How 'Tales From the Hood 2' Tries to Deliver Social Commentary and Chills
The following is a conversation between The Hollywood Reporter contributors Simon Abrams and Steven Boone about the horror omnibus film Tales From the Hood 2, which is now available on VOD, Blu-ray and DVD. This direct-to-video sequel was co-written and co-directed by Rusty Cundieff and Darin Scott, who respectively directed and co-wrote the original 1995 cult classic. There are some spoilers ahead as well as light, but frank, discussion of "the doo-doo." You've been warned.
Simon Abrams, A.K.A. Winnie the Witch: Tales From the Hood 2 has debuted with minimal to no fanfare. It's a rough sit, admittedly, but I mostly enjoyed it, sometimes despite and sometimes because of its broad characterizations and go-for-broke sermonizing. This is a movie that works in the ignoble tradition of Tales From the Crypt-style horror films directed by African-American filmmakers, stuff like Tales From the Quadead Zone, the first Tales From the Hood, and Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight. Demon Knight is the most polished of these four films and is, therefore, a greater fan favorite (it also has the namebrand recognition that comes from being associated with HBO's Tales From the Crypt TV series).
Heat Vision breakdown
Still, I want to talk with you about why a movie as clunky and imperfect as Tales From the Hood 2 feels kinda-sorta vital. I like the DIY spirit of the table-setting speech at the start of "Good Golly," the first of the film's four segments (not including the wrap-around "Robo Hell" sketches). I also love that the film marries EC Comics/O. Henry-style moralism with Bill Cosby-style hectoring about the perils of passing in a world dominated by straight white men. Don't be a stereotype, kids, you're just giving them what they want! But also: Don't kiss their ass too much, it's just giving them, uh, also what they want! Like the other Tales From the Crypt-influenced black horror films that came before it, Tales From the Hood 2 takes aim at inauthenticity and double standards in American culture. This one just happens to adopt a kitchen sink approach that includes "Cards Without Humanity"-playing lady vampires, giant murderous Gollywog dolls and killer robots that shoot red, white and blue laser beams.
I'd continue by commending Tales From the Hood 2 for marrying lofty ideas with low-brow humor, but I don't think that's such an unusual combination. That's a feature, not a bug, and one that I enjoy quite a bit. The same is true of the film's general creakiness and rough filmmaking. Many shots are indifferently blocked. The computer-generated effects look like they cost a sum total of $1.05 (boy, that Robo Patriot sure looks …like something!). And a lot of the acting is pretty rough (mostly Caucasian performers who all vigorously, but joylessly, twirl their proverbial mustaches). Still, that's par for the course. If this movie were shot on video, like Tales From the Quadead Zone was, I think people might be more forgiving of these qualities.
That sort of defensive apology will, I think, be the theme of our conversation. Or my end of this conversation, anyway. I'm very eager to read what you thought.
Steven Boone, A.K.A. Uncle Creepy: I was going to agree by saying this movie is crude but effective, but it's not even effective. It's just interesting enough not to hate. "Good Golly," the first segment, is a bizarre mashup of ideas about coon/buck/mammy lore, modern millennial miscegenation and preachy "hotep" culture that ends with a surreal confrontation between giant puppets and (spoiler) a white woman's pregnant belly exploding with pickaninny babies. Dang. It calls back to a segment from the first Tales From the Hood, where black slave-doll-ghosts mobbed a racist Senator. One of those dolls reappears here, in a hat-tip to the original. The nuttiness of this episode also recalls the first film's delirious Klan-and-gangbanger montage, a furious attempt at fusing buried history with the modern nihilism it created. But this is some cold fusion.
You know how the original Planet of the Apes movie series got cheaper and yet more ambitious with each film? That seems to be what's happening here, and I'm usually all for that. But those films were made back to back in their time. Tales From the Hood 2 looks and feels as if it were made in the 1990s, despite dishing tales pulled straight out of a Google News feed. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the AI gold rush, private prisons.... It's interesting to see these subjects handled in the EC style of its 1980s and 1990s forebears, but the collision doesn't feel deliberate or inspired to me. Cundieff and Scott's boldest stylistic choice seems to have been to let the actors heave their lines as if in an unrehearsed student film.
After "The Medium," a segment about a white TV psychic who gets possessed by a retired black pimp — a wonderful idea that could have reached lunatic heights worthy of The Thing with Two Heads, but flattens out quickly — we get "The Sacrifice," the film's would-be showstopper, a race parable that has the ghosts of Emmett Till, his mother, the Freedom Summer martyrs, and Martin Luther King Jr. confront a present-day black Republican on his lawn...it's awful. The concepts it touches are heart-stopping and deeply affecting: We see a mostly realistic re-enactment of Emmett Till's abduction and torture after he was accused of whistling at a white woman in 1955. Cundieff intercuts this with the modern black politician's struggle to conceive a child with his white wife. Then a mess of events that combine Get Out with Back to the Future pours this episode's powerful potential into a moralizing session worthy of a maudlin child preacher.
It only got worse after that segment, in "Robo Hell," the dollar store RoboCop/Minority Report finale. (That sounds like something I should love.)
What kept me going (aside form our deadline) was the inescapable gravity of the film's themes — and Keith David. As the movie's master of ceremonies, David takes the scenery-chomping baton from the original's Clarence Williams III and does a FloJo. Can we talk about how this dude can carry a movie with a guttural laugh and a very musical way of saying "shit"? How do you fit him in the canon of anthology horror maestro dudes?
Abrams: David is, in fact, spectacular (I'd say he's just below Vincent Price, in that regard). I remember getting chills when I talked with him him for another article. I can't think of any other living character actor who could make my heart skip a beat just by rattling off a string of nonsensical expletives like "The shit! The doo-doo! The poopity-pop!" Not off-hand, anyway.
Still: I'm surprised at your general reaction, especially to "The Sacrifice." Being the angriest and rawest of the film's four tales (excluding "Robo Hell"), that one touches a raw nerve with derangoid zeal. It's clunkier than either of the segments you mentioned (no thoughts on "Date Night," about the card-playing vampire ladies?). But again, the rough-ness of "The Sacrifice" doesn't bother me too much; there's something simultaneously touching and exciting about the film's proud tastelessness (hehe, "touching and exciting," hehe). I think the film's alienating sensibility and touch-and-go quality is partly excused in "Good Golly," but only really pays off in "The Sacrifice."
True, Cundieff and co-writer/director Darin Scott never really scratch the surface of the political topics that they broach, not even when "The Sacrifice" essentially boils down to a blanket condemnation of anybody who makes the mistake of thinking that they will either be rewarded or spared if they try to fit in with an abusive (ie: white, male-dominated) crowd. As a straight white guy, I gotta admit: It's true, you can't really trust me.
But the main reason why I mostly (though not completely) like Tales From the Hood 2 is that it's just smart and crazy enough to be as entertaining as it is, uh, sketchy. "Date Night" — the segment about the two Tinder bros who stumble upon a pair of lady vampires who prey on cyber-predators — is the most unremarkable tale since it essentially comes to the same conclusion (and has the same appeal as) the first segment in the infinitely superior Trilogy of Terror: Watching thuggish wannabe players get put in their place can be very satisfying.
Anyway, back to the above-mentioned prefatory speech, from the "Good Golly" segment. In this sermon — delivered with hammy vigor by Lou Beatty Jr. — we hear what I think is the film's thesis (if you can call it that): symbols matters because their political meaning — in this case, the ability to symbolically prolong the oppression of African-Americans — is ingrained. That conceit reminds me of something comics artist Howard Chaykin once said in an interview (and this is a paraphrase): advertising tricks you into thinking that you're smarter than advertising.
"The Medium," as you said, hits on a novel idea (though I'm not sure how authentic or serious it is), namely the notion that the stereotypical African-American gangsters that Bill Cosby warned us about are essentially slaves to their own superstitions. Great idea, but why isn't it developed in any meaningful way? The acting in this sketch is, like the thespianing in "Good Golly," a bit much. But never to the point where it upset me.
I also mostly like "Robo Hell" because I also enjoy the sound of David's voice and the cornball spectacle of watching a killer robot with patriotic laser beams chase down a boorish white politician named "Dumass Beach." I'm a man of simple tastes, Boone.
I want to hear more about what you thought of "The Sacrifice." Can you elaborate? Or maybe just tell me how full of the poopity-pop I am? Boone? Did you faint? Boone, get up! The doo-doo! Boone!
Boone: I'm African-American. After this article, the Black delegation from the Dave Chappelle racial draft will ask to trade me for you. Why am I coming down so hard on the most morally unimpeachable portion of the film? "The Sacrifice" is, after all, a make-it-plain condemnation of sellouts and a plea to those who benefit from the Civil Rights era sacrifices to emulate their ancestors' moral courage in a time of relatively lower stakes. Amen, but also, yeah, and?
You mentioned the white villains' figurative mustache-twirling. In the Emmett Till to the Future segment, we meet a contemporary Mississippi governor candidate who looks like a Mark Twain impersonator. That gag might have been funny if he talked like an ordinary bureaucra trather than Yosemite Sam. Word and image in this film are often depressingly 1:1.
A couple of years ago I wrote some recaps of the Roots reboot. I hated it, mostly. It said all the right things, imparted all the good lessons about African-American heritage and legacy, but its storytelling was a gyp. While there was some texture in that miniseries' settings, costumes, and certain actors' choices, it was all thrown at us, the audience, like a commercial for Black Suffering, Black Survival and Black Uplift. The music told us exactly what single emotion we were to feel during a given scene. A game show audience is subject to less prodding. And none of Alex Haley's iconic characters came forward as much more than signifiers in chains (though the actors mostly did their best).
The sub-subtext of such abbreviated, lazily imagined storytelling is that we Black folk don't need much more from our edutainment than to have our outrages and aspirations confirmed. It plays us cheap. MLK didn't die so that I would have to give a pass to works that pander in the name of correct notions.
Now, Cundieff and Scott are in a different business. They make smart crude comedy, where the intelligence is expressed in what good ideas explode out of a collision between two dumb ones. These guys made the clever Fear of Black Hat and the less clever but still classic original Tales From the Hood. Cundieff directed most of Chappelle's Show. No way would I have expected him and Scott to play both this film's comedy and the messaging so cheap — and I'm not talking about budget.
I forgot all about the vampire THOTs vs fuckboy date rapists episode. It felt grafted on to make the film more relevant to the Snap and Insta-millennials. Poopity-pop.
I call "do-over" for the TV-psychic-tricks-the-thugs-and-gets-possessed-by-a-dead-ex-pimp segment. On "paper," it is a goddamn masterpiece. Prime Cundieff and Scott would have made a whole madcap movie of that story alone. I agree with you that it is packed with great ideas on race, class, perception, and superstition.
The only thing that kept me holding on during the "Robo Hell" finale was Keith David's maniacal laugh. I would give anything to watch Clarence Williams III watching this performative love letter to his original.
Abrams: Before I start, I want readers to know that Boone just told me to "get my dashiki ready," and now I am dead. You are reading my words from beyond the grave. My killer is Steven Boone and his weapon of choice was laughter.
Now: I don't like "The Sacrifice" because I find it to be "morally unimpeachable" so much as I find its well-intended moralizing to be expressed in an endearingly bananas way. They really do go for broke in this portion of the film and I appreciated that, right down to the way that some cast members mumbled their way through the film's clunky statement of purpose: "Respect the sacrifices that were made for you." Hokey, absolutely. And ridiculous, oh yes. But I'm sorry, my brain short-circuited on serotonin when the ghost of Emmett Till literally materialized right before the ghost of young Martin Luther King Jr. That kind of unsound conceit reminds me why I un-ironically adore Left Behind-style horror flicks from the 1970s, the kind that warn viewers that you're gonna get Raptured if you don't change your life. I'm an agnostic Jewish-American, so that sort of fearmongering doesn't work on me. But I'm also often compelled by the way that those films express their hell-and-damnation zealotry through nutty ideas. I feel the same way about the alternately somber and cuckoo Emmett Till episode.
I realize that that's a little glib, but man, what about the poopity-pop?!
Till's sacrifice is an extraordinarily powerful symbol, powerful enough that one wonky segment can'tdiminish it, not any more than your disdain for Neu Roots got your Black Card revoked (Check your wallet, just to be safe). I'm really glad that you brought up Cundieff and Scott's work on comedies like Chappelle's Show and Fear of a Black Hat. The humor in those projects relies intrinsically on performers, directors, and writers. But what makes, say, Chappelle's Show's Cundieff-directed "Blind Hatred" sketch so deathless isn't its formal qualities, but rather its novelty, its audacity, and its general attitude. Cundieff could have botched the execution of that sketch in a myriad little ways, but we'd still be talking about it because it has what we Jews call "chutzpah." (goyim, get your yarmulke!)
Anyway, I don't know if we see eye-to-eye on Tales From the Hood 2, but I will take that dashiki, thanks.
by Sharareh Drury, Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya