When you watch Twilight Zone episodes, Rod Serling's heavy, Aesop-goes-to-the-millennium didacticism isn't what you like the shows in spite of; it's part of what you like them for. That's true, as well, of Rusty Cundieff's Tales From the Hood, an enthusiastically cheesy sociological horror bash that's essentially a black Twilight Zone. From the moment Clarence Williams III appears as the imperious, pop-eyed Mr. Simms, a mortuary overseer who serves as the movie's hilariously dazed host, you know Tales From the Hood is in no danger of taking itself too seriously. At the same time, the film's four episodes acquire a cumulative resonance. Death, the eternal theme of Serling and his imitators, is now one of the reigning obsessions of black pop culture; with groups like Gravediggaz, the nihilism of gansta rap has edged into the freak-show morbidity of the horror genre. Cundieff, a canny ripoff artist, uses an African-American spin on horror-anthology clichés to revitalize the form's very preachiness.
Cundieff is brazed about plundering sources. ''Rogue Cop Revelation,'' featuring Wings Hauser as a racist cop whose brutality comes back to haunt him, is Night of the Living Dead redux, with a climax that's a drug-syringe version of one of the best jokes from Carrie. ''KKK Comeuppance'' is a flagrant filch from the famous TV movie Trilogy of Terror, in which Karen Black was menaced by a chattering devil doll. Here, Corbin Bernsen is an ex-Ku Klux Klan member running for governor (his name is Duke, in case we miss the point) who is terrorized by an army of little black dolls the spirits of former slaves. Even if you know the original, this kind of fairy-tale revenge fantasy has a timeless appeal.
It's in the most ambitious episode ''Hard Core Convert,'' that Cundieff achieves something haunting. A young killer (Lamont Bentley) is put through an experimental behavior-mod program like the one in A Clockwork Orange. As he is strapped down and shown photographs of lynchings (we see a stroboscopic montage), the cardboard horror of the previous episodes falls away to reveal actual horror; the images hit us like fists. Cundieff, though, succeeds in sending us home giddy, wrapping up the movie with Clarence Williams III's sublime, ghoulish camping. Watching Tales From the Hood, I wondered: What could have possessed Williams to turn himself into the funk-zombie Vincent Price? Maybe the devil made him do it. B