There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.
The fifteenth entry into this unbroken backlog is the Crypt Keeper’s big screen directorial debut, Tales From the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight…
HBO’s seminal anthology series Tales From the Crypt was two episodes away from wrapping Season Six when its inaugural big screen spin-off, Demon Knight, hit theaters (having been delayed from its original Halloween ’94 release date). By this point in his career, the Crypt Keeper (voiced with pun-wielding glee by John Kassir) had already spun seventy-eight short sagas of gory, ghoulish delight for us “kiddies”, transforming William Gaines’ eye-popping comic book spook show into a household name. Stars like Kirk Douglas, Tom Hanks and Martin Sheen appeared in segments, while big name directors like Robert Zemeckis (who also helped Executive Produce along with Joel Silver, Richard Donner, Walter Hill and David Giler) stepped behind the camera. Arnold Schwarzenegger even used the series to make his directorial bow, so it seemed the only mountain left to climb was made of cinematic silver. Demon Knight was the first of three features the creative team planned, as the brand seemed very strong despite horror as a genre having sputtered out following its '80s boom.
Oddly enough, the script for Demon Knight had been kicking around Hollywood since before the show’s pilot premiered on the censor-bucking cable network. The first draft was written in 1987, and Tom Holland planned to helm the movie as his follow-up to Child’s Play. After Holland passed, Pumpkinhead screenwriter Mark Carducci tinkered with the story before the screenplay made its way to Pet Semetary’s Mary Lambert, who dropped the project in favor of making a sequel to her Stephen King hit. When Pet Semetary Two bombed at the box office, Lambert couldn’t find financial backing for the film, which led to Charles Band’s Full Moon Features attempting to crack it. Thankfully, the budget didn’t fall within Band’s usual meager means, which finally landed Demon Knight on Joel Silver’s desk. Silver thought the movie would be perfect as the middle installment in a trilogy, but when the other two scripts (titled Dead Easy and Body Count) didn’t strike Universal Execs as potential feature franchise starters, the movie was fast tracked into production with Spike Lee’s regular cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson, set to make his second genre movie after 1994’s human hunting actioner, Surviving the Game.
Demon Knight begins like any ol’ Tales From the Crypt episode, as Danny Elfman’s earworm theme ushers us back down the dark, winding steps and into the Keeper’s musty lair. The cold open is profusely silly even by the series’ increasingly goofball standards, with the Cackling One overseeing a scene in his new movie. A buxom blonde bombshell (Peggy Trentini) just murdered her husband, writhing in ecstasy while on the phone with her lover. Down in the basement, the unfortunate former spouse’s fresh corpse (John Laroquette) cools in a vat of acid before stirring and staggering up the steps, losing a few fingers on the rickety wooden railing along the way. Just as the grotesque zombie is about to bury a blade in his cheating, murderous bride’s mug, the cadaver auteur screams “cut!” completely unsatisfied with the heinous acting on display. After berating his performers for a few seconds, the Crypt Keeper turns and addresses his admirers, breaking the fourth wall and introducing us to tonight’s true plasma-soaked treat. “Frights! Camera! Action!” Demon Knight commences, allowing the banner’s most ambitious entry to unfold.
The Collector (Billy Zane) chases a drifter named Brayker (William Sadler) across a barren desert highway. This pursuit ends in a fiery car crash, as Brayker staggers away, hoping to find shelter in a monolithic, brutalist former church turned shithole motel. The hothouse dynamic of the diverse regulars inside recalls the best of Tobe Hooper’s wacko '70s output (think: Eaten Alive). You’ve got the cigar chomping manager (CCH Pounder), a work release ex con-cum-housekeeper (Jada Pinkett), the kindly hooker (Brenda Bakke), her nipple clamp addicted john (Thomas Haden Church), a wino (Dick Miller), and a down and out mailman (Charles Fleischer). How all these misfits ended up at the ass end of the universe is anyone’s guess, but this cosmic confluence of bad luck only turns worse once The Collector arrives and punches through the dome of his police escort. Soon these ragamuffins are trapped inside the fleabag road stop, as Brayker pours mysterious red goo from an ancient key he’s carrying, creating a mystical force field that keeps The Collector from stepping foot inside. But this bastard from Hell won’t be denied, raising a legion of gnarly beasts and sic’ing them on the newly fortified fortress as Demon Knight transmutes into an out and out siege movie that would make John Carpenter swoon.
A splattery, cartoonish tone is the main element that marries the film to the series that’s presenting it, as Demon Knight is decidedly more epic than your usual Crypt segment. The backstory behind Brayker and the enigmatic Collector is literally Biblical, even though the movie is contained almost entirely to a single location. Nevertheless, the practicality of the production is striking, as Dickerson explores the massive set from the get go, allowing his camera to prowl and define the geography of the motel’s cavernous interior. The space’s remaining stained glass windows transport Brayker back in time, his memories taking on the form of perverted passion plays. Even more impressive is the design of the titular beasties, who resemble undead Caribbean pirates with glowing green eyes, their embryonic rise from the soil icky and slick with satanic placenta. Multiple scenes are bathed in chilly blue light, as regular Tales DoP Rick Bota milks each moment for over the top ambiance that stretches every dollar of Demon Knight’s modest $13 million budget.
No matter how brilliant the visuals often are, Billy Zane is the film’s real MVP. Entering like some kind of supernatural shit-kicker, his cowboy hat and affected Southern twang are quickly dropped for the honey-tinged tenor of a tempting Lucifer, offering each potential victim earthly rewards in return for betraying their own kind. Zane is having an absolute ball playing this big bad, chewing scenery and becoming an oft overlooked savior of '90s horror cinema. It’s a performance so good one can’t help but wonder why he never embraced this level of camp charisma throughout the rest of his career. Conversely, while the rest of the cast may play genre archetypes, they’re also giving each scene everything they’ve got. This is an incredibly talented ensemble of character actor lifers, possibly slumming it for a paycheck. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t consummate professionals, elevating cheese ball dialogue to something akin to dollar bin Brechtian theater.
While the film spawned two sequels (the inferior but still entertaining Bordello of Blood and Ritual), it turned out audiences weren’t clamoring for much more Tales From the Crypt. Season Seven was the series’ final run, as the rest of the '90s fell into the meta rut that followed Wes Craven’s Scream. In hindsight, Demon Knight also marked the end of an era in Universal Horror that included classics like Evil Dead 2, Phantasm II and The People Under the Stairs. The studio had been taking risks on fan favorites for the better part of a decade, with varying returns. That’s a real shame, because the rest of the '90s would be sorely missing the goopy, kooky creature feature vibe that came along with the Crypt Keeper’s late night horror host antics. It’s difficult to definitively state whether or not Demon Knight was the absolute best studio horror picture to emerge out of this epoch, though it’s certainly one of the most underestimated. The movie deserves the growing cult it’s earned over the last twenty years, and should sit amongst the most esteemed American splatter pictures ever produced. Perhaps it’s a perfect early example of producers putting the cart before the horse in terms of franchise building, sensing a desire for a shared cinematic universe (Brayker’s key was originally supposed to make an appearance in each film) that never actually existed. Either way, the Crypt Keeper being forced to bid adieu to us boys and ghouls thanks to a lack of demand should make any hardened horror hound’s heart hurt just a tiny bit.
Tales From the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight is available now on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.