Demon Knight: Ancient Keys, Demons, and Billy Zane

Few things scream the 1990’s as much as HBO’s anthology series, Tales from the Crypt. Based on William Gaines’ 1950s shock pulp E.C. Comics, Tales from the Crypt ran for several seasons. With the John Kassir-voiced Cryptkeeper bookending episodes, the series mixed dark humour with campy kitsch. As the show developed a following among horror fans, it eventually spawned two movie spin-offs – Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood. Not surprisingly, critics disliked Demon Knight and hated Bordello of Blood. Neither movie lit up the box office though Demon Knight fared much better. But with Shout Factory re-issuing both movies on Blu-ray a few years ago, new fans have been given the opportunity to get acquainted with The Cryptkeeper.

Synopsis

When a mysterious drifter named Brayker strolls into town all hell breaks loose. Literally. Brayker holes up in a run-down motel with one of seven ancient keys in his possession. Whomever possesses all seven keys can unleash the forces of darkness and evil on the world. But Brayker hasn’t come to town alone. Not far behind him, The Collector is in hot pursuit. With six of the keys in his possession, The Collector unleashes a host of the undead on Brayker and the hotel’s residents all with one intent – to get the last key.

Demon Knight Glosses Over Silly Story With Cool Horror Fun

For some inexplicable reason, three writers laboured over Demon Knight’s story. Don’t expect any correlation between the number of writers and logical coherence from the plot. Yes, there’s something about ancient keys, the blood of Jesus Christ, and of course, demons. Tenuous logic aside, Demon Knight recounts these story points in an affably cool manner. Director Ernest Dickerson moves things along at a quick enough pace, allowing plot details to gradually reveal themselves, that the actual “why” takes a backseat to demonic fun. Like the movie itself, the story has a certain silly, laidback charm that makes logic feel less important. And Demon Knight is essentially a “siege” horror movie following the same basic structure Romero established in Night of the Living Dead. For a Tales from the Crypt movie, what really matters is dark, silly gore and thrills.

Like the movie itself, the story has a certain silly, laidback charm that makes logic feel less important.

Fortunately, in this regard, Demon Knight mostly excels. Though Dickerson doesn’t quite venture into as wild of territory as some 80’s movies – Evil Dead or Return of the Living Dead, come to mind – he puts the movie’s effects to good use. He clearly grasps his source material and knows how to film the action to capture the right aesthetics. It’s a combination of ridiculously over-the-top gore and perverse humour that hits the mark more than it misses. When The Collector puts his fist through a Sheriff’s skull and the head gets stuck on his hand the clearly rubber prosthetics don’t matter. The sheer absurdity of the moment works as intended. After over 20 years since its release, Demon Knight’s effects haven’t aged considerably well. In fact, the effects really only worked in 1995 given the movie’s intended tone. Still the effects are bloody fun and in they’re in keeping with the movie’s E.C. Comics’ roots. A Tales from the Crypt movie wouldn’t feel right with polished special effects.

Listen to Your Friend, Billy Zane!

For what’s essentially a glorified B-movie with a nonsensical story, Demon Knight is stacked with reliable character actors. Arguably, Jada Pinkett-Smith would be the most recognizable star for audiences today. Still up-and-coming at the time of its release, Pinkett-Smith flashes the charisma and talent that paved her way to bigger roles. Fan favourite, the late Dick Miller (Gremlins), has fun with his role. Miller always delivered his lines with a certain irascible charm. And the multi-faceted, and underrated, CCH Pounder exceed what the role asks of her. As “Brayker”, William Sadler (Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, VFW) brings some much needed grizzled charm to the role. He plays off the supporting cast well, and earns the audience’s admiration by movie’s end.

Whenever Zane is on the screen, Demon Knight plays fast and fun with the material.

But Demon Knight is Billy Zane’s movie from start to finish. Nowadays, you probably best remember Zane from either Titanic or his fun cameo in Zoolander. Here, Zane isn’t stifled with the same “stuffy” villain role and dialogue as some of his past work. Dickerson gives Zane room to loosen up as “The Collector” and the screenplay supplies him with some zippy lines. Whenever Zane is on the screen, Demon Knight plays fast and fun with the material. It does help that the characters are reasonably fleshed out – particularly for this sort of movie. If you’re going to hole characters up in a single setting, audiences need to invest in and care for those characters. And Demon Knight largely succeeds in making you care about the cast and their survival.

Demon Knight is Campy 90’s Horror Fun

Though it’s unlikely to ever be remembered among the decade’s finest, Demon Knight delivers on exactly what a Tales from the Crypt movie should promise. It’s silly, barely-there-story, misfit cast, and fun gory special effects capture the pulp and camp of the 1950’s E.C. Comics. And Billy Zane’s charismatic turn as The Collector elevates Demon Knight. The end result is a fun horror movie that would make for good inclusion on any midnight movie festival.

FINAL VERDIT: A 90’S MOVIE WORTH RE-VISITING

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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