Like its ageless hero, “Demon Knight” is both of its time and timeless, a last gasp of 80s horror before irony invaded that hasn’t aged a day.
Sometimes when storm clouds roll in, I watch them between blinds and wonder if ‘90s nostalgia has finally arrived. The thunder is already clapping. HBO Max spent the GDP of Tonga for five years of Friends reruns, a relative steal after Netflix sank the GDP of Nauru just to keep it through the end of the year. Disney just threw up its hands and animated The Lion King a second time to the tune of $1.65 billion dollars at the box office.
The warm-fuzzies are already invading, but the ‘90s haven’t had their Stranger Things supernova yet like the ‘80s did. When JNCO Jeans return from our imposed extinction, that’s when we’ll know it’s all over.
But when it comes to horror, ‘90s nostalgia shines a little brighter on the later years of the decade.
Scream. The Blair Witch Project. Ring. The Sixth Sense. The Craft. There is gold for the mining prior to 1996, but the era’s most recognizable flavors hadn’t quite settled yet. The irony. The self-referential humor. Abercrombie-ready teenagers in peril, but this time, with sarcasm. At least one rapper in any given cast. More CGI. Less fun. Mileage varies, and there’s an exception to every rule, but the times they had a-changed.
The front nine of the nineties, though, were a cinematic hangover. You can’t come off the 80s-est summer of all time – 1989 – without a little blood and neon left in the tank. Tremors. Army of Darkness. The People Under The Stairs. Attitude. Entertainment excess by the vial. That sweet, sweet rubber reality of practical effects.
It took a while for the house style to fade out, but the last pure expression of ‘80s horror euphoria has to be 1995’s Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight.
The pedigree is right there in the title. From its Walter Hill-directed premiere in 1989, an episode about a state executioner who enjoys his work a little too much, the show served as a revolving door of genre royalty getting their hands dirty. Count off the producers on Demon Knight for a refresher course — Richard Donner, Richard Edlund, David Giler, Walter Hill, Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis.
But despite that varsity line-up, the leap from pay cable to multiplexes wasn’t easy.
The original intention was a Tales From The Crypt trilogy, with each installment working as an outsized episode, triple the usual length.
Trouble was they couldn’t get a single script to stick. Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk Til Dawn was a contender, until he asked for more money than anyone had and left to make it with Robert Rodriguez.
Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s script for The Frighteners was next in line, until Zemeckis fell deep enough in love with it to produce it himself. The eventual trilogy included a 33-year-old script from Zemeckis and Back to the Future cowriter Bob Gale (1996’s Bordello of Blood) and a six-year-late conclusion that that almost lost its Crypt connection before getting dumped to home video (2002’s Ritual).
When acclaimed cinematographer and director Ernest Dickerson signed on to helm Demon Knight, the first of the trilogy, he didn’t even know it was a Tale. The original script, from writers Mark Bishop, Ethan Reiff, and Cyrus Voris, dated back to 1987 and had no jokes set aside for undead puppets.
Watching the finished, Crypt Keeper-approved Demon Knight, it’s hard to believe it was ever anything but.
It starts with a delightfully gratuitous fakeout in another horror movie entirely. An unnecessarily topless wife disposes of her husband in an unnecessarily complicated way: acid bath in the basement. Trouble is, she forgot to wash behind his ears and now he’s coming for her, provided he doesn’t disintegrate first. Wait. Cut.
The slasher just isn’t goopy enough, much to the chagrin of the actor underneath it all, Tobe Hooper’s voice of horror, John Larroquette. The director demands perfection, this being his first shot at the big time, the director being the Crypt Keeper himself. He quips, he cackles, he comes alive thanks to some disconcerting, but effective matte work.
For fans of the series, it’s warm milk.
For the uninitiated, it’s fair warning — what you’re about to see will be as goofy as it is gory, as silly as it is severe.
Demon Knight proper open on a car chase for the fate of humanity, shot with proper music video gravitas to the grungy tune of Filter’s “Hey Man, Nice Shot.” William Sadler checks the rear-view mirror. Weary eyes look back from a guilty face. Then come the headlights. Another roaring engine. Enter Billy Zane, bright-eyed and bald-headed, as supermodel Beetlejuice.
It’s a tale as old as time. To quote the very first line of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” But it’s never been more shamelessly stylish.
Night falls like a soundstage wall — black, with an unearthly supply of blue haze for effect.
Short some exteriors at the end, Demon Knight was filmed entirely inside an abandoned aircraft hangar. The resulting artifice of its desert hell is something to behold — a wide shot in which Sadler and Dick Miller approach a miniature church as lightning rips the false sky belongs in a punk rock Frankenstein.
The interior of the cathedral-turned-church where this latest battle for mankind unfolds is similarly skewed. Are places of God regularly turned into Red Roof Inns? No, but it’s a great excuse to have stained glass crosses in every window and secret catacombs that run for miles.
It’s all part of the amped-up atmosphere, a few doves short of an MTV staple. Though, in appropriately grimy Tales fashion, the hangar was lousy with pigeons, which had to be silenced with a blank gunshot before every take.
The monsters without wings, the demons and their possessed prey, are as good as prosthetics get.
Handled by series veteran Todd Masters, the practical effects in Demon Knight represent a high-water mark in Poor-Bastard-In-Suit technology. Sure, there are still PSIBs today, their work finally getting some of the respect it deserves, but in 1995, PSIBs were suddenly optional.
Regrettable CGI would’ve been an all-too trendy button to push; Universal even requested a cheaper alternative draft with the demons in Brooks Brothers suits just in case.
But instead, each ooey, gooey hellspawn is its own work of art. The gore, too, is the proper ratio of cartoonish and nauseating. Someone gets a hole punched through their head, and it’s at least twice as shocking to see as it sounds.
But we wouldn’t care at all unless that donutted skull belonged to someone worth caring about.
If Demon Knight has a secret weapon, it’s the murderer’s row of underloved That Guys (gender neutral) that turn a goopy siege movie into a gonzo acting class.
When actors talk about choices, they’re talking about every single thing Billy Zane does in this movie. He makes a HomeTown Buffet of each line. It’s a testament to both Zane’s performance and Dickerson’s direction that it somehow never derails the movie.
William Sadler deserves his own credit for tipping the scales in the other direction as our haunted hero, Brayker.
The man has to narrate a flashback of Jesus Christ on the cross, as the devil itself bargains at his feet for a key that will let darkness rule again for the first time since God created light, and Sadler does it with unwavering authenticity. It very easily could’ve been a dirt-boring do-gooder part, but never has his hangdog stare been better weaponized.
All that to say nothing of Dick Miller, Thomas Haden Church, CCH Pounder, Charles Fleischer, and the supernova turn from Jada Pinkett (no Smith yet). The studio wanted Cameron Diaz, but Dickerson fought for his star, and the results speak for themselves.
Her fate, taking the reins of humanity’s fate, was progressive at the time and, tragically, still surprising 24 years later.
The rest of Demon Knight has similarly aged like fine, gas station wine.
Lurid, loud, with just the right burn in the aftertaste. Dickerson remembers it with affection in Shudder’s essential Horror Noire documentary. The loving loons from Scream Factory have granted it their special brand of resurrection with the only Blu-ray release you’ll ever need.
It’s not quite forgotten — the Crypt Keeper alone guarantees that — but given its place in the history of horror, Demon Knight tends to fall between the cracks.
Literally not ‘80s enough to enjoy the wave of reappraisal and Funko Pop immortality. Not quite ‘90s enough to stand out from the incoming class at the time.
I don’t know if Shudder spent the GDP of a small island nation to get it. But damn if Demon Knight doesn’t deserve it.