HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” Retrospective: “Demon Knight”

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The glorious 90s HBO horror anthology series, Tales from the Crypt, is a show I hold dear to my heart, so much so that I previously wrote eight extensive pieces about it in the summer of 2015 chronicling each of its seven seasons. And yet, I’ll be the first to admit that Tales from the Crypt is a flawed bit of nostalgia, with nearly as many poor episodes as there were great ones, and plenty of middling entries filling out the 93-episode order. At its highest points, however, the Crypt Keeper’s tales of the macabre remain as spectacular as ever, with some remarkable filmmakers teaming with excellent ensembles and delivering a decent number of short and sweet genre masterpieces. Only one installment — the Robert Zemeckis-helmed “Yellow” — reached above a 30-minute runtime, but was still less than half of the length of a standard feature film. In 1995, though, near the end of the series’ initial run, Tales from the Crypt would finally traverse out of the world of premium television and onto the silver screen with the criminally underappreciated horror-comedy cult classic, Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight.

Originally surfacing in 1987 (two years before the debut of the HBO series), the screenplay for Demon Knight would face multiple failed attempts at adaptation into a full production — that is, until Tales from the Crypt producer Joel Silver got a hold of it. While nearly all of Tales from the Crypt’s episodes were based on the EC Comics stories of the 1950s, Demon Knight was a wholly original script, allowing the film to be its own being while still retaining all of the fan-favorite staples that had become expected from something bearing the Tales from the Crypt moniker. A relatively unknown yet nevertheless notable director, Ernest Dickerson, commands an unlikely pairing of 90s stars and instantly recognizable character actors, including William Sadler, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and Dick Miller. The true star of the film, however, is actually its antagonist. The “Collector,” played by a truly awe-inspiring Billy Zane, is a demonic being sent by the Devil in order to collect an ancient artifact that can be utilized in order to unleash Hell on Earth.

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Standing in his way is the titular demon knight, Brayker (played by William Sadler, who is excellent in a rare leading role for the character actor), who we come to find is just one in a long line of centuries-old defenders against evil. Brayker, in fleeing from the Collector, winds up with artifact in hand at a rundown church-turned-skeezy motel occupied by mostly indecent patrons. Among these are a love lost prostitute named Cordelia (Brenda Bakke), Pinkett Smith’s ex-con Jeryline, the recently laid-off mailman Wally (Charles Fleischer), an inauspicious town drunk known infamously as “Uncle Willy” (Dick Miller), and a horny, hot-headed surfer dude who goes by Roach (Thomas Haden Church). There’s also the property’s astute owner herself, Irene (CCH Pounder), and they will all soon be accompanied by two dopey police officers who, unbeknownst to them, shepherd a powerful demon directly face-to-face with Brayker.

Unlike the Collector’s lesser, feral demonic counterparts, which he calls upon in order to help obtain the artifact, the Collector looks and acts like a human, albeit one with some freaky supernatural abilities. Almost the entirety of the film takes place within the motel, as the Collector and his minions become trapped outside with seemingly no way in. But the Collector has a few tricks up his sleeve, as he begins attacking the psyches of the guests one-by-one, figuring out who among them will succumb to his will and turn to his side. All of these sequences are endlessly entertaining, with the Collector playing directly to the whims of each of the characters and forcing them to see what they want to see. In one instance, he promises everlasting love for the prostitute, and in another, all the booze and naked women the drunk could possibly handle. The extraordinarily charming Zane, who is frankly underutilized for much of the film, is really allowed to shine in these moments, becoming the film’s greatest asset. The Collector is deliciously funny, suave, and eccentric throughout, but in a fleeting instant can switch into an exceptionally cruel and frightening being, and Zane captures each side magnificently.

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Opposite the Collector is the wrong place, wrong time outfit of supporting characters, who, sans the very irredeemable Roach, are almost entirely immediately endearing in some way, even behind their inherent flaws. While most of the characters are genuinely likable (somewhat of an unlikely occurrence in the majority of schlocky B-movie territory), the standout among them is of course Jeryline, who unsurprisingly emerges as the film’s sort of de facto final girl  and a particularly kick-ass one at that. Pinkett Smith delivers some of the film’s most striking moments, including a particularly prominent excerpt in the final act which sees her character doused in dark, sticky blood. But it definitely isn’t just Jeryline that’s covered in buckets of blood throughout the film, because Demon Knight is full of action-packed setpieces that result in limbs lost, eyes gouged in increasingly spectacular ways, and a surprising amount of bodies exploding into indiscernible viscera. I was honestly amazed by the quality of special effects utilized in the film, which highlight some insanely well-done and distinctive practical makeups. 

Nearly the entirety of Demon Knight comes together so well, truly becoming everything you could ever want in a Tales from the Crypt film, and then some. It’s a solid mix of horror and comedy, with more than enough action in between its quieter moments to keep its audience totally engaged. The film’s director, Ernest Dickerson, most notably worked with Spike Lee on his early films as cinematographer, before going on to direct his own projects, including Juice and several episodes of The Wire. Demon Knight is a sort of anomaly in his early career, being far more outrageous than anything he’d done before. But his film rightfully stands as an outstanding piece of genre work, and is completely deserving of being entombed within the Tales from the Crypt legacy.

4 stars out of 5

Also, the trailer for this film is just delightful.

— Michael Lane, Blog Editor

Handy links to my previous retrospectives on HBO’s Tales from the Crypt:

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