Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995)
Written by Mark Bishop, Ethan Reiff, and Cyrus Voris
Directed by Ernest Dickerson
I never saw the HBO version of Tales From the Crypt. Instead, I caught the edited reruns on Fox that used to air late at night on Saturdays. I absolutely loved the show, and it was probably one of the first things that stoked my interest in horror short stories. Interestingly, Demon Knight isn’t a story adapted from the pages of the titular EC Comics publication like the episodes of the show were. Instead, this was a script initially developed in the late 1980s and shopped around before it was set to be the second in a trilogy of Tales From the Crypt movies. The other two were dropped, and we ended up with Demon Knight as the first theatrical production to bare the HBO franchise’s label.
On a dark desert road, a man named Brayker (William Sadler) is pursued by the hunter (Billy Zane). A car crash occurs and gives Brayker a headstart as he rushes into a small town where he finds refuge in a decommissioned church that has become a boarding house. His pursuer catches up with the law in tow and demands an artifact be turned over to him. Brayker fights to keep the stone key, and then all Hell is literally unleashed. Demons arise and surround the boarding house putting the residents in peril as they slowly learn what is really at stake throughout this single night. Brayker finds a strong ally in Jeryline (Jada Pinkett), a convict on work release doing odd jobs for the boarding house owner. Little does she know how tightly wound her destiny is with the forces of Heaven & Hell that clash around her.
This is not a very good movie, but it is a fun movie. The set up has lots of genuinely intriguing elements, and the mystery surrounding Brayker is a good hook. The problem is that when the pieces start falling into place, the story ends up being almost an homage to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies more than anything else. You have goofball gory comedy spliced in with the horror. Dutch angles frame the more tense and frantic moments. The problem is that it lacks the personal stylistic touches that Raimi brings to his work beyond the technical aspects. There are no real big surprises for anyone remotely familiar with the genre tropes of mainstream horror movies.
Helping elevate the picture is a remarkably skilled supporting cast, including Thomas Haden Church, Charles Fleischer, and CCH Pounder. These performers are very good at what they do, but they haven’t necessarily been given a fantastic script to work with, but they do their best and are relatively entertaining. Aside from the actor, the practical effects are where most of the passion has been put in Demon Knight. The puppets and makeup are quite affecting, and they pull off some pretty clever tricks. The opening has an awkward moment where the Cryptkeeper puppet heat was CGI-ed onto a regular person. The rest of the movie keeps the monsters as tangible people in costumes or puppets, and it looks much better.
The element that surprised me the most was the Jeryline character. You don’t often see black female protagonists in horror today, much less in the 1990s. In typical scripts, her role would likely be relegated to the background and probably killed during the second act. Instead, she becomes a crucial player in the story, and by the end, she’s taken on an even more significant role in events to come. Jeryline becomes the character caught between the pull of the Light (Brayker) and the Darkness (the hunter). Demon Knight gives us a rare example of a Black Final Girl, something horror has delivered little of in decades and decades.