As reported in these here pages, Jordan Peele of Key & Peele fame is writing and directing a straight horror film called Get Out, which is explicitly about “the fears of being a black man today” and “takes on the task of exploring race in America,” something he claims has not been done in a horror movie since Night Of The Living Dead.
The idea of a Peele-created horror movie that delves boldly and explicitly into the murky and turbulent waters of our nation’s racial history is incredibly exciting. Yet Get Out is most assuredly not the first horror film to tackle race in America since Night Of The Living Dead. As a comedy veteran and a horror buff, it’s likely that Peele has seen, but apparently forgotten about, the 1995 horror anthology Tales From The Hood, a Spike Lee-executive produced treatise on the plight of the black man in America that explores race in America to an exhaustive and exhausting degree. Like Peele, the film’s director, co-writer, and co-star, Rusty Cundieff, came from a comedy background, having recently triumphed with the cult hip-hop spoof Fear Of A Black Hat. (He went on to direct episodes of Chappelle’s Show and Human Giant, among other television work).
How didactic is Tales From The Hood? It’s not just unusually polemical and obsessed with race and politics for a horror movie. It’s unusually polemical and obsessed with race and politics even for a Spike Lee production. It’s the kind of movie that feels the need to actually name an ex-Klansman turned Southern politician—modeled on David Duke and played by Corbin Bernsen—Duke Metger.
As its title not too subtly conveys, Tales From The Hood is a black variation on Tales From The Crypt, which broke into the American movie business (a British Tales From The Crypt was made in the 1970s) that same year with Demon Knight, a movie directed by Ernest Dickerson, an early cinematographer for Spike Lee. Instead of an endlessly punning Crypt-Keeper, Tales From The Hood boasts Mr. Simms, a funeral home proprietor with Don King hair and a perpetual gleam of madness in his eyes, played by the great character actor Clarence Williams III. The film’s framing story finds a trio of thugs who look like they just got off the set for a Death Row music video showing up at Mr. Simms’ spooky-ass funeral home in search of “the shit,” a.k.a. the drugs that they’re convinced are at this macabre home for the dead. Mr. Simms then shows the annoyed and impatient thugs some neatly dressed corpses in caskets and a spooky demon doll. In the grandly cheesy tradition of horror anthology, each of these objects leads to a separate vignette addressing a different important social issue.
The stories begin with “Rogue Cop Revelation,” the weakest and most heavy-handed narrative. It’s a shrill bit of social commentary about a young and inexperienced black police officer powerless to keep his racist white peers from framing and murdering a city councilman who has been campaigning against police corruption. The panic-stricken and depressed black cop quits the force and is haunted by the dead man calling for vengeance. Despite the presence of old pros like Wings Hauser, who plays the ringleader of the evil cops, the vignette feels borderline amateur. A lot of anthologies, horror and otherwise, lose vignettes somewhere along the way, and Tales From The Hood would be much stronger if “Rogue Cop Revelation” had been left on the cutting room floor.
Tales From The Hood improves with its second and least race-obsessed story, “Boys Do Get Bruised,” the atmospheric, moody tale of an abused, traumatized young boy who tells his concerned teacher that his injuries are the product of the monster that has been terrorizing his family following his dad’s death. For all their supernatural elements, the horrors of Tales From The Hood are rooted in real life. In “Boys Do Get Bruised,” the monster is not a fantastical beast, but a boyfriend played by David Alan Grier who abuses both his girlfriend and her son.
If “Boys Do Get Bruised” is relatively apolitical, the next vignette, the tellingly titled “KKK Comeuppance,” swings hard in the other direction. The spooky tale follows the poor decisions of Duke Metger (Corbin Bernsen), an ex-Klansman and politician so shameless and ballsy that he sets up shop in a former plantation notorious for allegedly being haunted by the spirits of slaves who were massacred there, then put inside the souls of evil little dolls by a hoodoo witch. That would be enough to get most racists to keep on searching the real estate ads. But Duke is perversely unafraid and sets up shop in the former plantation, where he gets advice from “Rhodie” (Roger Guenveur Smith), a black man willing to put his pride and contempt for Duke aside for the sake of a fat paycheck.
After Rhodie falls to his death, Duke is terrorized by evil dolls in a segment that pays reverent homage to the Zuni fetish doll sequence in Trilogy Of Terror and benefits from surprisingly effective stop-motion animation and the creepy design of the malevolent little creatures. To paraphrase Faulkner, in Tales From The Hood, the past didn’t go anywhere. It’s not even the past. The evil and sins of previous decades, particularly regarding slavery and Jim Crow, are an ever-present sinister force just waiting to be awoken.
Accordingly, “Hard-Core Converts,” the fourth and final vignette (not including the framing story) is full of images redolent of slavery. The story follows a brutal gangsta nicknamed Crazy K (Lamont Bentley) who is arrested and put inside a sinister government program to “rehabilitate” criminals by subjecting them to brutal conditioning. Like a slave, Crazy K is stripped nearly naked, caged, strapped down, and placed in shackles. He’s then tortured with nightmarish visions of brutality and death that juxtapose images of vicious violence against black people committed by Klansmen with equally vicious images of violence being committed against black people by black gangbangers.
In Tales From The Hood, the overt villains are racist white people (and pretty much every white person here is evil and racist), but the film reserves special scorn for black people who work against the best interests of the African-American community. Black people in the movie who betray their own suffer death, torture, humiliation, insanity, and worse, whether they’re a cop who fails to intervene when his peers are framing an important activist, a political advisor who whores himself out to someone he knows is evil and corrupt, a monstrous man who beats a small child and a grown woman, or a gangbanger whose predilection for killing black people en masse is enthusiastically endorsed by the neo-Nazi he finds himself caged next to in an experimental government program.
After a shaky start, Tales From The Hood improves as it progresses. By the time it reaches “Hard-Core Converts” and the payoff for the framing story, an initially clunky and shrill movie has cultivated a sense of righteous anger. As befits a Spike Lee production, Tales From The Hood is about issues important and timely. There’s something winningly subversive about Trojan-horsing (at the height of West Coast gangsta rap, no less) a strong condemnation of black-on-black violence and gangsta nihilism inside a movie whose primary selling point was a G-funk-leaning soundtrack featuring the likes of Spice 1, Gravediggaz, and Wu-Tang Clan.
Tales From The Hood is exactly the kind of conceptually brilliant, often inspired, but deeply flawed movie that should be rebooted or remade. It’s worth noting that Lee made a foray into race-conscious horror himself recently with Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus, a movie infinitely more pretentious than Tales From The Hood and a fraction as fun and entertaining.
Perhaps if Peele’s Get Out is a hit, it can be followed by a Tales From The Hood reboot (at the very least, the movie deserves the deluxe Blu-ray treatment from Scream Factory) as part of a full-on wave of horror movies about the black experience in the United States. It’s fascinating and largely untapped territory for American horror films, but not quite as untapped as Peele’s public statements might lead you to believe.