In the early late 1960s and early 1970s, British movies took up the horror anthology mantle left in the wake of groundbreaking American television anthology series such as “The Twilight Zone,” “Thriller” and “The Outer Limits” (“Zone” and “Limits” were two of my favorite shows as a kid; I still enjoy them very much today). These British horror anthologies were produced largely by Amicus Productions, with several of them cowritten/produced by American producer Milton Subotsky (1971’s “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”) and American horror novelist Robert Bloch (“Psycho”), and were largely based on several same-named comic books (“Tales From the Crypt” & “Vault of Horror” from EC Comics). The anthology films were slick, colorful versions of the same kinds of horror stories told with a flashlight by school-age kids. My first exposure to them, aside from occasionally catching parts of them on TV (long before VCRs & DVRs) came in the 8th grade; I was part of the Attendance Club (recognizing one of the rare years where I didn’t miss a day of school), and we got to gather in the school auditorium (during a school day) and watch a horror movie (!). Not kidding. Oh, the joys of free-range parenting!
The movie chosen by the Attendance Club was a 16mm print of 1972’s “Tales From The Crypt”; a movie that left quite an impression on then 13-year old me. It was grisly, creepy, atmospheric and a lot of fun. The stories included Joan Collins playing a husband killer who gets her comeuppance by a killer Santa Claus, Peter Cushing as a kindly old rubbish collector who returns as an avenging ghoul, and a miserly, cruel administrator of a home for the blind who gets his just desserts. The framing story had Sir Ralph Richardson (“Doctor Zhivago”) as a grim, monk-like crypt-keeper who coaxes each character into giving their ‘confessions’ before being sent to hell for their dastardly deeds. Simplistic morality tales, much like “The Twilight Zone,” but with a lot more viscera.
Later on, I would seek out other movies of this brand wherever I could find them; cable TV, laserdisc, VHS, you name it. “The House That Dripped Blood” (1971) and “Vault of Horror” (1973) are particularly memorable entries in this canon.
“Vault…” is actually a direct sequel to “Tales…”, with a character in one of its stories reading a paperback novelization of the previous movie (!). They’re worth checking out, especially for “Doctor Who” fans, who’ll recognize Third Doctor Jon Pertwee as a horror actor-turned vampire in “House…” and Fourth Doctor Tom Baker in “Vault…” as a bearded Gauguin-like artist who seeks bloody revenge via his peculiar paintings.
So in March of 1995, I remember reading a review in Entertainment Weekly of Spike Lee‘s new answer to the old horror anthologies called “Tales From The Hood.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t talk any of my friends at the time to go see it with me, so I wound up catching it on a rented laserdisc on an October evening (a far better time to watch a film like this, by the way).
****COFFIN-SIZED SPOILERS! ****
TALES FROM THE HOOD
Essentially, “Hood” is an urban L.A. remake of “Tales From The Crypt,” but “Hood” had something the previous horror anthologies did not; a political and cultural perspective that was both powerful and important. People that might not go to see “Do The Right Thing” (and they really should) might get similar messages in a horror movie. Producers Spike Lee along with cowriters Darin Scott and Rusty Cundieff (who also directed) didn’t just go for the same old bag of tricks; they offered quite a few new ones as well. Clarence Williams III (“The Mod Squad”) stars in the movie’s framing story as an all-new version of the crypt-keeper character, now brilliantly reimagined as a big-haired, wild-eyed, eccentric mortician named “Mr. Simms.”
“Welcome to my Mortuary.”
We see Simms playing a variant on Bach’s “Toccata & Fugue in D Minor” on the funeral parlor’s organ (“Toccata & Fugue” also opens 1972’s “Tales From the Crypt” as well). Outside the parlor we see three young L.A. street gang members (Joe Torry, De’aundre Bonds, Samuel Monroe Jr. ) working up the nerve to walk up the steps to Simms’ ‘evil-as-hell’ looking place of business. At first Simms’ startles the boys, and one of them accidentally knocks himself unconscious onto the porch. When the boys regain their composure (and consciousness), Simms tells them he has found a massive amount of “shit” (drugs) that they might be interested in acquiring. But before he gives up the shit (aka “the doo-doo, the poopity-pop”) he takes the three on a tour of his parlor; showing them several mutilated corpses who died in various grisly, supernatural ways…
Rogue Cop Revelation.
The first tale sees black city councilman/activist Martin Morehouse (Tom Wright) brutally murdered (and martyred) by several cops; one of whom (Anthony Griffith) is stricken by conscience to the point of heavy drinking. A year after Morehouse’s murder, Clarence lures his three ex partners-in-crime to the activist’s grave, where a zombiefied Morehouse exacts revenge…
….not only on the cops who killed him, but also upon the tormented ex-cop Clarence, who stood by and did nothing while Morehouse was murdered. Clarence is judged complicit by the zombie-martyr and driven insane before his suicide. This was powerful stuff for a horror anthology movie; coming only a few short years after the Rodney King beatings of 1991, which were seen around the world on television. Bear in mind that the internet first went online that same year; and wasn’t the force to be reckoned with that it is today. Rodney King’s beating at the hands of LAPD officers went viral via TV news and newspapers. The acquittal of the police officers involved in the beatings also triggered the L.A. Riots of 1992 (a time I’ll personally never forget). These days the Rodney King video would’ve been all over the internet hours (or minutes) after it was taken. In fact, we now see incidents of violence and blatant racism uploaded onto the internet (literally) every day. Sadly, nothing seems to be changing, despite a deluge of exposure.
Boys Do Get Bruised.
The next segment involves cowriter/director Cundieff as a good-natured schoolteacher who comes to the aid of a young student named Walter (Brandon Hammond), who is beaten by a ‘monster’, which turns out to be Walter’s mother’s abusive boyfriend (played by David Alan Grier from “In Living Color”).
Walter, like Tom Baker’s artist in 1973’s “Vault of Horror,” has the power to manipulate reality with his artwork. Gaining an ally in his sympathetic teacher, Walter finds the courage to take on the ‘monster,’ twisting and even burning the drawings, thus ‘killing’ his mother’s boyfriend to everyone’s horror and gratitude.
Child abuse is, even today, not a subject we see popularized in mainstream films, with rare exceptions (mainly smaller indie films). To put this hot-button topic into a horror movie makes for a surprisingly natural fit, since the worst monsters are often the ones that scar us in our childhood; monsters both imagined or real.
The next segment is the arguably most remembered; it involves a wildly racist gubernatorial candidate named “David Metger” (played by “L.A Law”’s Corbin Bersen) who moves into a former plantation with a violent history involving a slave massacre. Metger ignores local legends about “the dolls” who bear the souls of the murdered slaves, and are rumored to be somewhere within the house itself. Metger is working with a black image consultant named Rhodie (Roger Guenveur Smith). Despite his personal disdain for Metger, Rhodie cheerily throws himself into the job of turning Metger into a ‘respectable’ candidate. For his complicity, Rhodie becomes the first victim of the dolls; one of which he trips upon, falling down a long flight of steps, thus breaking his neck.
This ‘accidental’ death and its aftermath slowly drives Metger into a swirling mix of paranoia and anger as he tries to find and kill the hidden dolls; who begin their own war against him as well. It’s a slow descent into both madness and vengeance as the dolls unleash holy hell on the racist creep. Once again displaying the kind of simplistic, eye-for-an-eye revenge seen in the original Amicus anthologies, but with a heavily political and uniquely American twist. The name “David Metger” is a mix of former Ku Klux Klansmen politicians David Duke and Tom Metzger; both of whom made a lot of noise in the 1980s-1990s. Watching “KKK Comeuppance” recently, I was struck by how much this segment resonates in our current age; as bald-faced, open racism is making a most unwelcome appearance in mainstream political discussion… American Nazis (formerly a misnomer) openly run for public office now. Metger’s hiring of an image consultant almost seems quaint today. Most likely he’d probably just campaign openly as himself with no apologies. The dolls attack on him could also be seen as representing AntiFa, the ACLU, Black Lives Matter or any organizations that actively oppose such figures in the here and now. This 23 year old segment still has a lot to say.
The last segment is the least ‘dressed up’ and the most overtly political segment. We see an unrepentant gangsta named “Crazy K”/Jerome (Lamont Bentley) taking part in a medieval-looking ‘reform’ program as part of his sentence. The draconian means of reform are delivered by a no-bullshit “Dr. Cushing” (played the late “Omega Man” star Rosalind Cash). Jerome is forced by both electric shock and sensory depravation to face the victims of his black-on-black crimes, including young kids who were killed by stray bullets in Jerome’s drive-by shootings. It is soon revealed that Jerome is actually facing death himself (gunned down in a retaliatory shooting) and this isn’t ‘reform’… it is his last chance at redemption. His final offer to both life and redemption are an unrepentant “I don’t give a f–k!”
That final moments are less ‘traditional’ horror entertainment and more like a punch to the head with an utter lack of subtlety or pretense. A scene where Jerome confronts a white bigot/fellow inmate (played with dripping evil by the late Rick Dean) is particularly telling. The racist inmate actually thanks Jerome for killing blacks; since Jerome is unwittingly implementing the white supremacist’s program of black genocide. Moments like this could just as easily be part of a powerful prison film instead of a horror flick, and they’d work just as well. Such expresso-strength messaging may not be everyone’s cup of coffee, and they’re certainly not done in the cheekier manner of the original Amicus films, but with Spike Lee as a producer? One should expect nothing less. Lee is a filmmaker who uses the medium to confront as well as entertain; even when making an homage to old-style horror anthologies.
“Welcome to my Mortuary,” Part 2, Conclusion.
Cutting back to the framing story, the three ‘shit’-buying gangsters are led into a dark cellar by Simms, not noticing that their host is turning on overhead lights by merely pointing a finger at the lightbulbs (a big tell of his true nature).
Simms directs the boys’ attention to three coffins containing their own bodies. Turns out the three gangsters were Jerome’s killers, and they themselves were also killed in a deadly counterstrike by Jerome’s crew. The horror and futility of gang violence exemplified.
At this point, “Mr. Simms” drops the eccentric old funeral director routine and reveals himself to be Old Scratch himself; literally morphing into a demonic visage right before the boys’ eyes as he hisses “Welome to HELL, motherf–kerssssss…”
TALES FROM THE HOOD 2.
23 years later, writer/directors Rusty Cundieff & Darin Scott reunited with producer Spike Lee and took another stab at their old haunt with a direct-to-video sequel, “Tales From the Hood 2” (2018) which I just bought sight-unseen from Amazon.com last week. While I don’t entirely regret the purchase (it wasn’t expensive), I’ll be honest; it’s a weak sequel. Not entirely awful or incompetent, but not especially memorable, either. It’s not even remotely scary, either; it’s largely going through the horror-motions. The social commentary now completely overshadows mood and atmosphere. Even the camerawork and lighting is flat and unimaginative. TFTH2 feels like a B-effort made mostly on autopilot; nowhere near the stylishly clever homage that was the original. With the exception of the bombastic, hard-hitting final segment and a few moments here and there, it honestly has little reason to exist. As I was watching, it was hard to believe it was made by the same team behind the original.
The first mistake was two-fold; recasting Mr. Simms. Keith David is a solid actor, and I enjoyed his work in “They Live” (1988) and “The Thing” (1982), as well his voice work in “The Princess and the Frog” (2009). But the role of Mr. Simms was so ideally cast and so perfectly inhabited by Clarence Williams III in the original, that anyone following in his footsteps could only feel like a second stringer. As written now, the role seems like a faint shadow of what he was in the original. Another issue is the ridiculous reason for his return.
Robo-Hell, part 1.
For some reason, Simms is chosen to help program a prototype for a new super federal law enforcement robot (!?) by telling it stories about the black experience. The people behind the project are a shady bunch of racists led by a Mr. Dumas Beech (yes…a white ‘Dumbass Bitch’) who want to use the robot to stamp out anyone he deems undesirable, which is basically anyone not rich, white and politically conservative. So… then why exactly is Beech seeking out an eccentric, mysterious black man to help program it? If you’ve asked this question, you won’t get a satisfactory answer. The premise of the sequel’s framing story makes absolutely zero sense.
The first story Simms reads to the robot involves two white siblings Aubrey (Alexandria Deberry) and her brother Philip (Andy Cohen) who, along with their black friend Zoe (Jasmine Akakpo), visit a rural “Museum of Negrosity”; a collection of artifacts from the days of minstrel shows and other horrific items of racial insensitivity and oppression (the lead ‘doll’ from the previous movie makes a cameo in this scene). The museum is run by a woke old curator who tries unsuccessfully to impart the grim history of Black America to these kids, but his words fall on deaf ears. The privileged millennials only see cute little forgotten relics, such as the golliwog doll named “Golly Gee.”
Aubrey wants to buy the doll but the curator tells her it’s not for sale. Undeterred, Aubrey, Zoe and Philip later break into the museum and steal the doll, at which point it grows to man-size, and begins to ‘teach’ these kids lessons of those less-enlightened times that the curator failed to make clear. Golly kills Zoe, then whips Philip to death and impregnates Aubrey; forcing her to give a grotesquely graphic slit-bellied birth to a litter of animated puppets. A somewhat harsh lesson learned for the ‘crimes’ of theft, racial insensitivity and cultural appropriation.
The next segment jettisons scares altogether and goes for full-on camp silliness, as a group of thieves attempt to locate a missing $5 million from a pimp (Creighton Thomas) they’ve tied up during a robbery attempt. The pimp refuses to talk and is beaten to death, leaving the thieves to try to think of another way to find the money. Their answer? A bogus TV psychic named John Lloyd (Bryan Bat, of “Mad Men”). Not realizing Lloyd is a fraud, they break into his home and force him to hold a seance at gunpoint to find the pimp’s missing money.
The seance is played entirely for laughs rather than chills, as Lloyd channels not only the dead pimp, but also various relatives of the robbers, who admonish them one by one. Actor Bryan Bat clearly enjoys himself, using an array of exaggerated body language and dubbed voices to convey the different characters. Bat is the only bright spot in this otherwise forgettable memorable segment. In the end, the dead pimp decides to take up permanent residence within the bogus psychic’s body, enjoying the TV psychic’s wealth and success. This segment is entertaining, but it’s more suited to a full-on comedy and carries none of the gravitas or creepiness of the original film, or even its Amicus ancestors. Even its subject of bogus TV mediums feels about 25 years too late.
Next we see a couple of sexual predators (Alexander Biglane, Greg Tarzan Davis) who drug and sexually exploit two young women (Kat Limpket, Sandra Gutierrez) they’ve met through an online dating app, only to have the tables turned when the women turn out to be vampires who are using the men. The ending sees the two guys tossed into a dungeon with dozens of other men the women have turned into an army of starving undead zombies. Ho-hum. While it attempts to make a statement about the dangers of using dating apps rather than getting to know someone the old-fashioned way, it’s ultimately about as surprising as a sunrise. Feels like a rejected script from the “From Dusk Till Dawn” TV series.
The next segment is also the hardest pill to swallow, as it mixes in real-life heroes of the Civil Rights movement with a fictionalized story of a young black Republican city councilman Henry Bradley (Kendrick Cross), who, along with his pregnant white wife Emily (Jillian Batherson), live an upscale life while supporting an openly racist gubernatorial candidate named William Cotton (Cotton Yancy, looking like an evil Colonel Sanders). As he refuses to back down from supporting Cotton, Henry finds that his wife seems to be slowly but steadily miscarrying. Henry’s parents are also quite vocal in expressing shame for their sellout son. The segment is told concurrently with the real-life story of Emmett Till (played by Christopher Paul Horn), the 14 year-old who was lynched to death for ‘disrespecting’ a white woman in 1955.
Henry is visited by all of those who’ve sacrificed and died for the Civil Rights movement (including Till, his mother Mamie, and Dr. Martin Luther King). Their sacrifices seem to have fallen on deaf ears and blind eyes as Henry reiterates (much as Kanye West defends Trumpism today) his right to choose which party to back; insensitive to that party’s wish to roll back the hard-earned rights of “the sacrifice.” Henry is then shown a frightening alternate reality where the Civil Rights movement never happened; a universe where he is a hated stranger even to his own white wife. In the end, Henry does the right thing and chooses to “honor the sacrifice.” The ghosts vanish, and Henry’s universe is restored. “The Sacrifice” is superficially similar to “KKK Comeuppance,” but with a happier ending (and no need for dolls). “The Sacrifice” is also the most socially significant segment; the horror coming not from supernatural monsters, but rather from the omnipresent problems of racism and political division. “Sacrifice” is also the only segment that feels truly worthy of the original film’s legacy.
Bookending the opening, we see Simms finish programming his stories into the “Robo-Patriot”, who during its Robocop-like unveiling, heeds the lessons of Simms’ stories and turns on its racist creator, Mr. Beech (Bill Martin Williams). Robo-Patriot perceives Beech as a greatest threat to America… far more so than petty criminals, undocumented immigrants or minorities.
As Robo-Patriot begins a full-fledged revolt against its creators, the fleeing Beech rushes to escape with Mr. Simms, who has other plans for him…taking the racist ‘dumbass bitch’ straight to hell.
TFTH2 has its moments, but on the whole, it really wasn’t worth a 23-year wait. It’s no wonder it went straight to video. It doesn’t really have the mood or polish of its predecessor, let alone any number of modern horror films. Some of the computer-generated imagery (especially the very 1990s-looking robot rampage in the finale) look even cruder than some of the work done in the 1995 original (which at least was deliberately homaging the cheesy look of the old Amicus anthologies).
For whatever its worth, fans of the original should seek out the Shout Factory produced Blu-Ray of the 1995 original, which also includes commentary and a 55 minute behind-the-scenes documentary on the production of the film.
None of the issues with the lackluster sequel diminish from the original “Tales From the Hood,” which still stands as a solid horror anthology, as well as an important, underrated achievement in socially/racially woke filmmaking. Watching it today, “Hood” is still surprisingly relevant, using a few good scares to wake up its audience in more ways than one.
Chill or be chilled…