It’s no stretch to say that Rusty Cundieff’s 1995 horror film “Tales from the Hood” has become a cult classic in its own right. The film launched a franchise that now includes three films. The latest installment — led by Candyman Tony Todd — premiered on the SyFy network this month, and can now be streamed on Amazon Prime and other VOD platforms. “Tales from the Hood 3” comes with the same degree of social commentary as the previous two films.
From a searing indictment of gentrification featuring a murderous realtor (London Brown) to a right-wing nutjob (Cooper Huckabee) who attempts to protect his property from a diverse America, the movie hits a lot of nerves at once. Once again, Spike Lee serves as executive producer, while Darin Scott co-directed and wrote the last two entries with Cundieff.
“Tales from the Hood” has lost none of its relevance today. While the franchise has found an audience on VOD, it wasn’t so easy to make a provocative horror movie about Black life in America 25 years ago. The original “Tales from the Hood” followed an eerie mortician played by Clarence Williams III, who attempts to terrify three drug dealers — Joe Torry, De’aundre Bonds, and Samuel Monroe Jr. — into making them consider other career options, by telling them four horrifying stories, all of which have social and racial implications.
When the movie was made, Cundieff had a single feature under his belt with the underseen hip hop mockumentary “Fear of a Black Hat,” and a few acting roles. But “Tales from the Hood” would provide him with a whole new vessel for exploring the racially-charged climate of America at the time, one that has only grown more resonant with time.
The filmmaker spoke to IndieWire about how he pulled off the original concept during a very different moment for Black filmmakers in Hollywood, and how he’s planning for the future of the franchise.
Savoy Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IndieWire: How hard was the film to pitch in the mid-1990s as a “Black Film”?
Rusty Cundieff: Our first released film together was [the hip hop mockumentary] “Fear of a Black Hat.” Later down the line, we were working on this idea of doing a horror film. But I insisted that it had to be really socially inspired. While we were working on the script, Spike Lee invited me to come to a premiere of one of his films. I was in “School Daze,” so that’s how we knew each other. After the premiere, Spike came up, and he said, “I saw ‘Fear of a Black Hat,’ it was great! What are you working on next?” And I said, “We’re working on a horror anthology.” And he said, “Send it to me!” But we hadn’t finished it, so we worked really hard to do that so that we could send it off to Spike. He had a deal at Universal. They initially passed on it, and so we ended up at Savoy.
IndieWire: Your release came on the tale-end of the so-called “hood movie” craze, tackling socio-economic and political issues with respect to Black people.
Cundieff: The studio didn’t really know how to deal with the movie. They were afraid of the politics of it. If you look at the release trailer, you cannot tell what the hell is going on. Everything looks crazy. And that was really the tough part of dealing with it. In retrospect, I think it was a very poor decision on their parts to go that way, because everyone that I talked to after the film was out wide said, “If I had known what the movie was really about, I would have seen it in the theater!” Or, “I would have gone to see it earlier.” And so I think the studio lost some initial box office because they were just afraid of putting it out there the way that I created it.
IndieWire: A lot of people refer to it as a “horror-comedy.”
Cundieff: I’ve never considered it a horror comedy. You look at something like “Scream” and that’s a horror comedy. I feel personally that “Tales From the Hood” is different. There are certainly moments in it that produce laughter, but taking it in totality, there are less laughs. You look at the first episode with the cops and the zombie. I don’t think there are really any laughs in the episode “Boys Don’t Cry,” with David Alan Grier and Paula Jai Parker. The Corbin Bernsen episode, and certainly the Crazy K section, have absolutely nothing funny in them. It’s interesting that it got that label. I think a lot of that has to do with how the studio wanted to market it, which was not what I consider it to be.
IndieWire: You landed some really stellar actors like Clarence Williams, Roger Guenveur Smith, Rosalind Cash, and others.
Cundieff: I guess if there’s anything good to say about where we are today versus where we were when we made this movie, is that there are so many more opportunities for African American actors. When we did this in 1994, the issue for a lot of Black actors was that there just were not a lot of opportunities. So, when we got Rosalind Cash, she hadn’t worked in a while. I can remember her coming to the set and I remember being nervous because I was dealing with the great Rosalind Cash. Although Clarence was not nervous whatsoever. But at the same time, the world wasn’t knocking down his door. And Roger Guenveur Smith was someone that I knew from being a young actor in Hollywood myself, and we were both in Spike’s “School Daze.” Corbin Bernsen was probably the biggest name at the time in the movie. But I do believe that they all saw the script and really took to the stories and what the script was saying. They could see that it was something that had some value.
IndieWire: Was there ever any consideration to making this a television series as opposed to a film franchise?
Cundieff: We have been diligently trying to do that for years. It looks like maybe we might finally have a shot. We’re in talks with Universal. It’s still far from a done deal. Darin and I have both wanted to do this as an ongoing series for many, many years. Emphatically yes.
IndieWire: How much more can you share?
Cundieff: It hasn’t been bought, but we are talking. Universal owns the title, so we have to deal with them. And it looks like it could happen. So it’s kind of a fingers crossed thing. But we want to open it up, to tell other stories, and it’s ironic, because we have been trying to do this for a while, and all the times that we would approach people, they’d say, “Eh, the anthology thing is kind of over.” Now it’s different, because there’s a ton of horror and sci-fi anthology series out.
IndieWire: So it’s safe to assume there is going to be a fourth film?
Cundieff: I believe that there will be. We’re hoping to get some more money. I think one of the things that’s been frustrating for Darin and myself, is that the first film had a budget of just over $6 million dollars, which we shot in L.A., non-union. And I think the second film worked okay. I think the third one is very good. I do wish that we had the resources to do what we really would like to have done on all of them.
IndieWire: What would you have really liked to do that you were not able to do?
Cundieff: Well, we would like to have the resources to get a very strong cast. Black actors are doing really well now. So you’re not going to get some of those big names that you could have gotten back in 1994 when they weren’t working as much. So now it costs money to get certain people. And then the other thing is we’d like to do certain kinds of effects and do certain things with location. But that said, it’s ultimately about kind of making something that isn’t expensive but leans more towards what the story is doing, because you know you can’t afford certain things that are really flashy. So you really have to put it into the writing.
IndieWire: Do you feel like the career you have is the one that you wanted to have? Or is there something that you wanted to do that you couldn’t do?
Cundieff: Well, I learned never to say that you’re not content. Because there are always people who are even less content than you. But there are things that I’ve wanted to do that I don’t know if are not options.
IndieWire: Like what?
Cundieff: An anthology series would be one. There are other TV ideas I have that are focused on Black family life, in a different way than I see some other shows. So I am heartened that there is so much product out there now that features Black Americans that are not stereotypical.
IndieWire: What shows are you talking about?
Cundieff: Obviously, you’ve got shows like “Blackish,” and you’ve got Issa Rae’s show. These shows, these characters are the driving force you’re centered on, and you’re enjoying and living through their journey. Those are the kinds of things that I want to do. I’ve got a stack of scripts, a stack of ideas. It would be ridiculous to try and list them all, but I think also just as a person who is a creative, you’re always looking for the next thing, what excites you, what you want to say. I would also say, sadly, all of the issues that we try to tackle in the first “Tales From the Hood” are still here, and in some cases, come back in virulent, shocking ways. Trump is a thousand times worse, in my opinion, than Corbin Bernsen’s character. Not just from a racial standpoint, but from what is happening politically to the country at large.
IndieWire: Is Biden any better for America?
Cundieff: I would say yes, because the American process of government is still one that has allowed certain gains to be made. And so, when you see someone come in who is kind of corroding the system to the point where even the things that you had to fight for can no longer be fought for, that’s a problem. Biden is not a savior, but he’s likely not going to burn the system to the ground.
IndieWire: What’s next for you?
Cundieff: Ironically, and amazingly, I’m actually working on a Disney cartoon right now for preschoolers. And I’m also working on hopefully something that we’ll get to shoot next year, which is a film based on a Syfy short that I won’t give the name of right now, but it is something that should be pretty weird and scary and creepy.
IndieWire: Finally, given recent controversy about the dearth of African American filmmakers in the Criterion Collection…
Cundieff:: They just haven’t called me to say, “Let’s do a Criterion version of it.” But if they do, I’m down.
“Tales from the Hood 3” is now streaming on multiple platforms.