Tales from the Crypt Presents Demon Knight

(Ernest Dickerson, USA, 1995)


There are some fans of horror cinema who like their thrills and gore straight, no chaser – no comedy, no MTV-style inserts, no ironic winks to the audience, and certainly none of that postmodern sophistication. Such horror fans may not have a good time at the movies very often these days.

John Carpenter's excellent In the Mouth of Madness (1994) announced a trend towards self-reflexive, almost avant-garde horror. In Wes Craven's mind-boggling final instalment in the Nightmare on Elm St series, New Nightmare (1994), Freddy Krueger escapes from the screen and into "reality". And here is Tales from the Crypt Presents Demon Knight, complete with an on-screen narrator named the Crypt Keeper who poses as the film's director.

This is the first of three feature length spin-offs from the television series Tales from the Crypt, and it has the air of a big-budget telemovie. A mysterious stranger (William Sadler) arrives in a small town and holes up with a few testy locals in a hotel, while a glamorous, smooth-talking demon (Billy Zane) tries to charm his way inside.

The executive producers on this project include well-known directors Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, 1994) and Walter Hill. Demon Knight recalls the action-thriller Zemeckis wrote for Hill, Trespass (1992). Both films make vivid use of a claustrophobic, enclosed space, and set desperate characters against each other in a flurry of betrayals and defections.

Demon Knight's director Ernest Dickerson (whose second feature this is, after a stint as Spike Lee's director of photography) works hard at giving the film a high-key, expressionist look, in homage to William Gaines' original Tales from the Crypt comics. As in certain glossy television ads, the camera angle seems forever tilted 45 degrees to the left or right, and the image is regularly flooded with lurid reds and greens.

The pitch of this movie is curious. The heavy metal song track clearly targets a teenage audience. But are contemporary teenagers so above horror, so knowing and derisive of the genre, that they need an endless stream of silly gags, Billy Zane's camp mugging, and this obnoxious, undead guide stuck in a director's chair?

Still, such a degree of calculating self-consciousness has its up-side. Unquestionably the best thing about Demon Knight is the way it passes the eternal mission to combat evil from a dead, white male to a young, black woman. Call this politically correct if you must, but try to bear in mind how truly invigorating these kinds of moves can be in popular cinema.

© Adrian Martin March 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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