Friday, February 28, 2014

Film Review: TALES FROM THE CRYPT PRESENTS: DEMON KNIGHT (1995, Ernest R. Dickerson)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 92 minutes.
Tag-line: "Ready for your deadtime story?"
Notable Cast or Crew:  John Kassir (The Cryptkeeper), William Sadler (DIE HARD 2: DIE HARDER, THE GREEN MILE, BILL & TED'S BOGUS JOURNEY), Billy Zane (TITANIC, TWIN PEAKS, BACK TO THE FUTURE), Jada Pinkett Smith (SCREAM 2, COLLATERAL), Brenda Bakke (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, UNDER SIEGE 2), CCH Pounder (ER, AVATAR, ROBOCOP 3), Dick Miller (GREMLINS, THE TERMINATOR), Thomas Haden Church (WINGS, SIDEWAYS), Charles Fleischer (Roger Rabbit in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT), Tim De Zarn (CABIN IN THE WOODS, FIGHT CLUB), John Schuck (STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME, MCMILLAN & WIFE), John Larroquette (NIGHT COURT, THE TENTH KINGDOM).  Theme by Danny Elfman.  Produced by Walter Hill, Richard Donner, Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver, A.L. Katz, Gilbert Adler.  Written by Mark Bishop (BEAT THE CYBORGS), Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris (BULLETPROOF MONK, KUNG FU PANDA, Ridley Scott's ROBIN HOOD).  Featuring one of those ludicrous and amazing 90s soundtracks including: Megadeth, Ministry, Pantera, Machine Head, Henry Rollins, and the Gravediggaz, among others.
Best One-liner:  "Now, that's INTERRORTAINMENT!"  Said by the Cryptkeeper.  It's such a stretch, I have to tip to my hat to it.

The first theatrical TALES FROM THE CRYPT feature (it was followed by the far inferior BORDELLO OF BLOOD in 1996 and RITUAL in 2002), DEMON KNIGHT is quite possibly one of the best supernatural horror flicks of the 90s.  Its story is driven by an epic demon mythos as spectacular as anything ever depicted on an Iron Maiden album cover: a fiendish hellspawn named "The Collector" (Billy Zane)

pursues the semi-immortal human drifter Brayker (William Sadler) across time and space in pursuit of an artifact: an ancient key, filled with holy power and Christ's diluted blood.

 I told you this was as good as an Iron Maiden album cover.

The Collector and his demonic minions already possess six of these seven keys that, incidentally, are capable of unlocking the cosmos on Hell's behalf– and Brayker is the final holdout.  He's not only the last hope for humanity, but he's the last hope for the universe.  They've certainly pulled out all the stops, and there's certainly nothing "small screen" about this film.

Did I mention that the diluted Christ-blood turns into liquid-laser demon-repelling force fields?  (Also, this same key has a "vampire artifact" cameo in BORDELLO OF BLOOD.)

DEMON KNIGHT was originally devised as a non-TALES FROM THE CRYPT-related work which would have been Tom Holland's follow-up to CHILD'S PLAY, but that plan tanked after the failure of FATAL BEAUTY (his Whoopi Goldberg-buddy-cop movie that I still defend as a masterpiece).  Like the magical talisman at the center of its own story, the movie changed hands several times, being passed off to PET SEMATARY's Mary Lambert, Full Moon Pictures' Charles Band, and PUMPKINHEAD's Mark Caducci before it landed in the lap of producer Joel Silver– one of the all-star team (that included Richard Donner, Walter Hill, and Robert Zemeckis) who brought TALES FROM THE CRYPT to HBO in the first place.  And so DEMON KNIGHT became TALES FROM THE CRYPT PRESENTS: DEMON KNIGHT, and the world became a better place, et cetera, et cetera.

Because it was the first TALES FROM THE CRYPT movie (and by that I mean, with HBO's Cryptkeeper and everything– there was already a British film that drew from the original EC comics back in 1972), the wraparound story involves The Cryptkeeper directing his first movie– naturally, also called DEMON KNIGHT.

He's gone full Cecil B. DeMille, with a riding crop and jodhpurs and all that, and this is a thing of beauty.  The only scene that he actively directs plays out like a parody of the worst TALES FROM THE CRYPT episodes, with a nude woman gloating after having murdered her husband, though it's not long before his decaying corpse comes after her in a meta-cliché of the typical CRYPT-ian just desserts.

Crypty calls "CUT!", unleashes some of his quintessential bon mot-infused verbal abuse,

and we see that put-upon actor playing the avenging corpse is none other than noted TV actor John Larroquette:

(See? I promised you some Larroquette!)

After suffering through some magnificent puns– as is our TALES FROM THE CRYPT ritual (or is that our 'Crypt'-ual?)– we're presented with our main story.  And after it's all over, we get a nice outro courtesy of Crypty, who's attending the premiere of the film we've just watched.  I will not spoil the full extent of the groan-slash-delight-inducing punnery

but suffice it to say that "Frights, camera, and action!" only begin to scratch the surface. 

But on to the actual film:

Basically, William Sadler's "Brayker" is pursued by Zane's "Collector" all the way to a Western flophouse, complete with a lot of colorful character archetypes including "the no-nonsense owner" (CCH Pounder):
 
 CCH Pounder- always a pro.

 "the 'rough around the edges' female mechanic" (Jada Pinkett Smith):
 
 Pictured here, the living embodiment of 1995.

 "the douchey bad boy" (Thomas Haden Church):

 Thomas Haden Church: not quite pulling off the Hawaiian shirt/mesh tank top combo.

"the drunk" (Dick Miller):
 
 If your movie does not feature a hobo-wine swilling Dick Miller, then, my friend: YOU DON'T HAVE A MOVIE.

  "the hooker" (Barbara Bakke), "the sad sack" (Charles Fleischer):
 
 Note that Charles Fleischer's sad sack sort of resembles Julia Sweeney's "Pat."

and "the kid" (Ryan O'Donohue).  Though first skeptical of Sadler, this motley crew finds themselves trapped inside as Zane's ravenous army of demons (which spring forth from his glo-stick colored blood) lay siege to the motel.

The film proper draws upon the great "characters trapped in a dingy Western structure" tradition that can probably be traced at least back to the 1936 classic, THE PETRIFIED FOREST.  (Said tradition has certainly not abated, with horror movies like FROM DUSK TILL DAWN and FEAST subsequently using the framework.)  DEMON KNIGHT also has an atmospheric, "bizarro Route 66" vibe that reminded me a bit of WILD AT HEART and THE HITCHER.

The SFX eschew CGI about 95% of the time, are wonderfully goopy, and the gore is as frequent and over-the-top as pretty much any movie I can possibly name.  Eyes are blasted out of sockets:



 orc-ish demon armies go on the prowl:
 
 hands reach through fleshy walls (á la NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET):

and bodies disintegrate and transform in ways (with killer tongues!) nearly worthy of Rob Bottin's work on THE THING:

NOM NOM NOM

I also can't tell you how awesome it is having William Sadler (TALES FROM THE CRYPT alumnus, and a guy who's made a career out of brilliantly portraying villains) as the good guy.

In an alternate universe, I hope that William Sadler's döppelganger has the success and cashflow of, say, a Harrison Ford or a Brad Pitt.  Here, he maintains the gravitas, likability, and badassery required of him and throws in plenty of character-work flourish, especially in flashbacks, like this one where he blows away the possessed forces of the Kaiser across the trenches of the Western Front:


(If I haven't sold you on this movie already, then you may be beyond help.  But you know what, I'm gonna raise you one... BILLY ZANE!)

Yes, the show-stealer here is the aforementioned Mr. Zane, whose shaved head and gleefully fey, simpering countenance command an Oscar-worthy performance (I'm sort of not even kidding).

WATCH Zane dancing a nutty Faustian tango by-way-of-90s-music-video with Jada Pinkett Smith!


 

SEE Zane tending bar as Hunter S. Thompson with a gaggle of naked women
in an attempt to win the soul of a bewildered and euphoric Dick Miller!

BEHOLD Zane LITERALLY PUNCHING HIS FIST THROUGH A MAN'S SKULL!
Eat yer heart out, Swayze in ROAD HOUSE!

Hot damn– this is the sort of excellence one could only dream of being in a TALES FROM THE CRYPT movie.  And I believe the unyielding brilliance of Zane's performance has inspired me to revisit/rediscover some major/minor 90s Zane.  THE PHANTOM, here I come!

–Sean Gill

7 comments:

Mike B. said...

This does indeed look phenomenal, and right in my wheelhouse! I still can't believe how I missed out on all of this TFTC awesomeness that was literally right in front of me. What was I doing in '95?? Probably playing a bunch of crappy early "3D polygon" Playstation games and endlessly re-watching Bloodsport and Kickboxer, so still partly time well spent! I just wrapped up the 2nd season of the show (many more hits than misses so far, although I gotta say -- and this is something that has likely never been said before in recorded history -- I kinda feel like the writers let Morton Downey down in the very subpar "Television Terror" episode, he was GOOD in that thing!) and I'll definitely go through the movies after I finish, which will likely take a while yet. I like Zane, too. It'll be interesting to see what you think of The Phantom; I remember a couple of things: 1) It looked great (although there is a pretty laughable laserbeam-type shootout involved at one point!), and, 2) It seemed like Zane was trying to inject a bit of levity into it, but there was an air of self-seriousness to the whole production that just made it far more dull than it should've been. But you're good at mining the hidden gems in these features, so I'll look forward to that one!

Sean Gill said...

Mike,

Sounds like you weathered '95 just fine, and now you have plenty of time to catch up- of course I hope KICKBOXER and BLOODSPORT rewatches still factor in to your lifestyle! I'll be sure to report back here on what becomes of the Zane revisits!

Jack Thursby said...

Awesome film. Need to go back and rewatch it because it's been many years.

Still remember the exchange between CCh Pounder and Billy Zane. He's ripped off her arm and offers it back to her if she'll let him in. She just raises her and stump toward him. He says what does that mean? She replies "This is me giving you the finger". Priceless!

Sean Gill said...

Jack,

Oh yeah, one of many great moments- the disembodied bird flip! And CCH Pounder always has a great intensity about her in these genre flicks.

John Guedes said...

I still think DEMON KNIGHT was some kind of reward for devout TFTC fans, it's basically like they set out to make the best possible episode as a full-length movie.

The opening sequence definitely needs to be mentioned with Zane chasing Sadler to Filter's "Hey Man Nice Shot". Classic!

Sean Gill said...

John,

It does feel like a reward, especially after the lackluster final season. (Alas, they couldn't keep it up for BORDELLO OF BLOOD!) And the opening sequence is fantastic- it almost feels to me like something out of THE HITCHER.

J.D. Lafrance said...

A buddy of mine and I used to watch this on VHS all the time and probably wore out the tape over the years. Glad you mentioned the iconic moment of Billy Zane putting his fist through someone's head! Best scene of the movie.

And yer right, it IS great to see Sadler playing a rare good guy role (he sort of is in THE MIST as well) and I would love to see that alternate universe were he's an action hero a la Harrison Ford et al. Ah, if only.

This is one of those films that is much better than it has any right to be. You go into thinking that his gonna be some slapdash B-movie and it actually is well-made and is funny and gory and smart and just plain entertaining.