Thursday, April 23, 2015

Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight

(R, Universal Pictures, 92 mins., theatrical release date: January 13, 1995)

Interior: a bloodied bedroom at night. The camera glides across the scene of the carnage as a buxom blonde in black lingerie phones her illicit lover, Jack, to break the good news. The woman has just planted an axe in the chest of her wealthy husband, Carl, and is writhing passionately on the bed, orgasmic in her description of the dirty deed. As Carl is soaking in a vat of acid down in the basement, the murderess draws a hot, soapy bath, unaware that she is in an E.C. Comic version of reality where the dead don't lie still for very long. Placing a hot towel over her eyes, she cannot see Carl's grisly corpse is approaching with an axe of his own to grind.

Unfortunately, the only cut is off-screen, as it is yelled by the director of this tawdry tale, none other than your old pal, The Crypt-Keeper (reliably voiced by John Kassir). He is not too pleased with the "hack-ting" of guest star John Larroquette as zombie Carl, tossing off a couple more puns in anger before calling for a reset. That this moment occurs after we've seen the familiar opening credits sequence of the HBO series Tales from the Crypt, replete with downstairs tour and Danny Elfman's jaunty theme music, seems to tell us we're not getting the same old slash-and-jive familiar from the TV scream.

Nope, the Crypt-Keeper's gone Hollywood, and is taking his show to the sinner-plex. Okay, I'll stop, which is coincidentally what happened to the Tales from the Crypt Presents banner after just two widely-released movies.

The 1980s was the decade of the horror anthology revival, which went full throttle both theatrically and on television. Not only was there a Twilight Zone: The Movie released by Warner Bros., but there was a New Twilight Zone developed for CBS. Warner also distributed 1982's Creepshow, the George A. Romero/Stephen King collaboration which kicked off the trend, with its own unofficial, syndicated spin-off in Tales from the Darkside, which was also made into a movie. However, by the time it was released in 1990, its popularity was eclipsed by Tales from the Crypt, which came from the same pay-TV channel who brought you The Hitchhiker and was produced by the some of the biggest wigs in the biz: Richard Donner, Walter Hill, Joel Silver, and Robert Zemeckis.

The series premiered in June 1989 with three back-to-back episodes which boasted these blockbuster directors (excluding Silver) offering their own personal spins on William Gaines' controversially lurid EC Comics. The series would go on to court fellow superstars like Michael J. Fox and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who would each direct their own episodes, and revolving door talent in front of and behind the camera helped keep the show fresh on a weekly basis. In short, Tales from the Crypt established a successful blend of irony and scatology, reveling in cheap thrills and cunning comeuppances for several years.

However, the inaugural Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight was not an adaptation of a previous story from the Gaines library. It was written as early as 1987, and was initially offered to filmmakers Tom Holland and Mary Lambert, both of whom were drawn to ill-fated projects like Fatal Beauty and Pet Sematary Two. Before it even made it to Joel Silver, it was passed along to schlock horror impresario Charles Band and his Full Moon Features label. Demon Knight was meant to be the second of the mythical Crypt movie trilogy, with Donner, Hill and Zemeckis developing their own separate entities. Universal Studios, who initially green-lighted all three planned projects, ordered this as their first.

Things didn't quite work out that way, as Donner's "Dead Easy" and Hill's "Body Count" never came to fruition. The former was name-dropped as a post-credits stinger, essentially becoming the working title of what would be Bordello of Blood, a box-office stiff. As the seventh and final season emigrated to Great Britain, Tales from the Crypt was clearly on its way out. The final episode adapted The Three Little Pigs, itself originated in English literature, as a decidedly Mad Magazine-style cartoon which was even more puerile than Green Jellö.

Although the opening tracking shot evokes Zemeckis' early "And All Through the House," the maker of Forrest Gump doesn't fully influence the final project in the manner of, say, Mr. Spielberg. The director of Demon Knight is Ernest Dickerson, a famed cinematographer known for the early Spike Lee "joints" from She's Gotta Have It to Malcolm X. Dickerson made his feature debut with the ghetto drama Juice (1992), which starred Tupac Shakur as an unstable, Cagney-worshipping thug named Bishop(!) who homicidally threatens to derail his friend's promise as a star DJ. After that, it became clear that Dickerson's directorial career was less informed by Do the Right Thing and more by the less incendiary, genre-friendly yeoman's work of Def by Temptation.

This is the Ernest Dickerson of Surviving the Game and Bones, refashioning familiar B-movie scenarios into much livelier if no less disposable entertainment than any handful of low-budget/direct-to-video hacks. The plot as it stands is a straightforwardly apocalyptic knock-off of Night of the Living Dead, pitting good vs. evil and placing a disparate bunch of stereotypical bystanders under siege from the supernatural.

The mysterious adversaries at its center kick off Demon Knight with a car chase as our eventual hero Brayker (William Sadler) fervently unloads a shotgun at his tracker, a demon prince known only as The Collector (Billy Zane). Both vehicles explode into fiery wreckages, but Brayker crawls toward a head start into the next town, Wormwood, New Mexico, where he unsuccessfully tries to steal a truck parked outside a diner. Escaping authorities, who are tied up with the crash and The Collector's damage-proof survival, Brayker runs into the friendly neighborhood lech, Uncle Willy (Dick Miller), who takes him to safe haven at The Mission, where all that's missing is a welcome bell.

Also among the denizens of this Villa of the Damned are sassy proprietor Irene (C.C.H. Pounder); loveless prostitute Cordelia (Brenda Bakke) and her regular client Roach (Thomas Haden Church); a disgraced postal clerk named Wally (Charles Fleischer); and work-released housekeeper Jeryline (Jada Pinkett Smith), who will reveal herself as a purer soul than her equally hard-boiled hosts, most of whom turn stool pigeon on a dime. For instance, since Wormwood's such a small world, Irene intuits that her latest customer is the car thief Roach mentions and calls Sheriff Tupper (John Schuck) and Deputy Bob (Gary Farmer) on the scene, with The Collector in tow.

Just what is it that this chrome-domed, cock-of-the-walk Occultist covets? It's a combination key and vial filled with holy blood that in the right hands can be used as a weapon against evil, and the worst case scenario being that it could be used with six other keys for the same evil to take over the world. The Collector is foiled in his acquisition, and one memorably sick decapitation later, he conjures an army of green-eyed Pumpkinheads to lay waste to his human enemies. As Brayker spills his magical plasma to barricade the windows and doors, The Collector dutifully possesses the weak souls of his captives, and in turn spills their blood as punishment.

Whereas Night of the Living Dead had a palpable sense of friction and social awareness, Demon Knight condescends to juvenile degrees even Tom Savini resisted in his straight 1990 remake. It wouldn't be a Tales from the Crypt movie without a moment in which one character's temptation is lifted straight out of a beer commercial, where the girls are topless and the booze bottomless (but not the other way 'round...this is R-rated, after all). In the film's most refined moment of black comedy, Irene gets her arm ripped off by a crazed Cordelia and is later offered it back on a silver platter by The Collector, to whom she lifts up her stump as a means of flipping the bird. There's even a lost boy thrown into the mix, Danny (Ryan O'Donohue), the same tot who scared Brayker away from the diner, who reads a poisoned issue of Tales from the Crypt which takes him over, the subsequent chaos mirrored in the panels of the book.

Dickerson keeps the slime and splatter flowing in a rather futile attempt to cover up the utter senselessness of the scenario. There is a puzzling moment where one of Brayker's force fields is shotgun-blasted out of commission by the noxious Roach, thus allowing the demons easy passage. Whilst Roach will later betray the rest of the survivors by scrubbing off the blood which bars the demons, that violation of safety at least seems credible. But if a gun can shatter the blockade like it were plate glass, you'd presume The Collector could help himself to the weapons in the cop car and get at his victims a lot easier. Not that there is a rationale for how The Collector does manage to return to inside the motel; he just shows up without even a dramatic entrance.

Equally flimsy are the limitations imposed on the good guy, Brayker. There are seven stars burned into the palm of his hand, each meant to represent someone he is forced to guard, and if all seven die, Brayker apparently loses. If he runs out of good blood, he loses without even them taking the precious Key ("They bring back the darkness...just like that"). Forced into explanation, he screams, "God damn it! I'm not making these rules up!" Nope, he didn't, but three flailing screenwriters certainly did, and they generalize Genesis to such a degree that the name "Jesus" is never once intoned even with obvious crucifixion flashbacks. And if Brayker is supposed to protect these seven flakes, maybe the joint suicide bombing of Irene and Bob which happens later is a huge mistake.

On a purely pulpy level, though, Demon Knight has plenty going for it. Billy Zane imbues sinister charm and glee into the role of The Collector, owing more to Beetlejuice than Freddy Krueger as he taunts his foes ("You're not worth the flesh you're printed on!") and croons disingenuous come-ons to first Cordelia and then Jeryline. Jada Pinkett Smith proves her mettle as a feisty heroine, although her best moments are built-in to the film later on in typical Final Girl fashion. However, it's William Sadler's resolute, ravaged lone wolf which keeps the action credible and the stakes high. As adept here as his Niles Talbot was in Walter Hill's first season Crypt episode "The Man Who Was Death," Sadler conveys a universe of intensity and ferocity in both his gritty delivery and behind blue eyes.

The rest of the supporting cast perform duly to their strengths, with C.C.H. Pounder's brassy matron and Thomas Haden Church's yellow-bellied braggart the clear highlights. Dick Miller is a delight to spot in dutiful "That Guy" fashion, but Dickerson never deigns to showcase him with as much invention as Joe Dante would allow, and Charles Fleischer's simpleton is the butt of a particularly lame topical joke which posits him as yet another budding psychopath.

Although the demons themselves are impotent enemies, as a lot of the killing comes from possession-and-dismemberment routines straight out of The Evil Dead, Todd Masters and his FX team have a field day with their creations, all drippy flesh and eyes as brightly green as Herbert West's reagent formula. There is also a hasty if spectacular farewell to The Collector which is a practical tour de force.

Unlike Wishmaster, which stained too hard to live up to Fangorian standards with very little to show, Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight is a distinctly mediocre thrill but nevertheless spirited where it counts. Putting it in context of its televised antecedent, though, it's a shame that both this and Bordello of Blood were such warmed-over, secondhand premises for which to launch a theatrical franchise. Given that its producers were responsible for gems such as The Warriors, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Superman: The Movie, the lack of imagination on a conceptual level is frustrating. But this first attempt proved to be it's most satisfying, especially compared to its desperately campy follow-up.

To be continued, Creeps...

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