In 1995, Tales from the Hood mixed unflinching horror with surreal comedy to make a fun film with a message that's still relevant today. Produced by Spike Lee, this black horror movie was initially a failure at the box office, but over time, it's become one of the most highly regarded horror anthology films of the 20th century.
Tales from the Hood is a lot of things: It’s a fun movie, it’s a film that takes a serious look at the systemic issues affecting people of color, and it’s also the kind of movie that has tiny killer dolls. The journey that Tales from the Hood went on to go from cult classic to something that’s taught in schools is astounding. Watching it now, the film feels more important than ever.
From its title to the conceit of a creepy storyteller providing tales of frightening morality, Tales from the Hood feels like it’s riffing on Tales from the Crypt. In lesser hands, that’s what it could have been, but it’s just drawing from the same inspirations - specifically EC Comics and horror films of the 1950s and '60s.
Tales from the Hood uses the same anthology structure as Tales from the Crypt to tell a series of stories that show how systemic racism and violence are a scourge on under-represented communities.
The Mr. Simms character is exactly what Tales from the Hood needs to keep the film from tipping too heavily into maudlin territory. Mr. Simms acts as the Cryptkeeper of the film: He introduces each story while menacing the gang members who are visiting his funeral home, and his performance feels like something from another universe.
Simms is both creepy and enthralling. You want to see more of this silk-robed character with a cadence that's befitting a David Lynch film, and as over-the-top as the performance is, it never feels unnecessary. Simms is the perfect guide for a film full of zombies, possessed dolls, and children with magical powers.
Like many horror anthology films from the era - Cat's Eye, Tales from the Darkside, etc. - Tales from the Hood uses the structure of a series of stories inside of a main story. This movie uses the wraparound to bolster the four stories that discuss abuse, violence, and racism, with the conceit that the characters in Mr. Simms's funeral home know the characters in these stories - or at least know people like them.
The wraparound features Mr. Simms giving three gang members a tour through his funeral home and explaining how each character was brought down by their own actions. If these interstitial moments were delivered by a less charismatic figure than Simms, the whole thing would feel like a very special episode, but Williams imbues his character with so many incongruous tics that it's impossible to take your eyes off him.
The first short pushes the audience into the deep end and lets you know that this isn't going to be a hokey experience. "Rogue Cop Revelation" begins with the brutal beating of a Black man at the hands of white police officers, set to “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday. This sends a Black police officer who witnesses the event into a haze of substance use as he hears the voice of the deceased man.
This section has a stark contrast between the very real horrors of police brutality and the fantastical elements of Haitian zombie myths, which combine into a genuinely upsetting story. The end of the short includes a burning police car in the middle of a street - something reminiscent of the 1992 LA riots - and a guy being zapped into a painting by a zombie. It's a genuinely wild ending that totally works.