Friday, June 17, 2016

Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight

I’ve raved about my love of 1980s horror movies so much now that I won’t repeat myself with the same rhetoric I’ve written in past posts.  But time moves on for everyone, causing changes in one’s thinking, and evolving as people do.  I, for example, used to love eating spicy food, pouring out the dried chili flakes onto my pizza or taking bites out of jalapeños as I eat some Mexican food; but now, I can’t do it and really don’t enjoy it, as my taste buds prefer blander—yet hardier—food.  It was the same way with my feelings towards the horror films of the 1990s, where I hated most of them and refused to watch them.  But now?  I’ve softened a bit towards them.

A weird analogy, I know.

Most 90s horror I still can’t stand to watch, like The People Under the Stairs or Leprechaun—as they bore me to sleep.  Until Scream came along in 1996, the horror movies in the 1990s were growing to various ridiculous heights of absurdity, making the ones that were released in the 80s seem like very commonsensical films (there was even a great documentary called Going to Pieces: The Rise and fall of the Slasher Film that chronicles this eloquently).  Though they were viewable to a degree, the majority of them couldn’t provide any scares and just relied on a catchy theme or title with plenty of gore.  And as the CGI craze was growing in this decade, it wasn’t long before horror films were ousting the practical effects specialists with primitive computer imagery. 

Looking back, it really seemed as if horror movie producers were desperately trying to create the next Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers.  Case in point, check out these movies: 1992’s Dr. Giggles, 1996’s The Dentist, 1997’s Jack Frost…I can name a few more, but I think you get the point.  What’s astounding about the movies I’d just mentioned was that the last two actually landed sequels.  But it didn’t work…there was no killer doctor or psycho dentist franchises created with those movies…they were just silly ideas that had come and gone.

To add insult to injury for the horror movies of this time, it seemed like television received a resurgence of a sort, namely in cable TV channels.  Stephen King actually had quite a few of his novels and short stories adapted to TV movies (on network TV oddly enough) and the cable channels were beginning to produce their own programming, showcasing their own television shows.  And what a genius idea it was to bring shows to the masses without having the impediments of network TV?  Frontrunner HBO had the freedom to broadcast programs with adult themes and language, so why not air a show like “Tales From the Crypt” where they can show a bit of gore and feature some bad language?

Yes, “Tales From the Crypt” was a horror-themed anthology television series that presented different stories every episode.  It even brought in special guests, well-known actors and actresses, to star in these horror shorts and it was amazing.  They kind of had the atmosphere of Creepshow, yet a bit more light-hearted as each episode was bookended with the host of the show—The Crypt Keeper.  He was a ghoulish-looking corpse brought to life mainly by puppetry, wisecracking with awful puns related to death.

It wasn’t long before the TV show became so popular that a movie was finally made, titled, Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight.

Now this film was released during the heyday of my movie-going experiences and I certainly remember it being in theaters.  But I hadn’t really gotten into the TV series, since I didn’t have HBO at the time, and thought I would’ve needed that prior knowledge of the show to understand the film.  However, I’d realized I was wrong when the movie had showed up on movie rental shelves back in the 90s as I picked it up to take a gander in the comfort of my own home.

Before I get too far into my anecdotes, let me break down the synopsis of the film.

A man, Brayker (William Sadler), who holds the last of seven keys—special vials that hold
the blood of Christ and were scattered throughout the world to prevent the forces of evil from taking over—is being hunted by The Collector (Billy Zane).  Brayker has been tracked to an inn in an isolated small town and must assemble the disparate crew of individuals in the rundown hotel to fight the forces of evil and prevent The Collector from taking the last key and bringing an end to the world.

I guess one of the many reasons I love this film is how it feels more like an 80s horror film than a mid-90s flick.  As I’d mentioned earlier, the whole set-up has the vibe of a Creepshow movie, almost like an old EC Comic Book come to life.  Though the situations are a bit over-the-top, it’s okay to enjoy it as it’s meant to be a little on the lighter side.  It’s not really terrifying—although if you were to be in the situations the characters find themselves in, you’d lose your mind—but mostly fun and exciting.
By this time in 1995, I’d recognized William Sadler as usually playing a bad guy or someone without a lot of morals.  When first seeing him in this role, it took me by surprise a little as he’s some sort of Christian disciple.  But by the time we really get into the meat of the story and things start to get exciting, I soon thought less of him as Colonel Stuart1 and more of him as the good guy here.

The big surprise here is Billy Zane as The Collector.  As the adversary of the film, and as evil as he’s supposed to be, he sure is hilarious throughout his performance.  It was almost as if the director, Ernest R. Dickerson, told Zane to channel Jim Carrey during most of his lines.  He inserts quite a bit of magnetism into his portrayal of The Collector that you can believe when some of the characters fall for his charm.  But when it’s time for him to be bad, he certainly does that well, too.

Some of the scenes are laughable, like when one of the characters gets their arm sliced off, yet they’re still able to function and even perform a courageous act to help out Brayker.  I’d have issues if I’d only had a cut on my hand, probably fall into a fetal position and cry like a baby.  But that’s what makes this movie fun and entertaining—the outlandish situations our heroes get themselves into.

Besides the two main opponents, the film features quite a few recognizable faces.  The owner of the rundown inn, Irene, is CCH Pounder, a well-known character actress you’ve seen countless times in movies and television series but really can’t place where you’ve seen her.  The in-house local drunk, Uncle Willy, is played by the great Dick Miller, who’s been in such movies like The Howling, The Terminator, and Gremlins.  To round it off, Thomas Haden Church plays the dirt bag, Roach, Charles Fleischer (known for the voice of Roger Rabbit) plays the soft hearted Wally, and Jada Pinkett (sans Smith at the time) plays Jeryline.

The special effects were fine for its time and maybe that’s why the film reminded me of something from the 80s.  See, this was the time when CGI had become so prevalent and you started seeing it take over the practical effects in horror movies.  But there were none here—or at least none that I remember—and you mainly see people in makeup or costume playing the demons and monsters, utilizing fast editing cuts so that you can’t see the zippers.

Like the television episodes, the movie is bookended by The Crypt Keeper, voiced by John Kassir, which adds to the light tone of the film.  The bad jokes are there, the tie-ins to the film, and, of course, that wickedly creepy laugh.  Mr. Kassir must have a great time during Halloween, opening the door for the kiddies and using that voice and laugh to give them a scare…I know I would.

I’d just purchased the special edition blu-ray, which comes to us from Scream! Factory (they are doing an amazing job, bringing us the forgotten 80s and 90s horror gems), adding to my growing collection of their discs.  One of the many qualities I love about their releases is the redesigning of the cover artwork, sort of throwing it back to the movie posters of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  Though they’re a branch of the Shout! Factory company, they have over 200 releases just in horror films, some of them being original titles.  I implore you to check out their catalog of films.

Well, my final “bit” on Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight is that I highly recommend this gem of a movie.  All the performances add to this upbeat romp of a campy horror movie, yet gives you a few frights for the taking.  You’d think that adapting a television series wouldn’t translate well to film, rationing that it’d probably end up just being a long drawn-out version of a 30-minute episode.  But it isn’t.  So go out to your local rental store or corner Red Box…or just queue it up on your Netflix list, sit down with a bowl of popcorn and soda because Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight is a fun movie.

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1 Colonel Stuart is the antagonist in Die Hard 2: Die Harder

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