Friday, July 23

Some thoughts and factoids about Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight (1995)

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With BoGD going through an impromptu spat of demonic horror viewing, an entry about Ernest Dickerson's Demon Knight was inevitable. The Cryptkeeper's first "official" foray onto the big screen is one of the best contemporary horror films of the '90s and the last great studio genre picture before Craven's postmodern slasher meanderings. Although some of that might be the sentimental value talking. This is one of the first "new release" features from my early days of discovering the genre. My mom even allowed me to watch it upon first renting the tape--a huge event for a 12-year-old.

I knew I had to revisit this one last night after flipping through the radio and landing on Pantera's Cemetery Gates on my way home from work. A song that you just don't hear on standard FM, let alone any Pantera, that's on Demon Knight's soundtrack along with groups like Ministry, Rollins Band, Sepultura, and Gravediggaz. I spend many a night listening to that battered CD doing homework.

Anywho, Demon Knight still holds up exceedingly well today despite never being particularly frightening. It's a brand of horror that steadily went straight-to-video after the effects of Scream and its malaise of derivatives. Demons just aren't winning box office fodder anymore and this outlandish screamfest inadvertently hammered in the final nail. A shame really, as some of the scariest and some of the most easygoing of modern horror involved Satan's servants. Preppy teens in self-aware peril and agonizing torture became the average movie-goer's new scare fare.  

The presence of strong, non-racially motivated African American characters is what might be the most refreshing aspect. There's no urban settings or Tyler Perry Madea stereotype bull here; just black and white characters desperately trying to maintain a unified front against man-about-Hell Billy Zane. Well, all except Thomas Haden Church's Roach. The actor then primarily known as the bumbling mechanic on the sitcom Wings delivers a perfect backstabbing asshole...with smokin' nipples. William Sadler, veteran of two episodes of HBO's Crypt series, conveys his lead's generations of divine right merely through his grisled visage. God of character actors Dick Miller gets a very meaty part, any film that does this automatically earns good boy points, and Miller should have patented the "loveable drunk" bit role which he can pull of masterfully in his sleep. Of course, the self-deprecating coolness of Zane's Collector steals the show out from everyone. It's performances like this that make one wonder why Zane never seemed to gain the popularity he should have, but then again, his abilities evoke those of Bruce Campbell and we all know of his "limited" mainstream status nowadays.

Onto the trivia, Demon Knight (along with Bordello of Blood) had the unfortunate fate of being one of Universal's horror titles licensed out to Image Entertainment for distribution on DVD while Uni handled the VHS and Laserdisc. Image didn't produce any special features, so Universal didn't feel the need to do so or have the option to port anything over from Image for their independent DVD re-release in 2003. Although a short EPK video was made (seen here). The following tidbits are from Tales From The Crypt: The Official Archives by Digby Diehl. An excellent, full color coffee table book covering (most comprehensively) the original EC comic run, HBO's television series, Crypt collectibles, Demon Knight, Bordello of Blood, and more. The book is out of print and can be pricey, so I felt the need to share these facts about Dickerson's film for those who don't have it.
  • Writers Reiff, Voris, and Bishop first penned the screenplay in 1987 while in college.
  • The Collector was originally known as The Salesman. 
  • The screenplay was shopped around Hollywood with director Tom Holland (Fright Night, Child's Play) initially interested with wishes for Chris Sarandon as Brayker and Tommy Lee Jones as The Collector. Holland instead went on to bomb with 1987's Fatal Beauty.
  • Pet Semetary director Mary Lambert was then interested, but after Semetary's sequel bombed her chance to helm was dashed.
  • The writers started to think their creation was cursed until their screenplay was optioned by Universal with Ernest Dickerson, a fan of the Crypt comics and Famous Monsters magazine, joining up with the writers to iron out the script.
  • Dickerson initially wanted Willem Dafoe and Val Kilmer as The Collector and Brayker respectively.
  • The way the demons are born was inspired by Hydra's teeth forming the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts (1963).
  • Shooting the demons in the eyes was inspired by the old adage "the eyes are the window to the soul"
  • EC Comics pioneer Max Gaines and comic censorship crusader Fredric Wertham would have particularly taken issue with the ocular violence in the film.
  • The original idea for the look of the demons was guys in black suits and sunglasses until effects man Todd Masters thought that was dumb.
  • Masters's extremely lean demon design was economical with batteries placed in the crotch piece for the radio-controlled tail.
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6 comments:

Matt-suzaka said...

Black suits and sunglasses would have been dumb.

I remember seeing this in theaters back when I was a senior in high school and loved every second of it. Demon Knight is one of the few gems from that time in horror cinema, a time when the horror genre was pretty anemic to say the least.

Strange Kid said...

All I have to say is... thank you very much, Jayson. This is just what I needed to cap off my Friday Fright Night, couldn't have asked for anything better.

It was neat to learn of the terrorfingly tasty tidbits at the end there, I expecially enjoyed learning about Tom Holland and Mary Lambert almost having a crack at the film.

Demon Knight certainly was one of the last great horror films of the late 80s -early 90s.

Ryne said...

Ever read the novel adaptation?
Don't.

Buscemi said...

This would have been interesting with Tommy Lee Jones. Tommy Lee Jones was also considered for Snake Plissken in Escape From New York.

Drunketh said...

If it makes ya feel good doit!

Snake Plissken said...

This brings back some memories. I love that movie along with Bordello Of Blood, i even paid some good "under the table" money to the Video store guy to make me copies. I still have them.

...do you dare tread upon the staircase?
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