Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Tales from the Hood 2

(R, Universal Pictures, 111 mins., video release date: October 2, 2018)

From William Gaines to Rod Serling, Tales from the Crypt to Creepshow, the progenitors of pulp horror and their many captive followers made good mined their macabre from simple morality. The twists in the stories are comeuppances for particularly unpleasant people who act in the most damning form of self-interest, be it adultery or greed or murderous envy. You could relish these karmic punishments and hopefully absorb the black-and-white means of supernatural justice as another credit to the Golden Rule, valuing your humanity when measured against others‘ inhumanity.

After the success of Creepshow, the anthology format which best accommodates fright fables looked more and more like purgatory. Whereas Twilight Zone: The Movie allowed name directors to remake direct episodes of the classic TV series, offerings like Creepshow 2 and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie re-trod worn concepts of Crime & Punishment, Sex Equals Death, Vanity Kills, and Vengeance from Beyond the Grave. HBO's prime-time revival of Tales from the Crypt warded off the stagnation with hip, hot talent in front of and behind the camera, but refreshingly decided to go with one feature-length story in its theatrical incarnations rather than hack out another omnibus film.

1995's Tales from the Hood offered fresh inspiration from what would appear to be an unlikely source, executive producer Spike "40 Acres and a Mule" Lee. It was Lee's cinematographer Ernest Dickerson who got the job of directing the Tales from the Crypt movie, Demon Knight, having already lent incredible style to James Bond III's urban vampire flick Def by Temptation. And here was Lee himself financing a major motion picture for two more rising African-American talents, Rusty Cundieff and Darin Scott. The latter came up as a producer not just for the former's 1993 debut, the delirious hip-hop industry lampoon Fear of a Black Hat, but also Stepfather II and another anthology film, 1987's The Offspring (a.k.a. From a Whisper to a Scream) (which he also co-wrote), thus ensuring Scott minor horror cred at the onset. Indeed, Tales from the Hood originally began life as The Black Horror Show, a stage play Cundieff had written and premiered before Fear of a Black Hat.

What made Tales from the Hood so unique was the way Cundieff & Scott took that black-and-white system of morality so common to schlock horror and interpreted it more literally. The four vignettes were driven by anxieties common to the African-American community, be it police brutality, broken homes, the re-ascension of Jim Crow-era bigotry, and senseless gang violence. When plugged into the camp-friendly anthology format, there was a charge not unlike the ones elicited by countless blaxploitation flicks in the 1970s. The revenge stories were even more cathartic, the familiar tropes of monsters in the closet and behavioral modification regimes given a rawer polish. And tying them all together was Mr. Simms, played with live-wire hamminess by Clarence Williams III as a seemingly benign undertaker who got his own against the thugs raiding his funeral home looking for the product.

23 years later, Cundieff & Scott have rewarded their cult with a DTV sequel to their transgressive crypt-keeper of a black comedy. Tales from the Hood 2 couldn't have come at a more necessary time, as white nationalism has irrevocably tainted national politics and a new slew of social ills have arose to warrant subversion. This time, Diomedes Simms (the great Keith David) has been invited to relay his latest cautionary stories to the Robo-Patriot, the MAGA-friendly pet project of one Dumass Beach (Bill Martin Williams, who resembles white-haired John P. Ryan). Again, Cundieff & Scott are drawing upon our knowledge of pop culture; if you've ever seen Short Circuit and/or RoboCop, you can smell the punchline from the moment you hear the name "Dumass Beach." And Mr. Simms knows it's coming, too, which is why Keith David plays the Clarence Williams role with less feigned helplessness and more of a sardonic puckishness in his toothy smile. He anticipates the damnation of Beach and his lackeys, who bullhorn their soulless, complacent antipathy to the black community.

The Robo-Patriot has been designed with less A.I. and more R.I., or "real intelligence," so that Mr. Simms' stories can be programmed as a means to make a more logical form of profiling. And sure enough, Simms' latest quartet of anecdotes carry a particularly righteous bite. The first story, "Good Golly," involves Black Lives Matter, or at least one particular black life which mattered, as Simms puts it. That would be Floyd (Lou Beatty Jr.), owner of an out-of-nowhere "Museum of Negrosity" which curates all manner of grossly caricatured trinkets, designed to normalize minstrel-minded prejudice, and antique reminders of enslavement. The brutal truth of these racist children's products is lost upon white Audrey (Alexandria Deberry) and black Zoe (Jasmine Akakpo), especially when the former covets a golliwog doll similar to one she had as a child. Floyd turns her down, so the girls break in after hours to steal it, with outrageous repercussions.

Whereas Rusty Cundieff directs the wraparound Simms scenes as well as the first and fourth stories, the middle belongs to Darin Scott. "Medium" involves another trio of gangstas, Brian (Martin Bradford), Gore (Chad Chambers) and Booze (Kedrick Brown), beating down Cliff Bettis (Creighton Thomas), an ex-pimp turned community pillar, in order to extort $5,000,000 of charity cash. Cliff trash-talks Booze to the point where he delivers a fatal blow which costs them the information of where that bounty is hid. Gore convinces his partners in crime to invade the home of quack psychic John Lloyd (Bryan Batt) so that he can conjure Cliff's spirit and finish the interrogation. Fat chance, homeboys.

"Date Night" is the shortest of the four stories and goes out to the ladies. In it, another interracial pair of buddies, Kahad (Greg Davis) and Ty (Alex Biglane), are out on the make. They arrive at the house of internet hookups Carmen (Alexandria Ponce) and Liz (Cat Limket) and promptly drug them for some non-consensual fun. But after they set up the video camera, it becomes clear that the tables are about to turn.

The last story, Cundieff's "The Sacrifice," is the one which does the most justice to the playfully didactic appeal of the original Tales from the Hood. Whereas "Good Golly" featured an in-joke for those who recall the Corbin Bernsen episode from the first Tales, "The Sacrifice" is a thematic successor to both "KKK Comeuppance" and the "Rogue Cop Revelation" segment, complete with a reprise of "Strange Fruit" on the soundtrack. This once again involves a black man turning a blind eye to injustice in the name of careerism, this time the traitor is Henry Bradley (Kendrick Cross), a born-again Republican who is hosting a gubernatorial fundraiser for Mayor William Cotton (Cotton Yancey). At first, the supernatural backlash threatens the life of his wife Emily's (Jillian Batherson) unborn child, who is shrinking in the womb, but it eventually falls on Henry to communicate with the ghost of none other than Emmett Till (Christopher Paul Horne) and confess to making a noble sacrifice once his wife, their family doctor (David Dahlgren) and Mayor Cotton suddenly turn on him with as much nastiness as Till's redneck torturers.

Cundieff approaches the compelling slideshow of lynch mob violence from "Hardcore Convert" (in which Lamont Bentley's Crazy K was subjected to a Ludovico-style wake-up call) in the way "The Sacrifice" cuts between the unflinching brutality of Emmett Till's assault and Mayor Cotton's justification of closing down ten voting booths, which involves more of that "black people are lazy" dogma which has become a disgusting talking point for right-wing mouthpieces. Cotton himself, with his white mustache and Kentucky Fried tuxedo, looks explicitly like an old-school plantation owner (his Trump-style pledge is to "take Mississippi back"). This is what Henry has compromised his principles for, and rather than revel in his cruel twist of fate, I was genuinely invested in him "respecting [the civil rights martyrs'] sacrifices." No wonder Rod Serling himself is listed in the "special thanks" credits; "The Sacrifice" sincerely aspires to the classic Twilight Zone, and is certainly more poignant and pointed than John Landis' ill-fated contribution to that 1983 feature spin-off.

"Good Golly" is also urgent in the way it demands black people (and us bleeding-heart whiteys) understand their history. Floyd is painfully aware of the point where whips and chains gave way to ink and paper as tools of oppression; he even name checks Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message" to drive the point home. The salt-and-pepper BFFs who stumble upon his museum are as vapid as "Ebony & Ivory," and black best friend Zoe even straddles a whipping post in a show of mindless hedonism. In the time it has taken for Tales from the Hood 2 to materialize, Cundieff & Scott have sharpened their own pens in response to all the latest hypocrisies and identity crises. The bro douche predators of "Date Night" are all-American monsters, whom Dumass Beach pardons all too casually ("Hormones! Boys will be boys") because of the more xenophobic fear of rapists from the other side of the border. Even Beach's female assistant, Kelly (Alicia Davis Johnson), raises no objection to her boss's virulently sexist behavior.

Interestingly enough, the characters in the wraparound sketch are listed differently in the credits compared to how they address each other in the dialogue. Kelly becomes "PollyAnnas Hockenbull," lab dork Grant (Jay Huguley) is "Fitch Measpine" and even Mr. Simms, who is introduced as "Diomedes Simms" by Kelly is "Portifoy Simms," and it is never clear what relation he is to the Mr. Simms to the first film, especially since Keith David lacks Clarence Williams' Don King ‘fro and distinctive gap-teeth. The only real thing Williams and David have in common is the way they relish the vague, scatological description of their respective MacGuffins.

Tales from the Hood 2 can't help but come across as more low-rent than its predecessor, and even muddled in its morality. Take "Medium," in which a former hustler has an "e-pimp-phany" and has decided to become a more respectable entrepreneur and even has plans to financially aid inner-city children. He dies sassily, but believing in a better world. I guess it's meant to be subversive when Cliff, having already taken control of the psychic's body and having murdered his three tormentors, assumes his fraudulent host's place on the infomercial stage. I found it a cop out, and out-of-synch with the poetic justice of the other stories' conclusions. It betrays the influence of Darin Scott, who since Tales from the Hood has frittered his directorial talent on a second wave of pedestrian horror fare (Deep Blue Sea 2, Dark House, the late Brittany Murphy vehicle Something Wicked).

Both Scott's "Medium" and "Date Night" could've benefited more from tighter pacing. I was far too antsy waiting for the threads involving the gangstas and the huckster to mesh, and any time horror movie characters engage in a prolonged parlor game (in the case of "Date Night," Cards Against Humanity), I instinctively hit the fast-forward button. On the plus side: Bryan Batt's performance as the phony spirit guide steamrollers over the tired satire (I was reminded of the obscure 1987 film Salvation!, which starred Stephen McHattie as a televangelist in danger and was scored by New Order), and "Medium" has an uproarious scene where Batt's John Lloyd evokes the many victims of the gangsters' previous power plays.

However, it's Rusty Cundieff's long-overdue return to the feature format which deserves to be praised. Fear of a Black Hat, a movie which begs to be reissued on Blu-Ray, was released a little too close to the Chris Rock vehicle CB4 to find a deserving audience, but Cundieff has been working steadily in TV for a long time now while staying true to his satirical instincts. He's served as a writer for Dave Chappelle, Wanda Sykes, David Alan Grier (who you might remember from his against-type performance in the first Tales from the Hood) and the Human Giant troupe. He could have been the proto-Jordan Peele, and both Cundieff and Scott are as literate and respectful of the horror form as the Oscar-winning writer of Get Out. Both "Good Golly" and "The Sacrifice" have been crafted with a similar edge, even if they pale next to Peele's breakout debut due to their lack of subtlety ("Dumass Beach," y'all).

I'm willing to forgive Cundieff, though. It's been more than two decades now, and we are constantly getting punched in the face repeatedly with the gross negligence and childish, regressive hostility of the current reality-show president. If Tales from the Hood 2 says what it needs to say a little too bluntly, I can safely say I've heard worse delivered just as on the nose. Welcome back to hell!