Even in the disjointed and scattershot, decades-long history of Tales from the Crypt, Demon Knight is an outlier. From the E.C. comics of the 50s to Amicus’s two 70s anthology films to the HBO series in the early 90s to whatever the hell is going on at TNT right now, the three feature-length films sporting the Tales from the Crypt banner stand in stark contrast to everything that came before. For starters, they’re not anthologies, and—if you can indulge me donning my Asshole Film Critic Hat for a moment—not very good.
All except for Demon Knight, a film whose destiny was to be unduly tossed into the black hole of 90’s horror cinema, an era at which “discerning” genre fans would rather turn up their noses than ever admit things like Candyman and Tales from the Hood even exist. And to be sure, the film is no prized show dog with a nice, glistening sheen and trophies up on the mantle that curry favor with the governor. No, Demon Knight is a shaggy, lovable mutt that sheds so much charm and awesomeness, it could bankrupt you trying to keep up with lint rollers; the kind of immodest rascal that wins your heart by pissing into the purse of the weird aunt who won’t leave your apartment.
Alas, Demon Knight is a great horror movie, but it truly has no right being as such. The first draft of the screenplay was written in 1987, two years before the launch of the HBO show, and was going to be directed by Tom Holland, coming off hot from Child’s Play. When that fell through, it was rewritten by Mark Carducci with the intention that Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary) would direct. Lambert had trouble finding financing after Pet Sematary Two bombed, and the project wound up in the lap of Charles Band at Full Moon. Full Moon being Full Moon, budgetary constraints kept the production from taking flight, so the beleaguered and battered project ultimately found its way to Joel Silver, one of the co-creators of the HBO series. He optioned it to be the second in a trilogy of Tales from the Crypt movies, the other two being the unmade Dead Easy and Body Count.
And what eventually made it to the screen appeared to be a very strange fit for a supposed Tales from the Crypt movie. Though it did feature a wraparound with the Crypt Keeper (voiced by John Kassir, reprising his role from the series), the structure and plot would be unrecognizable to anyone familiar with the old E.C. comics or television series. Gone was the typical setup with unlikable characters doing bad things and getting their traditional, ironic comeuppance. Instead, Demon Knight was an epic creature feature with a deep, rich mythology.
The film opens in medias res, with Frank Brayker (played by the always awesome William Sadler) in a car chase with a deranged Billy Zane in a badass cowboy hat, who we later learn is a demon called The Collector, hunting down Brayker for reasons I won’t spoil here. Brayker outruns The Collector to a sleazy desert hotel that is stupidly full of the period’s greatest character actors: Dick Miller, C.C.H. Pounder, Thomas Haden Church, and John Schuck (did I already mention William Sadler and Billy Zane are also in this movie?). There, the movie turns into a siege film à la Night of the Living Dead, as The Collector raises an army of demons to attack the hotel.
The Collector also tempts each person individually, using their weaknesses such as alcoholism and lust, in order to get them to turn on Brayker. These moments are the closest we get in terms of the darkly funny style of the Tales from the Crypt series. There’s one particularly memorable scene where Billy Zane makes alcoholic Dick Miller hallucinate a barroom full of naked ladies offering booze—a scene that’s had me questioning the importance of my soul on occasion.
Old school horror fans who have passed this movie up will be blown away by the sheer impressiveness of the creature design and practical effects. The army of demons will remind you why you became a monster kid in the first place. A few moments of terrible, 90’s CGI don’t hold up as well, but it’s a small criticism for a film that is so gleeful in its retro ways. Demon Knight could exist harmoniously on the shelves of an 80s video store alongside Re-Animator, Evil Dead 2, and Day of the Dead.
But if you’re coming for the effects, stay for the Billy Zane. And if for nothing else, you’ll get to use the word “hambone” when describing Zane’s performance to your friends (and what’s a little hambone between friends?). This is his showcase, as he’s chewing the scenery like a madman. As good as he is in Titanic, every scene he’s in took me out of the film when I was kid, because I only knew him as the hilarious lunatic from Demon Knight. Zane brings a level of fun to proceedings that is unmatched in all of 90s genre fare.
I imagine a lot of American kids my age caught Demon Knight hundreds of times on HBO, but I get the impression its presence among younger, contemporary horror fans is relatively non-existent. Luckily, Scream Factory put out a pristine Blu-ray a couple years ago, which makes it ripe for (re)discovery. It’s also rather a shame director Ernest Dickerson didn’t go on to have a more fruitful career in full features (though he did direct the underrated Snoop Dogg flick, Bones). All in all, if you want serious horror that doesn’t take itself too seriously, check out Demon Knight. Easily a top five horror movie from the 1990s.