Collins’ Crypt: Movies I Love - DEMON KNIGHT
I've had pretty good luck over the years when it comes to movies I want to see being sold out - out of hundreds of trips to the theater (often on opening weekend), it's actually only happened twice. Once was on Christmas, when Walter Mitty was sold out and we had a choice of Grudge Match or going home (we sadly went with the former). The other was much more distressing - it was in 1995, for the opening night of Tales From The Crypt Presents: Demon Knight. I had gone with two friends I didn't often attend movies with and rarely did again, because it was one of THEIR parents who took too long to pick us all up and bring us to the theater, resulting in disappointment and (for me) a very bad attitude towards Dumb & Dumber, the movie we ended up seeing instead. My sister took pity on me and drove me to see it a few days later, but didn't stick around - so I watched it alone on a Monday afternoon instead of on a Friday night with some buddies.
I bring this up because it speaks volumes to how enjoyable the movie is, as I was still able to have a blast under these less appealing circumstances. As any horror fan knows, the '90s, in particular the first half of the decade, was one of the lowest points for the horror movie genre since it had been created (tied with the '40s, anyway). Sure, it had a few bright spots, but the valleys between those peaks were wider than average, and we were constantly being barraged with lame garbage like Brainscan and Ghost in the Machine, tired sequels such as Children of the Corn II and "classy" (read: terminally dull) affairs like Interview with the Vampire. In retrospect, I think the back to back Oscar gold the horror genre yielded (1990's Misery and 1991's Silence of the Lambs) was a bad thing for it - studios became really only interested in producing similar fare that might have the same luck (spoiler: none of it did), and the attempts at counter programming resulted in bland nonsense that would have taken minimal effort to edit for their inevitable 4pm airings on TBS.
Because the other problem was that filmmakers (and the studios they worked for) were tired of dealing with the MPAA, and basically gave up the fight. So everything was sanitized; it was bad enough our pickings were so slim, but worse that the few we got were so CLEAN (the occasional exception, like Jason Goes To Hell, saw all the best stuff excised until home video anyway). Hell, even the newest Evil Dead movie (Army of Darkness) probably could have gotten a PG-13 if the MPAA had any logic to their decisions - the days of its hero being constantly covered in blood after dismembering a former friend (or himself) were long gone. But Demon Knight went against that trend; in retrospect it's actually not that splatter-y, but at the time it almost seemed like Universal had gotten away with something naughty. Billy Zane puts his fist through a guy's head, a woman gets her arm torn off, a man gets an arrow through his eye, the heroine spends the finale covered in (and spitting) blood... it was the sort of stuff I had rarely gotten to see on the big screen, if ever at that point.
It also retained the HBO series' sense of morbid fun, which was another thing missing from most horror movies in the decade's early half (after Scream it got less uncommon, as did horror films themselves). As the screenwriters note in a new retrospective included on the new Blu-ray of the film (hitting shelves today), the story wasn't one of comeuppance, like many episodes of the show - it was a traditional hero's journey film, not one about someone getting their just desserts. But it still offered that wicked sense of humor, mostly thanks to Billy Zane's delightful performance as The Collector, who is collecting all of the keys that will allow darkness to cover the Earth or some such mumbo jumbo. The movie starts with a kind of Terminator 2 vagueness, with two guys (Zane and William Sadler, two guys most famous for playing villains at that time) chasing each other without the audience knowing which one is the "good guy" (unless they've seen the trailer, of course), something only revealed when Zane decapitates the sheriff with his bare hand. From that point on, Zane is free to devour as much of the scenery as he can, and the movie is elevated from typical action/horror B-movie to something far more gleefully ridiculous. On the retrospective, Zane says he wanted to do the R-rated version of Robin Williams' Genie from Aladdin, and it really comes across - he takes on a few different personas, he conjures things out of thin air (the sponge!), etc. And it's not grating after a while!
It doesn't hurt that he's backed by a great cast; the hotel setting allows for a variety of characters (instead of the usual group of same-aged college pals or whatever you usually get in horror movies) and they're all filled by people you recognize and probably enjoy seeing. Sadler is one of the best character actors of our generation, and it's so much fun to see him take on a rare heroic lead role - it's a shame that he returned to villain roles shortly after (Solo!) instead of playing a few more heroes. And he's joined by THE best character actor of ANY generation - one Dick Miller, who plays the drunken Uncle Willy and in here gets his first (and last?) prosthetic makeup job in a career of over 150 (mostly genre) films. Also, as he was only really known as the idiot on Wings at the time, it was one of the first times we got to see that maybe this Thomas Haden Church guy could be a really good actor. John Larroquette also has a brief cameo as the killer in the movie that the Cryptkeeper is making in the film's bookends.
Ah, yes, the Cryptkeeper. If there's anything about the movie that doesn't hold up, it's these scenes, loaded with the Cryptkeeper's bad puns and dated gags and nowhere near as entertaining as the behind the scenes history of this aborted franchise. See, the idea of doing Tales from the Crypt movies had been in development for a few years at this point, and Demon Knight was the only one of the original three planned features that got made (one was a New Orleans-set zombie movie called Dead Easy, another was called Body Count and had something to do with a guy investigating his uncle?). Also, two other movies that did get made were at one point considered to be Tales films - From Dusk Till Dawn and The Frighteners, both of which infinitely superior to the only actual released follow-up: Bordello of Blood, which is also hitting Blu-ray today (and has TONS of dirt on Dennis Miller, if you're so inclined). That film's (justified) failure killed the Tales theatrical series, with a third film, Ritual (also involving voodoo, but as far as I know is otherwise unrelated to Dead Easy) ultimately being bought by Miramax and having all of its Cryptkeeper scenes removed - though they were later reinstated for a release via Echo Bridge. The movie is marginally better than Bordello but again, you'll have more fun reading the IMDb trivia about its bumpy road than watching the actual film.
So really, this is the only real Tales from the Crypt movie that worked as intended - and was also the only hit. Not a smash, mind you, but its $21m gross was (sadly) good enough to be 1995's top grossing traditional horror movie, with only the dark, big-budget thriller Se7en topping it (nearly 5x over). At the time it seemed to suggest horror was making a comeback, but the months ahead produced one box office dud after another (including two John Carpenter movies - In the Mouth of Madness and Village of the Damned - that didn't even gross that much combined). Yet it didn't get much love from Universal - the DVD was bare-bones and almost constantly out of print, and they didn't hold on to their 35mm prints . There are only one or two of them floating around out there, with more than one screening having to settle for a DCP when the 35mm turned out to be held up elsewhere. And it's a pretty fair bet that if not for their recently renewed partnership with Scream Factory it would never appear on Blu-ray. I suspect the failure of Bordello of Blood, and fact that it's a tie-in to a series that they do not own (the Tales From The Crypt TV show seasons are distributed by HBO and Warner Bros), made it something of a random anomaly in their library and thus not a priority. This is actually the first time I've ever owned a legit copy of it, though I've had something much cooler for 20 years or so now - the film's novelization, which has some major changes from the film (including a different name for Zane's character - he's called The Salesman here).
The explanation for that change is more or less covered in the retrospective, which features a good chunk of the cast (no Jada Pinkett, sadly), director Ernest Dickerson and the screenwriters, plus some of the FX wizards. Dickerson also provides a commentary track, as does the FX team, and there's also a fun Q&A with Miller from a recent retrospective screening at the Egyptian here in LA (Dickerson is also on hand, as is Rick Baker since it showed with the Gremlins films), which I was stoked to see since I couldn't make the screening when it happened. But the most intriguing extra was the trailer, of all things - because it's fucking awful. Not only does it focus on the Cryptkeeper half the time, making it look like he's a major part of the movie, but it also incorporates footage from the (intentionally) shitty movie he's making along with Demon Knight footage, making the movie as a whole look really corny and not at all like anything that would be sold out on opening night. I have to assume there was a better second trailer, though I couldn't find it if so. But maybe audiences were just starved for big-screen FUN horror at that point and didn't care that the marketing was hardly enticing. I mean, really, at that point (January 1995) the last major horror movie that even came close to serving the same sort of "let's cheer at a guy getting his head knocked off" audience was probably Jason Goes To Hell, a year and a half before.
And now, 20 years later (and revisiting for the first time since probably 1998) I find it refreshing all over again. Now we get mostly ghost/haunting movies, bland villains (or no villains at all - Unfriended is one of the year's biggest horror hits and the antagonist is a default avatar), and Blumhouse movies that cost 13 cents. It's nice to see actual production value in something like this; Demon Knight's budget works out to over $25m in today's dollars, and I honestly can't recall the last time a studio put that much up for an R-rated movie aimed at splatter fans. Plus it had a scenario I hadn't yet grown to love at the time - the "let's put a bunch of assorted folks in one location and have them band together against a group of enemies" plot, also seen in Night of the Living Dead, Assault on Precinct 13, and other movies that would end up being among my favorites. But most importantly, when the movie was over, I realized that the movie still worked like gangbusters. My tastes have obviously been refined since; there are other movies I liked back then that I can't even sit through today (Lawnmower Man comes to mind), and when I sat down with the Blu-ray I was afraid it would join them in that "I can't believe I used to like this" pile. That wasn't remotely the case, and now I'm even sadder I couldn't make that screening at the Egyptian. Someday I'll get to see this movie with a packed crowd!