Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Film Appreciation - A New Kind of Fear

Cody Hamman celebrates 20 years of Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight for Film Appreciation.

"In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth. And the Earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep. But the darkness wasn't empty. It was full of creatures, full of demons. And they had seven keys, formed into a circle that focused the power of the cosmos into their hands. Until God stepped forth and said, 'Let there be light.' And there was light. He scattered the demons, and He scattered the keys all across the universe. Then we fast forward about two or three million millenia. Now the demons are back. They got six of the keys. And one day they find the seventh key here on Earth..."

So goes the back story of this feature film spin-off of the EC Comics-based horror anthology series Tales from the Crypt, which ran on HBO from 1989 to 1996. It's a back story delivered in a monologue by William Sadler as Frank Brayker, a man who has been serving as a "demon knight" trying to keep the last key away from the demons and stop them from bringing back the darkness since the key was passed to him by the previous knight in the trenches of World War I.

The battle between the knights and the demons has been going on for 2000 years, beginning when God put the key in the possession of a thief named Sirach, who filled it with the powerful blood of Christ at the crucifixion, making the demons unable to touch it directly. Pouring the blood on an entryway or a window frame can also seal off those openings; if a demon tries to pass through them, they'll be blown to pieces.

Having the key makes a knight ageless, but not immortal. Their time always runs out eventually, their luck in the encounters with the demons doesn't hold up and they die bloody deaths. After using their blood to keep the key full, they pass it on to the next knight, some trustworthy person they've met in their travels.

As he stumbles into the small desert town of Wormwood, New Mexico, Brayker knows his time is running out. The demonic counterpart to the knights is The Collector, a demon that takes human form, and The Collector (Billy Zane) is hot on Brayker's trail.

With the help of an elderly alcoholic called Uncle Willy (Dick Miller), Brayker seeks shelter in a remote, decommissioned church that has been converted into a boarding house owned and operated by CCH Pounder as Irene. Also at the boarding house are residents Cordelia (Brenda Bakke), who makes her cash through the oldest profession, and Wally (Charles Fleischer), a recently fired postal worker, as well as convicted thief Jeryline (Jada Pinkett), who is employed by Irene for her work release from jail. As the night goes on, more people show up at the boarding house: Cordelia's scumbag regular Roach (Thomas Haden Church), a young boy named Danny (Ryan Sean O'Donohue), and the local sheriff and deputy (John Schuck and Gary Farmer).

The Collector also comes to the boarding house, and when his attempt to get the cops to simply hand over the key, which he says Brayker stole from him, goes fatally wrong, he tries a different tactic. Slicing one of his palms open, he bleeds glowing green blood on the desert ground. The spots where the blood drops hit the ground begin to grow into bubbling puddles, from which rise hideous, monstrous demons.

The humans are now trapped in the boarding house for a night of horror as The Collector, the demons, and people they manage to possess lay siege to the place.

Demon Knight is essentially just another take on Night of the Living Dead, with demons in place of zombies - these demons can even be killed in a manner similar to zombies; rather than destroying their brains, you have to destroy their eyes, the windows to the soul. But it's an awesome take on the concept, with a fascinating mythology, excellently designed monsters, and apocalyptic stakes.

Like in a Romero film, other people in the situation can be as much of a danger as the creatures they're afraid of, and there is plenty of in-fighting among this group thanks to Roach, who is not a team player and constantly screws things up. People can also become a threat by being possessed, and they don't have to be in contact with the demons to become so. The Collector has telepathic abilities, he can reach out to them and manipulate their minds. He pretends to be connecting to them on a deeply personal level, and when they give themselves over to him, they become demons, too.


In addition to crafting such an intriguing set-up, writers Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris, and Mark Bishop filled their screenplay with a great batch of characters that are brought to life by a terrific cast. Many of the actors make their characters a lot of fun to spend time with. Billy Zane gives a very humorous performance as The Collector, while William Sadler is fantastic as our weary hero Brayker. The presence of Dick Miller is always welcome. Roach is utterly detestable, and yet Thomas Haden Church rocks the role and makes him someone you love to hate.


The film was stylishly and energetically directed by Ernest Dickerson, who with cinematographer Rick Bota made it a very cool looking creature feature. Dickerson continues to direct Romero-esque scenarios to this day, as he's a regular helmer of The Walking Dead episodes.

I caught many airings of the Tales from the Crypt TV show throughout my childhood, and though the episodes often disturbed me deeply, I was a devoted horror fan and loved the show. The Cryptkeeper, voiced by John Kassir, is one of the genre's all-time greatest icons in my eyes. So when I heard the series was branching out with a theatrical feature, this movie was a must-see event. I was there opening weekend in January of 1995, taken to the theatre by my older brother.

I was completely enthralled by what played out on the screen before me, and Demon Knight became an instant favorite. It's a favorite I have returned to many times over the years, although it seems insane that twenty years have passed since I watched it for the first time. If I haven't become demon food by then, I'm sure I'll still be watching this movie twenty years from now.

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