Get Out is a ground-breaking horror movie that uses the anxieties of being black and living within a culture systemically driven to brutalize brown bodies while simultaneously co-opting black culture to wield a blisteringly powerful narrative about the ills of white feminism and white liberalism in general. It's very scary.
But as great as Get Out is, I think people would be remiss if they didn't acknowledge an earlier film that tackled the challenges of existing while black in America through a horror lens: Tales From the Hood (1995).
Yes. Like Tales From the Crypt, but with Hood instead. And on the surface that does tell you the basics of what you need to know. This is an anthology horror movie that places the focus on black-led narratives as written and directed by black folks.
Tales From the Hood did this long before Get Out did. In fact, when I watched Get Out, I thought it would have fit very easily with the stories from Tales From the Hood.
So, if you loved Get Out, then you will love Tales From the Hood, too. Let's talk about why it's great.
THE TALENT BEHIND THE CAMERA
Why Tales works, honestly, boils down to writers Rusty Cundieff and Darin Scott. Rusty came at the anthology game wanting to explore his own experiences as a black man in America through the horror genre and Darin Scott also had the love of horror to back that up and give the whole project that Tales From the Crypt vibe.
And, in addition to that, each story had its own unique team of creators bringing a tone and style to the practical effects. While there's certainly a unifying theme to make Tales feel like one movie, each individual tale does stand on its own thanks to sculptors, effects coordinators, puppeteers and other behind-the-scenes talent.
Whether it's a crack pipe inside the undead husk of a murdered zombie, stop-motion animated dolls, the uncomfortably organic body horror that was brought to life or borderline S&M torture chambers, every story features visuals that make it iconic.
THE TALENT IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA
Obviously, Tales would be nothing without the right performers on screen, and in addition to the director himself, Rusty Cundieff, there are some really memorable performances. In 1995, I think everyone knew comic actor David Alan Grier, but it was the people from Tales that saw the opportunity to take the more light-hearted comedian and give him the opportunity to play the horrifically monstrous abusive father. And while part of the success of that boils down to the subversion of expectation, even if you'd never seen Grier give two snaps up on In Living Color's "Men on Film" segment, you'd still be genuinely terrified of him in Tales.
The actors' performances sometimes came from them feeling uncomfortable, too. Both Wings Hauser and Corbin Bernsen are two white actors who were brought in to really play up an almost cartoonish portrayal of a racist person in a position of power. I say "cartoonish," but what sells Tales in part is that people like the cop and politician who these actors portray exist in the real world. But, despite the discomfort, Hauser brings a joy to his Officer Strom when he beats on an innocent black man. It's his elation at destroying someone utterly that makes the story so compelling and frightening. In fact, Hauser was so affected by his own performance that he couldn't bring himself to play a character like Strom ever again. And it shows.
Likewise, Bernsen plays a real KKK type with Duke Metger. And, despite how guilty he felt afterward, Bernsen ad-libbed some pretty spectacularly inventive racial slurs. Between each take, Bernsen would ask Cundieff and Scott if he'd gone too far, but they would just laugh because Bernsen going to such an extreme was actually authentic. And again, I think Tales from the Hood gets some of its edge specifically because it makes its white actors (and the white audience watching) feel uncomfortable because the extreme language and actions are still true to life.
But, of course, we can't talk about the actors without bringing up Clarence Williams III, who plays the funeral director Mr. Simms in the film's shell story. Clarence is so demented, so funny and so unsettling on screen that it's impossible to look away. The Cryptkeeper has nothing on Mr. Simms ... and neither does any horror host in history, for that matter. Williams is just that good.
Cundieff's goal with Tales From the Hood, as Inspector Deck might say, was to kick the truth to the young black youth. The 1990s was a decade ruled by the east coast vs. west coast rap world. Radios were bumping from Compton all the way to even the whitest suburbs with Wu-Tang, Biggie, Tupac, Dre ... all the biggest talents in the game.
And there was violence happening and being covered for the world to see. Whether it was Rodney King and the L.A. riots or Biggie and Tupac being killed, violence against the black community, especially committed by itself and against itself, was emblazoned across news stations everywhere.
Snoop Dogg rapped about selling his soul to stay in the game and winding up being on death row. Bone Thugs N Harmony sang about seeing their brothers again in the next life after violent deaths. Suge Knight wound up in jail, a figurehead representing the extreme violence of gangster rap.
The news was slamming casual viewers with a perception of who black artists were during the '90s and Cundieff and Scott saw a need for there to be context for everyone, but especially for young black folks trying to make sense of who they were in the mix of it all.
Tales From the Hood is both context and message. Like Get Out, Tales uses the horror genre to portray the challenges of being black in America. And over two decades later, the messages remain relevant.
Here's your quick summary on the lessons of Tales From the Hood: Don't be an accessory to the violence of white cops on innocent black bodies; don't beat your kids; don't put your faith in politicians who co-opt the language of the oppressed for their own personal gain; and do not let your own personal struggle allow you to contribute to violence against your own community when there is already a glut of violence being visited upon it from the outside.
All good messages in 1995, all good messages now. Well, mostly good messages now. I think the oversimplification of "black-on-black violence" ignores the pretty crucial impact that racial violence and oppression contributes to the violence we see both within the narrative and in American history. But that, perhaps, is a discussion for another article.
THE BEST ANTHOLOGY HORROR STORY
"Best" is subjective, but I think Tales From the Hood, specifically because it comes at the anthology horror genre from a place of social message, stands out in a way few anthology horror movies do. And it's very fortuitous that Tales From the Hood received a new Blu-ray release at the same time Get Out, one of the best horror movies of the millennium, saw its release.
If you loved Get Out (and of course you did, basically everyone did), Tales From the Hood is the perfect companion film. So if you've never seen it (or it's just been a while), give it a shot, and tell me what you think.