Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Retro Review: Tales from the Crypt Presents Demon Knight

 It's been a while now since Tales from the Crypt was on television, either in its uncensored form (HBO) or the network cleaned up iteration (Fox). If it airs in syndication, I haven't seen it, but to be fair I don't watch a lot of Syfy or Chiller (where I imagine it would end up), but HBO did release all seven seasons on DVD and they aren't too hard to find (or too expensive if you're willing to dig around for good deals). The series ran from 1989 to 1996 and had two (three?) theatrical spinoffs, the first of which I thought I'd take a look back at today.

 Demon Knight always had the edge over Bordello of Blood when it came to second wave Tales from the Crypt movies (the Amicus Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror deserve their own separate consideration), in part because it tries to extend the concept of the series beyond an elongated episode. In fact, Demon Knight wouldn't work condensed to thirty minutes (whereas the goofier Bordello of Blood could easily be truncated and played as a "comedic horror" episode). As the Crypt Keeper (John Kassir) suggests during the "movie within a movie" prologue, Demon Knight is his full-fledged Hollywood effort, and the producers of Tales from the Crypt brought an "A" game mentality to a "B" movie and succeed in a trashy good time.

 It starts with director Ernest Dickerson, the director of Juice, Bones, and Surviving the Game but likely better known as a longtime cinematographer for Spike Lee (including Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X), as well as a DP for Tales from the Darkside. Well, maybe only I remember that. I was also a big Tales from the Darkside fan. Also he's directed episodes of The Wire, The Walking Dead, Dexter, Treme, and is one of the Masters of Horror. Demon Knight was his third directorial effort, but years as a cinematographer gave Dickerson the skill and experience to make Demon Knight look dynamic, inventive, and maintain a humorous tone while still being tense (and at times, pretty gross).

 Also helping in a big way is Billy Zane, he who sort of vanished after Titanic (well, unless you have an affinity for DTV movies, in which case he's a busy guy), who plays The Collector, a human disguised demon hellbent on retrieving a key from Brayker (William Sadler), the titular hero. Brayker is sullen, distrustful, and behaves with questionable moral values at the beginning of the film, whereas Zane's Collector is gregarious, forthcoming, and polite to a fault to the police (Gary Farmer and John Schuck) who find the wreckage of his car - the one Brayker shot until it caught fire and exploded. Of course, when it becomes clear that he's not going to get the key, his true nature comes out, and Zane has a prime opportunity to chew scenery and unleash hell.

 While I've always enjoyed CCH Pounder, Dick Miller, Brenda Bakke, Charles Fleischer, Jada Pinkett , and Thomas Haden Church (the "sponge" scene with Zane cracks me up every time) as the unwitting participants of the battle between good and evil, Billy Zane really owns Demon Knight. His seduction (failed and successful) of every character per their weakness keeps the "siege" horror subgenre trappings fresh. Along with the special effects by the combo of Todd Masters Company and Kevin Yagher Productions, who create not only the demon spawn that The Collector raises but also a number of great gags (including the SPOILER half arm Pounder's Irene is left with and how she uses it to respond to The Collector).

 If you're wondering, I watched Demon Knight again recently and I still enjoy it as a better than average "B" movie, one worthy of the reputation that Tales from the Crypt implies. The back story of Brayker and The Collector is spread out through the film in a manner that keeps you unsteady about whether the "hero" is really someone we should trust, or just a desperate loner who lived a long, long time. It's not the kind of movie that's going to make it on or near lists of the "greatest horror films" of all time, but it makes a strong case for being a movie to kick back with some friends and a few beers. I'm certainly more inclined to recommend Demon Knight over Bordello of Blood, and having never seen Ritual I can't really speak for that film. It's a down and dirty, fun and filthy horror movie that has the edge over Feast (which borrows some of the tone of Demon Knight) and Filter's "Hey Man, Nice Shot" aside, it has aged pretty well.

 Interesting tidbit: In the "making of" for The Frighteners, Robert Zemeckis and Peter Jackson reveal that the former approached the latter to make the Michael J. Fox / ghost scam artist horror comedy under the Tales from the Crypt banner, before the two agreed it worked better as a standalone film.

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