31 (More) Days of Fright: Tales from the Hood

Tales from the Hood: a cautionary tale about conducting narcotics transactions in places of eternal rest.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film was chosen by friend and talented artist, Lauren Crazybull: horror anthology Tales from the Hood, directed by Rusty Cundieff (Fear of a Black Hat). I rented Tales from the Hood from Toronto’s Bay Street Video.

What happens:

Trigger warnings: racism and racial violence, domestic abuse.

Three gangbangers in search of drugs roll up to the Simms Funeral Home, which promises both professional and courteous service. Hearing the spooky organ music from inside, Stack (Joe Torry) begins to reconsider entering this place of death, but his partners, Ball (De’aundre Bonds) and Bulldog (Samuel Monroe Jr), especially, goad him into being braver. After all, if any dead people creep up on him, he can just blast them with his gun. But how can you kill someone that’s already dead, Stack wonders. While they ponder this thought, the eerie, gap-toothed funeral director, Mr. Simms (an incredible Clarence Williams III) pops out and spooks them, causing Stack to smack his head as he scurries away.

While Simms gathers ice for Stack’s head, Bulldog asks about “the shit.” See, the Black youth have come to the funeral home because Simms claims to have found stash of drugs. Drugs he is willing to trade for cash. As a novice drug dealer, Simms is a little unsure how to handle the transaction, but he assures the youth, “You’ll soon be knee-deep in the shit.” But before the transaction takes place, Simms will introduce the three men to several corpses and recall the tale behind the death of each – four vignettes that serve as nightmare reflections of Black American life.

The first vignette begins as a sort of Training Day situation, with rookie Black police officer, Clarence (Anthony Griffith) being shown the ropes by white partner, Newton (Michael Massee). During their drive, they come across two fellow officers – Strom (Wings Hauser) and Billy (Duane Whitaker), who have pulled over a Black professional. The driver asks what he’s been pulled over for, and one of the crooked cops smashes his tail light. The officers begin to treat the man roughly, as he’s apparently agitated against the city’s police corruption. When rookie Clarence tries to intervene, the other officers threaten him and send him back to the car to run plates on the driver.

Crooked police pull over Moorehouse for the usual DWB.

While Clarence is in his cruiser, the other cops shove the driver’s head through the driver-side window. The driver retaliates by punching Strom, which incites the two white cops to beat the man within an inch of his life (all to the tune of “Strange Fruit”). Clarence discovers who the driver is – an urban political activist a la Jesse Jackson, Martin Moorehouse (Tom Wright) – and rushes out of the car to stop his senior officers. They stop just short of killing Moorehouse. Clarence pleads with his partner, Newton, to report the other two, but Newton warns him he’s new and doesn’t understand police work. Perhaps Moorehouse went for their guns. They don’t know. “Ya’ never rat out a fellow officer,” Newton says.

The two cops promise to take Moorehouse to the hospital, but they drive his unconscious body to the docks, inject him with heroin, place him in an abandoned car and drive it into the river.

A year later, Clarence is haunted by Moorehouse’s “unsolved” death. He’s left the force and started drinking, wandering skid row. On a brick wall, he sees a mural of local hero Martin Moorehouse and hears it call to him: “Bring them to me.” Clarence summons his former co-workers to the cemetery one night. He tells them he’s brought them together to celebrate: it’s been one year since he fell for their lies, since he believed they’d take Moorehouse to the hospital. The cops warn Clarence that if he squeals, he’ll be implicated in Moorehouse’s murder, too. Clarence doesn’t want to report them, though; he just wants them to pay their respects at Moorehouse’s grave.

The police officers reluctantly agree (assuming this is the last they have to hear from Clarence). Clarence announces to the tombstone that he’s followed instructions. Lightning flashes, but nothing else happens. Strom shoves Clarence out of his way and disrespectfully pisses on Moorehouse’s grave. He then strong-arms Billy into doing the same. As Billy struggles to urinate, the other cops cock their pistols and aim at Clarence. Just then, a hand shoots out of the grave and drags Billy under the ground. Strom panics and unloads his gun on the tombstone. Dirt then explodes from the cemetery plot, revealing Billy dead in the coffin and a zombified Moorehouse holding Billy’s bloody heart in his hand.

Like Jesse Jackson’s political campaigns, Moorehouse is never really dead.

Bullets don’t seem to stop zombie Moorehouse, so the cops rush to their car in a frenzy. They speed away, but no matter how fast they drive, Moorehouse seems to be right behind them, like Jason in a Friday the 13th film. The police cruiser spins out of control and crashes. That’s when Moorehouse, on the car roof, pulls Strom through the ceiling and rips off his head. Newton escapes the car and opens fire, causing the car to explode in a massive fireball. He runs away, inadvertently rushing right into skid row. When he spots the Moorehouse mural, he freaks out. “You’re dead!” he rants. But Moorehouse is far from dead. The zombie follows him into an alley and telekinetically causes the discarded crack needles to fly into Newton’s body. He’s soon crucified by a dozen syringes, the final one flying directly into his screaming mouth.

Newton’s face melts like he’s just seen the Ark of the Covenant, and he transforms into a new painted mural on the brick wall. Clarence approaches the zombie Moorehouse, asking if the spirit is now satisfied, but he’s not. Moorehouse chokes Clarence, demanding, “Where were you when I needed you, brother?” The final shot of the vignette features Clarence in a strait-jacket.

Ball is suitably impressed by the story: “Talk about some insane-in-the-membrane shit.” The funeral director then discusses the intersections between reality and perception, and guides the three men into another room as he starts the second story, about a young boy named Walter. Walter (Brandon Hammond) is a young boy terrified by monster noises in his bed at night. On his first day at a new school, a kindly teacher who seems to be styled by Doug E. Doug, Mr. Garvey (Rusty Cundieff, the film’s director), introduces Walter to the class. Almost immediately, he is attacked by a bully, Tyrone (Chris Edwards). When the nurse examines his injuries, she discovers a black eye that predates the day’s fight. Mr. Garvey inquires if the black eye is from someone at home. Perhaps his father? “Nuh-uh,” Walter insists. “He’s dead.” Instead, he says it’s the monster who began to appear after his Dad’s death. Garvey, while sympathetic, tells Walter he’s ready to listen if he ever wants to talk about what is really happening at home.

Like an after-school special turned nightmare.

Another night and another visit from the monster. This time, it opens Walter’s bedroom door and we see a massive clawed hand. The next day, Mr. Garvey notices bruising on Walter’s arm. Walter – at the suggestion of a classmate – begins to draw pictures of the things that scare him: the monster, the bully Tyrone. If he sets the drawings on fire, they won’t be able to hurt him. Mr. Garvey sees these drawings and fears they’re an unhealthy coping mechanism. He asks to speak to Walter’s mother. After Garvey leaves, Walter balls up the drawing of Tyrone and we hear the sound of bones cracking. Tyrone has fallen outside in the playground and broken both his arms and legs.

That night, Mr. Garvey pays a visit to Walter’s house. Walter’s attractive young mother answers the door in a robe and begins to flirt with the equally attractive young Mr. Garvey. After Walter’s mom, Sissy (Paula Jai Walker), changes, she explains her son is clumsy and bumps into things a lot. She’ll insist he stops his foolishness about monsters. Then a man enters and asks what’s going on. Sissy’s boyfriend, Carl (David Alan Grier) sits down with Sissy and the teacher and discusses Walter’s problems. Mr. Garvey shows Carl Walter’s drawing of the monster and Carl gravely says, “I will talk. To him.” Walter departs for his car.

Within moments, Carl is already calling Walter a “little motherfucker” and throwing him against a wall. The monster was Carl all along! Sissy tries to intervene, but Carl punches her several times in the face. Just as he begins to whip Sissy with his belt, Mr. Garvey sees what’s happening in the window from the street. He rushes back in just as Carl is beating on Walter for trying to kill him with a drawing. An epic brawl ensues, in which Carl comes out as victor. Sissy, face bloodied, rushes at Carl with a frying pan, but he wrests it from her and is about to smash her with it when Walter takes the drawing and folds it. Suddenly, Carl’s arm twists and breaks in a horrible way. Then his leg. As Walter crumples the paper, Carl is twisted like a pretzel.

One Carl pancake, coming up.

Walter places the balled-up drawing in front of his mother, who eagerly stomps upon it, killing Carl. But how will they explain Carl’s unnatural state to the authorities? Wise teacher Mr. Garvey has a solution: they place the drawing on a stove’s burner and watch as Carl’s body goes up in flame. The film cuts back to the funeral home and Mr. Simms reveals the contents of the casket: a charred black skeleton.

One of the gang members takes an interest in a creepy doll on display, and the funeral director informs him a doll can be a place for a soul to live until it moves along. This, naturally, guides viewers into our third vignette.

A campaign commercial for Duke Metger (Corbin Bernsen) rails against affirmative action, and Duke himself and his Black campaign manager, Rhodie (Roger Guenveur Smith), look on with approval. Though Metger is a former KKK member who has decided to take up residence in a notorious former plantation, Rhodie is determined to turn him into a viable candidate. (Sounds like presidential material, honestly. And Bernsen is styled suspiciously like a certain current Commander-in-Chief.)

Making America Great again is tougher work than Metger imagined.

Duke Metger complains about the protestors who have camped out on his front lawn – “looking like minstrel show out there” – but local news is keen to speak to the activists. A crotchety farmer type interrupts a man-on-the-street interview. He insists the souls will take care of Metger. The doll house will get him. As legend has it, as the Civil War was nearing its conclusion, the plantation owner – outraged at the South’s loss – killed his slaves in revenge. An old voodoo priestess transported the enslaved people’s souls into a number of dolls – dolls that are supposedly still on the premises, though Duke Metger hasn’t seen them since moving in.

The protestors are incensed Metger has turned this site of Black tragedy into his campaign HQ, but he thinks it has a “certain Southern charm.” Rhodie is creeped out by the large mural of the old voodoo woman and her dolls in the office and guides Metger out to the hallway for some media training. Rhodie peppers Duke with tough questions that journalists might ask, making sure he can spin anything into an affable response. After making a racist joke about “spooks” (and remarking he’s been hanging out with Metger for far too long), Rhodie trips over a doll at the top of the stairs, and falls down the staircase to his doom.

Following Rhodie’s funeral, reporters interrogate Metger about the controversial decision to buy the plantation, and Duke adeptly uses Rhodie’s prepared responses and – in a scene that would sting even more in 1995 – quotes Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along?” Leaving the funeral in a limo, Metger finds a doll on the car floor and flips his lid. “Who did you let into this car?” he screams at the driver. Later, when he checks the video tape, he clearly sees it was the same doll of an enslaved Black man who was responsible for Rhodie’s fall. And in the mural on his office wall, one of the dolls has gone missing!

Alone in the plantation, Duke answers the door, expecting his friend Bruce. But no one is outside. He hears a pitter-patter on the floor and when he turns back, the doll is on his stairs. “I don’t care how many slaves died here,” Duke shouts. “You get NO REPARATIONS!” He tosses a vase at the doll, but the doll goes missing. Duke follows the sound of the doll scurrying about, eventually returning to the office. There, he takes the American flag and smashes it against the painting of the woman’s face, which begins to seep blood. He then sees the doll swinging from the chandelier. It leaps onto his throat and begins to bite him, but Duke whips the doll to the floor and bashes it with the flag pole.

Alternate movie poster for Welcome to the Dollhouse.

To make sure he’s completed the job, Metger affixes the doll to a dart board and blows it apart with a shotgun. When he returns to his office, he notices that more of the dolls in the mural are missing, and the painting has stopped bleeding. “I’m not afraid of you!” he shouts. The original doll returns, and Duke fumbles with his shotgun shells. Terrified, he eventually locks himself in his office. But now all the dolls in the painting have vanished. When Metger turns, he sees a veritable army of dolls in antebellum wear. The original doll directs the others, and they swarm Metger, biting and tearing at him like a tiny zombie horde. As Metger dies his gory death, the old voodoo priestess appears, looking satisfied in her rocking chair and holding the doll in the crook of her arm.

The three youth in the funeral home begin to lose their patience with Mr. Simms after this third story. But then they see another casket containing a body they recognize. One of their friends from the neighbourhood. Mr. Simms then tells the final story of the film, about Crazy K (Lamont Bentley), who got caught up in that thug life.

While cruising the streets, Crazy K – who looks like a Black Golgo 13 – runs across a guy who’s been speaking ill of him. He beckons him to pull over on a side street and promptly shoots him dead in the street. Three guys then rush out of a nearby house and open fire on Crazy K, wounding him. The trio of gangstas surround Crazy K, sprawled on the ground, and muse about how to finish him off. But suddenly a squad of police arrive and open fire on them, killing all three. “Saved by the motherfuckin’ cops,” Crazy K grumbles in disbelief.

We next see Crazy K doing sit-ups in his solitary prison cell. The prison doctor, Dr. Cushing (Rosalind Cash), visits and offers him early release if he submits to certain behavioural modifications. K eagerly agrees, and is soon whisked away to Castle Frankenstein. Orderlies place him in an animal cage beside a white supremacist (Rick Dean), who menaces him and offers him a chance to join his army in the coming race war. “Those guys you killed?” he grimly jokes. “What colour were they?”

Dr. Cushing says she put Crazy K in a cage beside the murderous bigot for a reason – she thought he was someone K needed to see. The dominatrix-like nurses then strap K, hyper-sexualized in his tiny black loincloth, to a medieval torture device. They intubate his nose, hook electrodes to his nipples, and place a ball gag into his mouth. Then they force him to watch film footage – A Clockwork Orange-style – of gang warfare on the streets of urban America, as well as KKK cross burnings, actual photos of lynchings, and other anti-Black violence, all to a soundtrack of gansta rap. Cushing gloats as her subject yells: “Don’t you like watching Black men die? Isn’t that what you do?”

The visit to the leather bar takes an unexpected turn.

Crazy K (or Jerome, to his mother) is then placed in a sensory deprivation chamber. While there, he is visited by all his victims. Friends, enemies, random strangers riddled with bullets (some pretty gruesome) ask him why they had to die. Dr. Cushing asks him the same question. Crazy K turns the question on them, “What about my nightmare?” Life hasn’t been great for him, either. But Cushing says he has the power to end it all, if only he takes responsibility. Jerome says he doesn’t care, and takes a nurse hostage. But soon he realizes he’s hallucinating. In fact, it’s all been a dream – the entire prison sequence. He’s actually still on the ground on that street, with three gang bangers standing over him. The three men shoot him to death.

Our funeral home visitors don’t think that last tale was particularly funny. Primarily because they know that story: they were the three men who killed Crazy K. Realizing that Simms knows more than they’d like, they threaten him their guns and insist he show them to the drugs. Simms guides them into the funeral home basement, where they find Occult texts. Losing patience, Bulldog pistol-whips the funeral director.

Simms brings the three men to where he’s stashed the drugs: inside three coffins. The men open the caskets and are horrified by the contents: each one finds his own corpse within. Simms’s eyes then turn red and the men’s guns blaze red-hot in their hands. Simms informs them that after they killed Krazy K, some of his friends came for them – and they didn’t make it out alive. They’re all dead! In an amazing final monologue, Simms informs them they’re now in Hell. He transforms – in a bit of rough CGI – into a giant devil and flames engulf them all.

Hot tip: don’t point a gun at Lucifer’s head unless you plan to use it.

Takeaway points:

  • Tales from the Hood is remarkable in that it seems ahead of its time. More accurately, race relations in North America have progressed so little that the social issues underlying the film’s horror remain relevant. As Mr. Simms notes, this horror is not something unbelievable: “Everything I say is real.” But the film is ahead of its time in that mainstream white audiences seemed not to respond positively to Tales from the Hood in 1995. One looks at the critical acclaim and commercial success of its spiritual descendant, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and one gets a sense that director Rusty Cundieff was just twenty years too early with this film. Reviews at the time were mixed. From interviews with Cundieff, it sounds as if the studio was afraid to focus on the social messages in trailers and previews. I have no doubt that with the success of Get Out, Tales from the Hood will soon be reassessed as a lost masterpiece (if it isn’t already).
  • While the aforementioned Get Out trains its gaze on the racism as it manifests in white liberals, Tales from the Hood is unusual in that much of the film’s criticism is reserved for Black people who – for lack of a better term – collaborate with the white supremacy. The zombie Moorehouse has no pity for rookie cop Clarence (which seems unfair, given he was outranked and outnumbered by armed white cops). The vignette with Walter features no white characters at all, placing the issue of domestic violence squarely on the shoulders of Black men. Black spin doctor Rhodie is shown to be an Uncle Tom who gets his comeuppance. And the final vignette controversially suggests that criminal Black youth are as much a force of anti-Blackness as Neo-Nazis. After all, Dr. Cushing shouts, during the conversion therapy, “Cain was the first murderer! He killed his brother. How many brothers have you killed, Jerome?!” Though the film aptly and sharply satirizes white racism, it also – like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled – turns its gaze inward.
  • Adding to the horror is the fact that beloved comedian David Alan Grier plays a truly monstrous boyfriend. The guy you loved from In Living Colour – who played all monitor Hal MacAfee and Antoine Merriwether, one of the Men on Film – beats his girlfriend and her son with such savage intensity, it’s truly hard to watch. Apparently the scene was originally even longer (which is hard to imagine) and nearly burdened the film with an ‘X’ rating.
  • But obviously, the most horrific element comes in the final vignette, during Crazy K / Jerome’s conversion. The archival photos of the murder of countless Black men at the hands of white mobs is five hundred times scarier than any devil dolls.
  • Just as The Lure was the only entry this month so far to be directed by a woman, Tales from the Hood is the first horror film this month to feature a Black director.
  • One thing I love about Rusty Cundieff is how he plays with names. Martin Moorehouse is named after a historically Black university. Duke Metger is a reference to both David Duke and White Aryan Resistance leader, Tom Metzger. Mr. Garvey’s name is probably a reference to Pan-African activist and leader, Marcus Garvey.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Tales from the Hood is not a scary film as much as it is very unsettling. Few things I’ve witnessed this month have been as chilling as the actual photographs of lynchings and other hate crimes that Crazy K is forced to witness as part of his conversion. It’s not The Ring, but it’s a film that manages to be both thought-provoking and satisfying as a genre film. And overall, it’s a more disturbing movie to consider.

Best-dressed man at any funeral: Mr. Simms.

Best outfit: You’re going to find it hard to beat the style of funeral director Mr. Simms, which combines the look of Frederick Douglass with 1970s pimp. He really puts the more in mortuary.

Best line: “This ain’t no funeral home! It ain’t the Terror Dome either! Welcome to Hell, muthafuckas!” – Mr. Simms, proving that the Devil loves Public Enemy.

Best kill: Seeing racist cop Strom’s head ripped off was pretty satisfying.

Unexpected cameo: The nurse in the Walter vignette is played by In Living Colour regular T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh. And Seinfeld fans will recognize Martin Moorehouse actor Tom Wright as Morgan, Yankees executive and cultured Snickers eater.

Unexpected lesson learned: Black or white, we can all agree on one thing: dolls are fucking creepy.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Crazy K.

Next up: Jennifer’s Body (2009).

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