Pinkett, Sadler, Zane… Oh My! – A Look Back at TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT
Back in the late 80s/early 90s, horror fans were able to get their dose of terror and gore from not only the silver screen but in the luxury of their own home. Iconic horror franchises such as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street got their own syndicated television programs – titled Friday the 13th: The Series and Freddy’s Nightmares respectively. The television horror community though, quickly realized that these programs werent exactly matching in quality and finesse with their theatrical counterparts. Fans were still looking for the 1st great horror television series. If you happened to switch over to HBO, however, your prayers were answered. Hollywood big shots Joel Silver, Richard Donner, Walter Hill, Robert Zemeckis, and Gilbert Adler decided to join forces and create a horror anthology series – based on the old EC Comics series – that involved weekly tales of terror and the macabre with a slight zest of humor, all MC’d by a rotting corpse with a penchant for a wicked laugh and some hilariously terrible puns.
Of course, I speak of Tales from the Crypt, which ran for seven seasons from June 1989 to July 1996. This was a glorious show with some truly ingenious episodes and the show was known to have quite the free reign in terms of what the writers and directors could bring to the table, considering the star power of those five producers I mentioned above. This led to such interesting names such as Tom Hanks, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael J. Fox directing their own episodes for the series. After the runaway success of the show, the producers and creators wanted to branch out into the theatrical movie business and bring Tales From the Crypt to a wider audience. They ended up making a three picture deal with Universal Pictures. Unfortunately, it never made it to #3 as only two movies got the silver screen treatment due to the financial and critical drubbing of the second movie, 1996’s Bordello of Blood. Bordello is a complete disaster of vision, intent, general storytelling and capable performances. It’s extremely hokey and lewd, which does score some meandering points for me, but generally it’s a top to bottom train wreck. (Fun fact – A third movie, Ritual, was released in 2002 on home video as the third film of the Tales from the Crypt deal, but it was never intended to be, as the wrap-around segments with the Crypt Keeper were added in well after completion of principal photography). So why I am I blabbing on about this? Well, the first theatrical release of the “Tales” movie deal, 1995’s Demon Knight, directed with an assured hand by Tales from the Crypt veteran director Ernest Dickerson (also behind the Snoop Dogg horror flick Bones) is a criminally underrated slice of perfectly curated cheese, with ample doses of horror, gore, atmosphere and sex that makes what we all know and love about Tales from the Crypt come to life on the screen. It ended up more or less breaking even at the box office and reviews were middling at best, but it has since found its proper respect in the horror community. I do feel that, despite the resurgent popularity, perhaps not everyone is familiar with this movie, and that really needs to change. Demon Knight is some of the most purely fun 92 minutes you can spend watching a horror movie and fits beautifully within the Tales from the Crypt style of storytelling.
Mysterious loner Frank Brayker (William Sadler) is currently on the run from a crazed madman in a cowboy hat, called The Collector (Billy Zane), trying to stay one step ahead of him and ultimately stay alive, all while guarding something that this collector severely needs. You see, Brayker is the guardian of an ancient key that can unlock tremendous evil all over the universe when reunited with its six other similar keys. The maniacal demon madman, The Collector, has already acquired the six other keys and needs this final one to finally bring about the rise of darkness and demons alike, all in effort to jumpstart the apocalypse. On the run for almost 90 years – the key is passed on from person to person as their protector and granting them eternal life in the meantime – Brayker finds himself holed up at a boarding house in New Mexico. Full of weird and unusual inhabitants such as recently work released Jerryline (Jada Pinkett), constantly liquored up Uncle Willy (Dick Miller), outspoken owner Irene (CCH Pounder) and douchebag extreme Roach (Thomas Haden Church), these unsuspecting people will now be partaking in an eternal fight between good and evil, as they all face off against The Collector and his band of slimy demons, trying to prevent the end of days.
The best way to describe Demon Knight is simply just calling it pure fun. I’ve truly never seen a collection of actors and performances across an entire film in which it is clearly evident that everyone is fully committed, having a blast and really selling the idea of demons trying to collect seven keys to unleash the forces of darkness across the universe. The movie starts off right quick with a car chase between Brayer and The Collector down a desert road that ends in a fiery wreck and literally doesn’t let up from there. Before we know it, Brayker is dragged into the remote boarding house in the middle of the desert and The Collector and his demons, which he grows from out of the ground with some ectoplasm goop that he throws across the dirt from his cut open hand, descend upon their inhabitance and cause death and destruction. We get ample amounts of gore in the shape of severed arms, ripped open chests, long gross tongues inserted into stomachs and one death that appears to end with this soul spraying blood out of everywhere with no regard for how much blood actually exists within the human body. The plot of this baby is also the very definition of “high concept”, consisting of said seven keys, which hold the blood of previous protectors and can be used to seal off openings from demonic entrance, and even bringing the story of the ongoing mission to protect the keys going as far back as the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (with some of his own blood, falling form the cross, still present within the key). It’s all ridiculous and absurd, but the performance of William Sadler as Brayker makes you believe every word of this backstory. Even the reactions of the residents caught up in this fight deliver believable and sincere performances to further sell their current predicament albeit all of them are aware of what kind of movie this is and have their tongue firmly planted in cheek. Billy Zane, as the cackling and maniacal demon Collector, is clearly having the best time of his natural life, delivering every line with zest and sly over the top mentality that makes him quite memorable. Zane is clearly relishing the chance to play such an irredeemable bad guy with an ample amount of manipulative and fantastic dialogue to spout throughout. The surprise standout from all of the supporting players is definitely Jada Pinkett (no Smith yet, pre-marriage) as the eventual protagonist and hero Jerryline. What initially appears to be a minor role starts to slowly unravel throughout the movie, as she forms a relationship with the tired and exhausted Brayker, and she becomes the strong female lead that the movie was seemingly lacking near the beginning. She is tempted by The Collector in multiple dream-like sequences, one involving flowing sheets and a large mural of herself with hands pushing through it plus one later with The Collector and Jerryline doing a little dance number, all in an effort to infect her soul and make her cross to his side. Of course, since she ends up being our main heroine, she resists such temptations and ends up persevering through the night and purging the world of this demonic collector and his gross and plasmic minions. Supporting work in this movie is also tops across the board, with veteran character actors such as CCH Pounder, Thomas Haden Church and the legendary Dick Miller all delivering capable performances and making you feel for these characters, whether it be worrying about their safety or wishing for their quick and painful death. All of this madness is controlled with a gleeful controlled hand by director Ernest Dickerson, who is quite familiar with Tales from the Crypt via directing multiple episodes for the HBO show. Dickerson brings a veteran presence to the proceedings, clearly aware of the tone, look and style that this movie needs to convey and does it with an assured direction and casting the movie with reliable character actors and committed performers. Once again, this is truly one of the most fun horror movies you could watch on a late Saturday night.
Demon Knight was unfortunately the only successful motion picture to spawn from the Tales from the Crypt show, and even so it only did moderate business at the box office and critics were indifferent to it either way. That, combined with the glorious shit show that was Bordello of Blood, put a quick death to the opportunity of Crypt at the movies. If only hindsight were 20/20, then perhaps Demon Knight would have rightfully kicked off a great wave of Crypt episodes turned full-blown Hollywood with a budget to compensate and mega producers behind the scenes protecting it. Demon Knight is a great tight horror film with great performances, a campy quality that wears its heart on its sleeve, ample gore, copious monsters and a solid director calling all the shots from behind the camera.