Nothing is scarier than real life. In Tales From the Hood, the hip-hop horror movie directed by Rusty Cundieff (and executive produced by Spike Lee), the most frightening images come straight from the headlines: brutal cops, white supremacists, gun-toting gangbangers and beastly stepdads. Cundieff updates standard fright-night iconography, presenting the hood as hell; he knows that to an urban audience, four pigs with billy clubs beat a devil with horns.
Offsetting the darkness with slapstick and delightfully cheesy special effects, Cundieff and co-screenwriter/producer Darin Scott link five mininarratives around a deceptively simple theme: Payback is a motherfucker.
If Cundieff's pleasantly dismal gangsta-rap spoof, Fear of a Black Hat, modeled itself on This Is Spinal Tap, these Tales are from the crypt, with a similar framing device: When a trio of hustlers roll into a spooky funeral home in Welcome to My Mortuary looking for some lost drugs, a gap-toothed, wild-haired mortician (former Mod Squader Clarence Williams III) makes them suffer through death dirges about the corpses in the house as he leads them into the basement.
In Rogue Cop Revelation, drug-dealing white officers beat an African-American community activist (Tom Right) Rodney King-style, plant smack on him and plunge him and his car over a bridge. The man becomes a zombie, of course, and both his murderers and the black rookie (Anthony Griffith of Panther) who wouldn't rat get their due. In Boys Do Get Bruised, a teacher (Cundieff) and his young student battle the “monster” that creeps into the boy's bedroom at night.
The funniest vignette is KKK Come-uppance, in which an oily former Klansman (Corbin Bernsen) running for office must battle flesh-chomping little voodoo dolls inhabited by the spirits of murdered slaves. “I'll kill all you little nigglets,” Bernsen screams maniacally, trying unsuccessfully to mow the impish critters down with a shotgun. That the stop-animation technology looks circa 1965 only adds to the scene's creepy charm.
But Cundieff's stop-the-violence message hits home with a sickening thud in Hard Core Convert, in which Crazy K (Lamont Bentley), a coldhearted multimurderer who shot his own homey, undergoes behavior modification treatment in an update of A Clockwork Orange. “Those guys you killed — what color were they?” taunts the neo-Nazi in the cage next to him. “You're cool with me, nigger. I like you.” Chained to an observation table, Crazy K is forced to watch flashing historical photos of lynchings, bloody Klan homicides and hooded nightriders intercut with stylized scenes of black-on-black violence.
The images flash unrelentlessly for several minutes, a connection of complicity that completely silenced a rowdy sneak preview crowd and brought several people to tears. Cundieff forcefully deglamorizes celluloid violence, even as he milks it for its visceral power. It's a departure from other films targeted to the hip-hop nation, like Menace II Society, also Darin Scott-produced, which was criticized as “irresponsibly nihilistic.”
Horror flicks traditionally devolve on battles between good and evil, right and wrong, and Cundieff doesn't stray from the formula; he just gives the demons and protagonists a modern, human face. Tales ends on a comic note, but with karmic retribution complete. Do the right thing, it says, with fire-and-brimstone flair, or we'll see ya in hell.
Tales From the Hood opens Wed, May 24, at the Galaxy in S.F., the UA Colma, the UA Emery Bay and the UA Berkeley.