Sunday, March 06, 2011

Underrated Movie #109: Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight

The Long-Awaited Return of Cheesy Movies Week:
Title: Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight
Year: 1994
Director: Ernest Dickerson
Writers: Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris & Mark Bishop
Stars: William Sadler, Billy Zane, Jada Pinkett, Brenda Backe, CCH Pounder, Thomas Haden Church, Gary Farmer

The Story: A wanderer who is being chased by a mysterious hunter takes refuge in a desert motel where he recruits the locals to make a last stand against an army of demons.

How it Came to be Underrated: I rarely cover horror movies on this blog, not because I don’t like them, but because they don’t get to be underrated for very long. Take a movie like Evil Dead 2, which seems to be the biggest inspiration for this movie. Horror enthusiasts, always hungry to tell each other about anything good, transformed it from a minor cult classic into a household name very quickly. So why has this one remained underrated? Because of its tangential association with HBO’s lame “Tales of the Crypt” TV show, which squandered the name of the legendary EC comics by transforming their grim horror into campy comedy.

Why It’s Cheesy Fun:

  1. Sure enough, this movie begins with a crappy intro by the puppet Crypt Keeper from the TV show, which is not directed by Dickerson. Lucky you, on DVD you can just skip the first 8 minutes of the movie and totally ignore that whole element. Then you just have a lean and mean little 80-minute horror movie left, which doesn’t need to be a second longer.
  2. Ernest Dickerson was the first major black cinematographer and when he switched to directing, he was happy to bring a subversive racial sensibility to the B-movies he took on. Usually black people die first in horror movies, but even in ones where they become the survivors (Night of the Living Dead, Anaconda) there’s always an implication that they survive because they’re somehow inherently more moral, which still defines everybody according to race. This movie avoids both problems: the last survivor just happens to be most kick-ass character.
  3. What sinks most horror movies are the performances. I suppose Dickerson was able to use his rep to get a great cast here, headlined by always great tough-guy William Sadler and Billy Zane at his strutting, cocky, charismatic best. Pounder, Pinkett, Church and Farmer all do dependably fine work too.
  4. I always wince when fantasy or horror stories define good as the Light and evil as the Darkness, but this one makes it work by first defining the villains’ earthly manifestations as clearly understood physical challenges for our heroes with fixed rules and limits that allow us to predict what might happen next. The “blood seals” they put on the doors let us always see where the safe spaces are, and we get to see how and why that space keeps shrinking throughout the movie, which is always essential. No questions here of “why don’t they just…”
  5. I also firmly believe that all horror movies need an element of psychological temptation, not just physical threats, and this movie juggles the two well. Horror writers do well to remember that the thing we’re most afraid of is ourselves. (But don’t worry, there’s still enough gore for the gorehounds too)

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Zane was also underrated in the uber-cheesy adaptation of The Phantom. Sadler was also underrated in… tomorrow’s movie! That’s right, it’s a two-day Sadler-fest!

How Available Is It?: It’s got a nice-enough bare-bones DVD

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Danger!


Dan McCoy said...

To be fair to the HBO series, there was plenty of (entirely intentional) camp in the original EC comics too, which went hand-in-hand with the ironic denouements and goofy puns.

Steve Bird said...

Ha! The same friend who dragged me to the Kevin Sorbo Kull movie dragged me to this one, too, and I found both surprisingly entertaining. This movie made me a Zane fan (for a while, at least). I also left the theater thinking that Pinkett would make a good star of a "Martha Washington" movie (the Miller/Gibbons comics character -- like the Zane thing, this too lasted only for a while).

Matt Bird said...

Dan, I know you're a bigger fan of the show than I am, but I would say that this case shows the difference between high camp (they care so intensely that they don't care how ridiculous they look) and low camp (they're letting you know with a wink that this is ridiculous but they don't really care).

Dan McCoy said...

Oh, but the comics totally knew they were ridiculous (even though they loved what they're doing). Look at the way they turned "Good Lord... choke!" into an in-joke.

As for the show, I wouldn't say I'm a fan -- although there were individual great episodes (usually when they pulled in a big-name director to toss one off).