It’s a wonder that Tales from the Hood (1995) isn’t on more lists when it comes to classic horror. The impeccable practical effects and the fact that the themes and morals can – unfortunately – be very easily applied to society today make it an all-time classic. Executive produced by Spike Lee and directed by Rusty Cundieff, the tales tell stories of the morally repugnant and how they get their comeuppance.
Like other films that tell stories with a lesson to learn, Tales from the Hood has a very specific point of view: the African-American point of view. Simply trying to live your life while Black can be the most horrifying experience of all. Racism and violence from the very people who are meant to protect you, the sometimes overlooked abuse of Black children, governmental meddling in the bodies and lives of Black people… The list goes on.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
Tales from the Hood has 4 tales that cover these subjects in the key of horror. The stories are relayed by Mr Simms, the beyond-strange mortician of Simms funeral home, played gleefully by the sensational Clarence Williams III. His audience are 3 hapless gang members, Stack (Joe Terry), Ball (De’Aundre Bonds) and Bulldog (Samuel Monroe Jr), who are there to pick up a stash of drugs, or “the shit” as they’re repeatedly called.
Rogue Cop Revelation
The first tale he tells, and perhaps the most memorable, is called ‘Rogue Cop Revelation’. In it we follow Clarence (Anthony Griffith), a Black rookie cop who witnesses the racist actions of his white colleagues levelled against Black community leader, Martin Moorhouse (Tom Wright).
The hammed-up racism of the white police officers in this scene might easily have been dismissed as exaggerated in the past, but now – with footage captured on camera phones, social media and police body cams with horrifying regularity – we know that it’s not. Neither is their harassment of Black citizens. That fact alone makes Tales from the Hood feel very relevant quarter of a century on. It’s a film that assumes that cops can’t be trusted – especially not by Black people. And this is a sentiment that can also be found, more recently, in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), with the deliberate mislead at the end, and Us (2019), when instead of calling the police, the automated home system plays N.W.A.’s ‘Fuck Tha Police’ instead.
Martin Moorhouse is ultimately murdered, but his spirit elicits the help of the now jobless, disillusioned and alcoholic Clarence to help him exact his revenge. Being a Black cop and being part of the system, like Clarence, makes you a traitor by association. This film doesn’t believe in ‘good apples’.
Throughout the tale, the ever-haunting ‘Strange Fruit’ by Billie Holliday plays, suggesting that police brutality is more akin to lynching than any semblance of law and order. It’s a suggestion echoed today with each new case of arrest that leads to murder.
For being part of the system that enables this violence, Clarence must also pay the price; not a death sentence, but a life one, in a mental institution.
Boys Do Get Bruised
The second tale, ‘Boys Do Get Bruised’, features director Rusty Cundieff himself as Richard, the school teacher to a quiet boy named Walter (Brandon Hammond). It soon becomes clear that Walter is being abused, but what’s not initially clear is who is doing it. Walter only refers to a mysterious monster. When Richard decides to investigate further, we find out it’s Walter’s stepfather who is the monster, and that he is also abusive to Walter’s mother, the sultry Sissy (Paula Jai Parker), one of the very few women who appears in these tales.
Neither Sissy, Richard nor anyone else at the school attempts to call the police or social services to resolve the situation. This might seem like an odd choice in another film, but not in this one. The first tale has already set us up: the police can’t be trusted. The system can’t be trusted.
The supernatural comes into play in this tale by way of an idea that’s a little Harold and the Purple Crayon, a little movie voodoo: if Walter draws his abusers, he can also destroy them.
The lesson in this tale could be that children, especially Black children, are often dismissed or not believed. Their abuse is sometimes taken less seriously. Leaving Walter to handle his bullies himself, he is forced to grow up a lot quicker than other children. It’s a plight that Black boys often face, especially when growing up in areas considered ‘the hood’.
The penultimate tale, ‘KKK Comeuppance’, delves deeper into the movie idea of voodoo, with a slightly different take on voodoo dolls. Rather than being used from a distance, as an image of the target you want to inflict pain onto, these ones come alive and terrorise the target themselves.
This tale focuses on southern and deeply racist Duke Metgar (Corbin Bernsen), who is mid-campaign as he runs to become a state governor. His campaign manager is Rhodie (Roger Guenveur Smith), a Black man helping Duke polish his public image and smoothing down his racist edges. Cundieff has already shown us what happens to traitors. Rhodie is the first in this tale to meet an untimely end.
One of Duke’s many racist sins is that he’s moved into an old plantation house, an obviously terrible idea at any time, but especially during a campaign. Nonetheless, it’s a faux pas that’s been repeated in real life in recent years, with wilfully oblivious celebrities getting married at similar locations.
However, Duke’s plantation house is not just any plantation house. It’s one with an even darker past than most. The original owner, a vindictive slave owner, on learning that he would have to free his slaves, decided instead to slaughter them all. A voodoo priestess made dolls for each enslaved person that was murdered; a place for their souls to inhabit and watch over the house. Hanging on a wall in Duke’s office is a painting of the priestess, Miss Cobbs, later played by Rusty Cundieff’s actual mother Christina Cundieff, surrounded by her dolls and watching over everything Duke says and does.
Rather than being oblivious, like our celebs, Duke knows the house’s past and the legend of the voodoo curse attached to it all too well. If we’ve learned anything from the horror genre, it’s that such blatant transgressions will not go unpunished.
This tale is by far the most fun. There’s something very satisfying in watching Duke get tormented by these dolls come to life – too quick and clever for him. He gets steadily more racist and animated the longer the torment continues. The genteel performance he puts on for would-be voters is gone; his mask not just slipping, but being tossed away altogether. His anger and hubris turn to panic, and he realises he is not only outsmarted but also outnumbered.
There are so many things to enjoy in this tale. Duke’s campaign video labelling him an “original American”. Duke trying to beat the painting of Miss Cobbs to death with the American flag, then cowering behind the flag, which has no hope of saving him. The metaphors are so on the nose they can barely be described as such. The overarching message is equally straightforward: disrespect the past at your own risk.
It’s worth noting that back in the mortuary, it’s not the body of Duke that prompts Mr Simms to tell his tale, but one of the dolls that resides at Simms’ Funeral Home. The tales are written mainly for Black people, and this mortuary is exclusively for Black souls.
Hard Core Convert
The fourth and final tale, ‘Hard Core Convert’, is the darkest and least accessible of the bunch. It centres around Crazy K (Lamont Bentley), an angry young gang member who executes someone on the most trivial of provocations. In turn, he is shot by rival gang members before he can make his escape. As he lies dying, about to be fatally shot, the police turn up and effectively save his life, but to what end?
Crazy K’s bad behaviour continues in prison, making him a prime candidate for a new and experimental treatment that promises to rehabilitate and release him. The treatment takes place at a creepy manor at the top of a hill, in a nod to classic horror. Once there, a tattooed man, who evokes the image of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now (1979) and who occupies the cell next to Crazy K’s, goes on a racist rant about the inevitable “race war” that he thinks is coming. He attempts to recruit Crazy K to fight on the side of white supremacy, his argument being that Crazy K is there because he killed other Black men, so how would this be any different?
This reasoning is reiterated by Dr Cushing during Crazy K’s treatment. In a scene reminiscent of the Ludovico technique sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Crazy K is made to watch images of gangland executions interspersed with real photos and footage of lynchings and cross burnings.
The aligning of gang shootings and smiling, racist lynch mobs posing with the bodies of Black people is uncomfortable at best. Crimes, even violent ones, cannot simply be equated with hate crimes. They are differentiated for a reason.
The montage, which is cut to the song ‘Born II Die’ by Spice 1, is 2½ minutes long, but it feels longer. In an age when we are having to constantly remind people not to post uncensored photos, or auto-play videos of the brutality and murder of Black people, this scene feels drawn out. At the time of release, I’m sure the aim of this sequence was meant to shock, but now it mainly traumatises, or re-traumatises, its intended Black audience.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say that our 3 hapless gang members get far more than they bargained for at Simms’ Funeral Home. The essential takeaway is that because they are part of these gangs, because they deal in drugs, they are irredeemable, like the fallen from the tales before.
Later films by Black filmmakers are not so quick to condemn such characters. They are acknowledged as sometimes valuable in the community and people who can be gentle with those who need it most, while still holding them accountable for the damage they inflict on the community. Good examples of this are Juan in Moonlight (2016) and Dmitri in The First Purge (2018).
Any way you slice it, Tales from the Hood is important to the history of horror and to Black horror in particular. Rather than lecturing, the film delivers these stories with a very specific humour, made for all to enjoy, but laced unabashedly with inside jokes specifically aimed at a Black audience.
A sequel, Tales from the Hood 2, followed in 2018 that leans even more into this dark humour, making most of the tales more of a romp than a parable, but still teaching lessons along the way. The reason the first film holds such a special place in people’s hearts is that the stories, in many ways, ring true. They give a voice to characters who are often marginalised in mainstream horror, and in the mainstream more widely.
As in life, these tales remind us that people are the scary things. They are the ones to be wary of. In Tales from the Hood, the supernatural elements are what saves. They are redemptive. They are tools to dismantle the status quo and to challenge injustice. Tools that would be useful today.