Tales From The Hood

In this potentially transformative era of Black Lives Matter, Antifa and We Charge Genocide, a film like Tales From The Hood deserves a second look.  An old-school horror anthology heavily saturated with anti-racist political messaging, it failed to make much of an impression on me when I snuck in to see it at the long gone Centre Mall Cinemas the night of June 1, 1995.

Many years after that screening, I often wondered if I blew it.  Was I wrong to be so harsh in my rejection?  The Rodney King debacle was still fresh in my mind.  Regrettably, I remember not being terribly sympathetic towards him.  Did my lack of context, my denial of the full truth somehow play a role in my ultimately panning this movie?

Having just screened it for a second time on Blu-ray, sadly I find myself reliving my disappointment.  No, I wasn’t too harsh.  This well-intentioned statement simply lacks conviction.

King had a long history with alcohol abuse which carried on long enough that he ended up being cast on Celebrity Rehab.  It was watching him on that show that I finally understood his pain, his trauma, and his isolation.  Rehab humanized him in the way previous media coverage hadn’t.  I liked him.  I rooted for him to get better.  He never deserved the horrific beating four racist white police officers needlessly administered to him that fateful, life-changing night in early 1991.  I wish I had acknowledged that in real time.  The lingering effects of that moment led to his untimely death at age 47 in 2012.

In one of Tales From The Hood’s five short segments, three white police officers (Wings Hauser, Michael Massee, Duane Whitaker) start wailing on a black man they pull over as Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching anthem Strange Fruit is heard.  But this isn’t some ordinary joe they decide to randomly brutalize.  It’s a powerful politician (Tom Wright) whose efforts to root out corruption in the local police department are resulting in ruined careers.

Unfortunately, the scene isn’t all that effective emotionally.  These particular officers aren’t scary.  They’re reckless boobs.  Their violence is predictable, not shocking.  And it’s not well choreographed, either.  You just don’t feel the impact of the blows like you should.  It should be much more intense.

Witnessing all of this is a young black cop (Anthony Griffith) who confirms through a licence plate check who this man really is and attempts to intervene on his behalf.  When the beating stops, the white cops say they’ll drive him to the hospital.  But what they really do is cover up a murder in such a way that it’s surprising there isn’t a scene of mass protests immediately afterwards.

Now a disillusioned alcoholic, a guilt-ridden Griffith leaves the force and is commanded by the spirit of Wright to lure the three officers to his grave site.  In a scene with an homage of sorts to Carrie, you can pretty much guess what happens next.

And that’s another problem with Tales From The Hood as a whole.  There aren’t a lot of surprises.  Every set-up to each of the stories is essentially the same.  Terrible people, sometimes white racists, other times violent black men, do terrible things to mostly innocent people and they all meet a grisly demise that is not even remotely terrifying.  It’s pure cinematic revenge porn.

In another segment, pro-Confederate politician and “original American” Corbin Bernsen is repeatedly warned that the old plantation house he’s living in is haunted by the presence of former slaves who live on in tiny dolls that wouldn’t be out of place in a Puppet Master movie.  He has nothing but prejudiced contempt for black people except, curiously, for the black man (Roger Smith) advising his election campaign, one of a number of black characters who pay the price for associating with powerful scum or not doing nearly enough to combat them.

Bernsen’s overtly bigoted character is a bit too broad and cartoonish to pose much of a threat, and as a result, we don’t take him seriously.  He’s a little too easy to dethrone.

In another segment, a young boy (Brandon Hammond) struggles with the two “monsters” in his life, a school bully and his abusive stepdad (a seriously miscast David Alan Grier who lacks a domineering presence) who he envisions as an actual demon.  Director/co-writer Rusty Cundieff plays his skeptical yet concerned teacher who witnesses firsthand what happens when no one is looking.  The boy’s flirty mom (Paula Jai Parker) is another of Grier’s unfortunate victims.

The boy learns from a schoolmate how to vanquish his enemies.  You draw a picture of them and then you simply crumple up the paper which in turn crushes their bones and twists their limbs.  It’s a surprisingly unsatisfying gimmick, especially during the story’s woefully tepid climax.

Another story involves an unrepentant gangbanger nicknamed Crazy K (Lamont Bentley), an angry young man with a long trail of dead bodies in his past.  Back in prison yet again, he is selected for a secret government program that looks a lot like something Alex the Droog goes through in A Clockwork Orange.

This isn’t “rehab”, though, it’s torture that sees him locked in a tiny cage next to a warmongering white supremacist (Rick Dean) and forced to view images of his murderous crimes juxtaposed to real-life photos of lynchings while strapped into a spinning contraption wearing nothing but bikini underwear as gangsta rap plays in the background.  (Maybe this is where Strange Fruit should’ve appeared instead of the police brutality segment.)  If the images don’t make the message clear, the ethically challenged doctor (Rosalind Cash) in charge of all this spells it out for him.  Why do you keep killing brothers?  You’re making the white supremacists very happy.

Unsurprisingly, Crazy K is defiant and not giving in to this simplistic government guilt trip.  (He kills young black men much in the same way Italian mobsters kill off other Italian mobsters.  They’re a threat to his bottom line.)  Then, the movie undermines this part of the story by employing the very tired “it was just a dream” cliché.

Wrapped around these overwrought segments is the story of three other gangbangers (Joe Torry, Sam Monroe, De’Aundre Bonds) lured to a possible drug deal with a mysterious, organ-playing mortician (Clarence Williams III) who is more weird than frightening.  As the wild-haired, wild-eyed impresario delays and delays by opening up coffins and calmly teeing up intros for all these segments, the young men get more and more impatient and agitated wondering where “the shit” is.  By the time we reach the finale, we realize it’s all been a ruse.  Those are not spectacular special effects.

Tales From The Hood was wrongly sold as a parody which partially explains why it was a modest theatrical grosser.  The other reason for its failure is it doesn’t have the heart to be truly scary.  Complex issues like white supremacy, police brutality, domestic violence, street crime, the war on drugs and torture are not for the squeamish or the ignorant.  They understandably make us uncomfortable because they force us to confront our own racist, violent history and ongoing present.

But in this movie, they’re nothing more than thinly sketched clotheslines to hang bad supernatural plots on.  Plus, it’s impossible to thoughtfully explore these crucial subjects when each story only runs between 15 and 20 minutes apiece, a frustrating limitation of the anthology format.  Consider how much more effective the story of the bad cops & the crusading politician could’ve been had there been more time for a suspenseful build-up.

Heavy-handed in its messaging (Corbin Bernsen’s racist politico literally whacks one of the ex-slave dolls with the American flag, wink wink) and not at all interested in challenging and shaking up its audience with actual, truthful ferocity, Tales From The Hood ends up being a witless, politically neutered Tales From The Crypt.

It should’ve been so much more.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, August 31, 2017
3:35 a.m.

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Published in: on August 31, 2017 at 3:35 am  Comments (2)  

Miami Blues

There’s something seriously wrong with Alec Baldwin.

But let’s talk about his character in Miami Blues.

When the movie begins, he’s on a flight from California to Florida.  Fresh out of the clink, he’s already beaten a man to death and stolen his identity.  Upon arriving at the airport, it takes two tries before he successfully steals someone’s suitcase.  For some reason, he settles on one belonging to a sleeping mother.

On the way down the escalator, he grows so instantly annoyed with the high pressure sales tactics of a Hari Krishna, who wants him to embrace The Knowledge Of God in literary form, he breaks his finger.  The shock kills him.  Is that even possible?

Once safely ensconsed in his hotel room, a bellboy he just met sends him up a self-conscious sex worker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who immediately lies about her name and her age.  She’s 23, not 19.  And her name isn’t Pepper, it’s Susan.

The psychologically abusive Baldwin, who insists on being called Junior, sizes up the situation and takes manipulative control.  He senses serious vulnerability in the young university student.  (He later dismisses her modest dream of starting a burger franchise as stupid.)  Finding a use for that woman’s suitcase he just stole (he falsely claims it belongs to his non-existent ex-wife), he insists Susan put on a red dress.  Then, he lowers the boom.  It’ll cost her 50 bucks to own it.  She suggests that’s the equivalent of a blowjob.  She ends up keeping it for free.  After planting one on her lips, Susan remarks, “Nobody kisses us.” It’s hard to tell if she’s talking about sex workers or women with very low standards.

At any event, Junior hitches his rickety wagon to the gullible Susan who thinks he’s left his wife (he was never married) and a life of thievery behind for an investment career.  Far from it.

Every chance he gets, the impulsive psycho seizes an opportunity to enrich himself illegitimately.  His preferred schtick is to rob people in the middle of robbing other people whether it’s a tag team of pickpockets at the local mall or gunmen hoping for a quick score from the till or a defenseless mark.  That is when he’s not robbing their potential victims himself.  As the money and valuable objects keep poring in, he continues to see Susan purely for sex, free meals and shelter.  He certainly isn’t in love with her.

There’s an odd scene where they meet for lunch at an outdoor café.  First, they exchange tacky gifts.  He gets a novelty T-shirt.  She gets a mug with her name on it.  While a synchronized swim team performs a “water ballet” in the background, Susan prattles on and on about her boring life to a clearly irritated Junior who tolerates her blatherings because he needs her more than she needs him.  When she suggests he eat a particular salad she likes, he takes one bite, declares it disgusting and they’re out of there.

Meanwhile, eccentric cop Fred Ward (who has a peculiar habit of pulling out his false teeth before he drinks) is investigating the Hari Krishna’s death and eventually acquires Susan’s address.  He pops in unannounced and invites himself over for dinner.  During the meal, he makes Junior very uncomfortable by asking very pointed questions and making astute observations.  Junior has an unusually firm grip, he notices out loud.  He protects his meal like a prisoner would.  Even though Ward doesn’t know his whole history yet, he’s already onto him.  Minus the unfunny denture gimmick, it’s the film’s smartest performance.  (Nora Dunn, who plays a fellow cop, is also good in her small role as she does the off-camera grunt work to save Ward some investigative time.)

While he makes small talk with Susan (they bond over her delicious pork chops), there’s a creepy moment where Junior lingers in the background teasing the idea of shooting his new enemy with a big silver gun he has already secretly stolen from her oblivious next door neighbour.  (That’s where Junior found the pork chops, as well.)  When Ward makes the mistake of telling him that he’s staying at a hotel run by a deaf guy, Junior pays him a surprise visit and lays the hurt on him so bad he’s hospitalized for a while.  Adding to the humiliation, not only does he steal his badge and gun but also his false teeth.  Curiously, he doesn’t steal his money.

When Junior starts parading around town as a renegade cop busting up an illegal betting ring, handcuffing drug dealers and stopping robberies in progress (not to mention taking bribes from Susan’s bellboy pimp), the joke is he’s better at the job than Ward himself.  One of his arrests unwittingly solves a murder case that stymied the real homicide detective for 15 months.

Junior’s forced relationship with Susan moves so quickly their brief & phony engagement turns into a really phony marriage of convenience.  After talking her into cashing in her ten thousand dollar CD, he rents a furnished home with “almost antiques” in Coral Gables.  Susan, already appreciative for being “rescued” from the sex trade, enthusiastically plays the role of little miss housewife, even though Junior talks her out of having kids and denies her an “I love you” return.  He also needlessly continues to put himself in dangerous situations because he’s addicted to being someone more powerful than himself.

When I first watched Miami Blues on videotape sometime in 1990, I didn’t care for it.  The characters were too wacky, the plot not terribly amusing.  27 years later, after rescreening it on Blu-ray I haven’t changed my opinion.  It’s still a depressing mess.  As Roger Ebert correctly pointed out in his own pan of the film, it wants to be an “off-centre comedy” but rarely succeeds.  (I laughed twice this time.)  He found Susan and Junior too stupid to be credible.

For me, Alec Baldwin just isn’t terrifying enough as the heel here.  When he assaults people, it should be more intense, more uncomfortable.  Instead, it’s just standard action stuff.  His outrageous attempts at being a cop are limited to trigger-happy gunplay and regurgitating his interactions with real ones like Ward.  What they’ve said to him over the years he says back to the people he encounters.  Junior is so reckless and out of control, his fate is inevitable and therefore, not shocking.  The famous song that plays over the opening titles serves as a warning of sorts that goes predictably unheeded.

1990 was a breakthrough year for Jennifer Jason Leigh who also starred in Last Exit To Brooklyn where she plays a more tragic sex worker.  She’s easily convincing as Susan but I didn’t really care about her sometimes annoying, not terribly interesting character.  She’s too much of an all-believing doormat and for far too long.  She’s not given anything funny to say, either.

There’s a scene where Ward purposely bumps into her at the grocery store.  By this point, he knows Junior’s full history and shares key revelations with her.  When she describes how best to make a vinegar pie (remember their bond over food), notice how emotional she gets as all of this new information about her homicidal husband starts sinking in.  In a stronger movie, it would be a powerful moment.  But as it stands in this mediocre one, because we never bought this relationship in the first place, you wonder why she’s stuck it out this long.  Is she really this desperate?

Susan deliberately puts way too much vinegar in her concoction as a test of her man’s honesty.  After supper, she offers him a slice for dessert.  It’s abundantly clear from the moment he takes his first bite, he hates it.  But he lies and repeatedly says it’s great as he continues eating.  Susan breaks down.

But that doesn’t stop her from being Junior’s getaway driver in the film’s most memorable scene.  After stealing her next door neighbour’s not-so-rare coin collection without her knowledge (at the same time he nabbed the pork chops and big silver gun), he takes it to a cynical dealer and ends up in a gunfight.  Then, the owner slices off three of his digits.  Incredibly, he still manages to steal some cash from the register and pilfer a ring for his lady.  When he returns to the car, he gets a rude awakening.  Although she later lamely rationalizes her devotion to him (raise your standards, honey), Susan finally realizes that her husband’s word, like this movie, has always been shit.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, August 27, 2017
8:00 p.m.

Published in: on August 27, 2017 at 8:00 pm  Comments (1)  

Cathy’s Curse (1977 & 1980)

One night in December 1947, a man with a cartoonish moustache drives home in a panic to find his weeping daughter all alone.  His wife has kidnapped his son for reasons that are never explained.  As you can imagine, neither of them are terribly happy about it.

The man and his daughter soon drive off in his beautiful red car hoping to track them down.  But then a bunny randomly shows up on the road, he repeatedly swerves to avoid it and they crash.  This gorgeously painted vehicle erupts into flames, the young girl fails to revive him while simultaneously calling out in vain for help and yet still manages to get out without us ever seeing her escape.

Three decades later, the missing brother, now a grown man who looks like the lead singer of Wang Chung and sounds like a less sophisticated Frasier Crane, mysteriously re-appears with his mentally disturbed wife who has haunting eyes and a touchy feely young daughter of their own.  They’ve returned to live in his family’s old abandoned home.  Everything is still here including his “first love”, a naked white figurine that he hilariously damages.  He shouldn’t have bothered repairing it.

But when his cute blond daughter makes the fateful mistake of exploring the attic (in order to get out of helping her mother with the dusting), their charmed lives change for the worse.

That’s the set-up for the humourously inept Cathy’s Curse, a decidedly unscary horror film first released in Canada in 1977 (both in English and French) and then in a drastically cut version in the US three years later.  Both English versions are included in a new 40th Anniversary Blu-ray.

Cathy, the blond kid, takes one look at a freaky picture of Laura, the young girl who disappears after the opening scene, and is suddenly possessed by her vengeful spirit.  Still pissed at her mom for kidnapping her brother, through Cathy, she starts acting out.  A now controlled Cathy turns colder towards her own mother, Vivian, who has a short fuse, especially when you repeat nursery rhymes too much or don’t say anything at all, and has never fully recovered from her unexplained mental breakdown.  As time goes on, Vivian becomes that one character that knows something is seriously wrong with her daughter but her dopey, overworked yet never fatigued husband George dismisses her well-founded suspicions as imagined nonsense.  At no time do they ever go up to the attic themselves.

Helping out around the house are Mary, the surprisingly tolerant maid, and Paul, the drunken, dishevelled, British gardener with a big hole in the elbow of his cardigan sweater.  He looks like a cross between an elderly Hulk Hogan and a short-haired Mick Fleetwood.  Even though the accent is different, you wonder if he was the inspiration for Groundskeeper Willie.

After being hypnotized and possessed by Laura’s spirit, Cathy brings down an old doll that has its eyes sewn shut.  She develops an unhealthy attachment to the thing and freaks out if you try to take it from her.  In one of many bad judgment calls made by the filmmakers, the doll has an unintentionally hilarious demon voice and at times can move on its own.  In one scene where it goes flying across the room, you can clearly see strings attached.

As you’ve probably already deduced, much of the movie’s plot makes little sense.  For starters, in the Canadian version, during the flaming car sequence, we clearly see an open door leading us to believe Laura is still alive.  But in the U.S. version, that shot is cut, so now we believe she’s dead.  (You only see the open door very quickly in a couple of flashbacks which causes further confusion.)  Regardless, how in the hell does her spirit live on in that framed photo with the glowing green eyes, one of the few effective special effects in this mess?  (For what’s it worth, I also enjoyed the red bath water gag.)

Also weird is the scene where some neighbourhood kids are caught spying on the family but are nonetheless immediately invited to play with Cathy, the new girl in town.  (The invitation scene is absent from the US cut.)  While Vivian, the mom, entertains Mrs. Burton, the mother of that nosy threesome, and her friend, Agatha, a nerdy medium obsessed with all things old, Cathy loosely re-enacts the film’s opening scene with her new playmates but from Laura’s rather sexist perspective.  (She’s never forgotten George’s kidnapping.)

At the same time, Agatha looks at a photo of Laura’s dead father and starts acting out all the voice parts from the same moment which is supremely silly.  It all ends with a sweaty Agatha screaming and Mrs. Burton’s daughter getting poked in the eye with a foreign object.  Suddenly having the urge to leave, there’s another unintentional laugh when a shocked Mrs. Burton still manages to be thankful for Vivian’s delicious coffee.  Yeah, it wasn’t cool that your daughter tried to blind my daughter but it would be rude not to acknowledge your tasty beverage!

When the medium decides to pay an unexpected second visit to the house after Vivian invites her to drop by at any time, she instead encounters an inebriated Paul and a very bitchy Cathy.  (Vivian gets institutionalized a number of times during this ordeal.)  After scaring her away with a whole lot of misogyny (shouldn’t she have anticipated this hostility?), Cathy makes sure the gardener continues to get plastered into a vulnerable, frozen state (minus the occasional blinking and shaking) as she somehow manufactures the presence of a couple of little snakes, some rats and a tarantula to torment him.  It’s another baffling scene because there’s no pay-off.  The creepy crawlies don’t bite.

A similar moment occurs when Cathy climbs up the stairs with a tray full of food for her bed-ridden mother.  As she stands by the open-doored attic, a light goes on, she returns to her hypnotic state (another unplanned humourous moment) and suddenly that glass of milk turns red, that apple becomes rotten and one of those sandwiches is infested with slimy bugs.  (A cool, old-school effect, actually.)  But when she shows up in Vivian’s bedroom, the drink and food are back to normal again and are never consumed.

Laura’s hold on Cathy becomes so strong, when she’s not showing up as a reflection or turning her into a pint-sized Rich Little, she can actually make her disappear and reappear at will.  But, late in the film, she decides it’s enough already and tries to make her drown herself.  To say there is a constant lack of logic would be redundant.

By the time we reach the end, after a number of innocent people and a dog are murdered (poor Sneaker), it turns out there’s an easy solution to all this mostly scareless hokum.  But because everyone is either incredibly stupid or under the spell of Laura, we have to wait nearly 90 minutes (or 80 minutes in the case of the American cut) for it to finally happen.

Cathy’s Curse is a strange little film in so many unflattering ways.  The shorter US version does not make it any less so.  By the way, most of the cuts happen in the first half and are quite noticeable at times.  (Some of the editing is pretty obvious and shoddy which is also true of the uncut original for that matter.)  Boring conversations are severely cut down (the disappeared portions are mostly unimportant) while whole scenes are dropped entirely.  (The opening title sequence, which is mixed in with the car wreck, is missing a number of credits from the Canadian version.)

The moment where George accidentally snaps off the arm of his beloved figurine is totally absent in the shorter edit as is the scene when he glues it back together.  Curiously, however, Cathy’s Scanner-like destruction of it remains.  Keeping that in the US version without the earlier context is odd.  Then again, the idea of her destroying one of her father’s most treasured keepsakes, while otherwise maintaining a close, somewhat watered down Freudian relationship with him, makes no sense, either.

Also, in case you don’t understand what the hell is going on in the first two scenes of the movie, a couple of “helpful” graphics are added to the US edit so you don’t have to hurt your brain.  Other than the dates mentioned, however, they are completely unnecessary.  (All of the need-to-know information is covered in the dialogue.)  As idiotic as this film is, at least we understand the basic familial connections between the main characters.

What isn’t understood at all is this inane plot which asks us to accept some inconsistent, far-fetched supernatural craziness that operates so far from the realm of reasonableness you will often sit there scratching your head wondering how many drugs were consumed in the making of this travesty.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, August 27, 2017
5:05 p.m.

Published in: on August 27, 2017 at 5:05 pm  Comments (2)