Behind creaky, forbidding entry gates more befitting a haunted house than an undertaker’s chapel, Simms (Clarence Williams III), a somewhat menacing, maybe even mentally unhinged mortician, is being pressed by a trio of gang-bangers who have busted into his parlor looking for some drugs they think are hidden there. As thunder and lightning crash outside, one of the young toughs points a pistol at the freaky funeral director and demands that he produce “the shit.” Simms' drawn-out, insinuating response, which earns both laughs and a strange chill, is a pitch-perfect intro to the four tales he’ll soon spin which make up Tales from the Hood:
“Don't worry. You'll get the shit. You'll be knee-deep... in the shit.”
Writer-director Rusty Cundieff (Fear of a Black Hat, Chappelle’s Show), under the auspices of Spike’s Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks production company, puts a spirited twist on the lurid, cheerfully disreputable EC Comics/Amicus anthology horror anthologies of old: he grounds his supernaturally-tinged tales in horrors that were heavy on the minds of its “urban” demographic in 1995, when the persistent echoes of Rodney King, the Los Angeles Riots and the legacy of LAPD Chief Daryl Gates were still reverberating perhaps only slightly louder and more persistently than they still do today.
What’s interesting is how in each tale the movie makes a case for a form of art as folkloric warning and even as the means for exacting retribution for evil—a wronged anti-drug crusader, murdered at the hands of racist cops, beckons from a giant graffiti mural to set his revenge in motion; a young boy, beaten mercilessly by a cruel stepfather, not only uses his crayon drawings to alert a concerned teacher to his peril but also to fight back against his very personal monster; and a David Duke-esque politician incurs the wrath of a voodoo priestess, who releases the souls of murdered slaves-- in the form of anguished, very scary dolls-- from the canvas of a painting hung over the mantel of an old plantation house. As if to drive home the point, the final tale (one notably free of supernatural evidence) draws a parallel between outrageously baroque behavior modification montage techniques (headed up by the imposing, imperiously beautiful Rosalind Cash) and Cundieff’s own modest filmmaking, both tools employed to battle the horror of self-directed, black-on-black genocide.
Tales from the Hood is an intermittently effective horror movie in the classic sense of the term, but more to the point it mostly avoids strident preaching while ably demonstrating how everyday horror can be reflected and addressed within tales of deadly dolls, brutal monsters, the relentless, righteous undead and, of course, the smoldering fires of eternal damnation, the ultimate terrordome. The best advice for any audience would be to heed the sinister mortician’s cackle, not to mention the satanic gleam in his eye, and just dig this shit.