grier), and Crazy K is unrepentant and defiant to the end, unwilling to accept responsibility for his actions or break the chains of violence when given the chance. In prison, Crazy K rooms next to a white supremacist, who rightly points out that all the people Crazy K has killed have been black, and during his treatment, he sees images of gang violence side-by-side with lynchings and Klan murders. When we come back to the three youths with Mr. Simms, we learn these boys have literally damned themselves.

Heady subject matter aside, Tales from the Hood is a fun, stylish horror movie that mixes a variety of monsters to tell its stories, including the requisite zombie coming back for revenge and the tiny, terrorizing creatures without which no horror anthology is complete. The makeup effects are cool, and Cundieff keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and the performances are uniformly great, whether wonderfully hammy, subtly creepy, over-the-top despicable, or heart-breakingly sympathetic. The standouts are Williams, who is probably my favorite "host" for this type of movie and has to be seen to be believed; Grier, who is surprisingly menacing in a rare villain part; and Bernsen, who is go-for-broke sleazy.

The movie also suggests a possible solution to some of these social ills: art. In "Roge Cop Revelation," the final murderer is killed when Moorehouse uses flying heroin syringes to crucify him and trap him in a street mural; art spreads the truth, refusing to let a good man be remembered as a drug dealer and showing who the real criminal is. In "Boys Do Get Bruised," Walter's drawings have a power that he uses to stop his stepfather; art and by extension education give him a path out of a toxic environment. In "KKK Comeuppance," the dolls first appear in a mural that Metger vows to paint over but never gets the chance to; art keeps history alive, refusing to let it be whitewashed.

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