' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Demon Knight

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Some Drivel On...Demon Knight

The full title of Ernest Dickerson’s “Demon Knight” (1995) is “Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight,” marking it as the first cinematic venture of the HBO horror anthology series “Tales from the Crypt.” My family didn’t have HBO most of the time I was growing up and so I remember the show more for when it began appearing in a somewhat toned-down, edited form on Fox on Saturday nights, giving me something to flip over to when SNL got boring, which it usually did right around that time, after Weekend Update. These versions of “Tales from a Crypt” were softened, yes, but given the airtime still honored the original spirit, the idea that you were getting away with something by watching something you were not supposed to be watching, like getting a rap album with a Parental Advisory sticker beamed straight into your eyeballs. That’s why my first time seeing “Demon Knight” since, well, the mid-90s, I’m pretty sure, felt entirely appropriate. I watched it at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre though not in the theatre itself but out back in the Garden Theatre, a remnant of the worst parts of the Pandemic, beneath the streetlights. It felt not low rent, not at all, but kind of fly-by-night in a way honoring the hoary but enjoyable plot of a group trapped in a place – in this case, a boarding house – with bloodthirsty creatures – in this case, demons – lurking outside. Grant Park is for screening “Footloose”; Millennium Park is for screening “Dirty Dancing”; an alley on Southport is for screening “Demon Knight.” 

These demons, commanded by a kind of demonio supremo called The Collector, and mostly seen in human form to take full advantage of Billy Zane’s performance (more in a minute), are after a key that can unlock an all-consuming cosmic darkness and protected by the eponymous Brayker (William Sadler) holed up inside the boarding house with the requisite motley crew, from a prostitute (Brenda Bakke) to a maid named Jeryline (Jada Pinkett) on work release. The ensuing rising and falling action has plenty of fun with horror movie tropes and just fun in general, like the owner Irene (C.C.H. Pounder) getting her arm lopped off, which once the shock has worn off for the character, Pounder plays like she has merely discarded a sweater, no time to sweat the small stuff like no arm when the world needs saving, remember that, kids. Sadler takes this all incredibly seriously but even within that seriousness finds shades of fun. “You want to know what’s going on? Shall I tell you?” he rhetorically asks in a script-winking line cuing up the crucial exposition that Sadler nevertheless says like someone who has told this story a thousand times before and is sick of it. Brayker has been the key’s guardian since WWI, made immortal so long as he holds the artifact bearing it, one filled with the blood of Jesus. We see all this in a Good Friday flashback that through the prism of time frankly looks more convincing to me now than any computer-generated Calvary Hill. It also reminded me that if Jesus appeared in this day and age, he’d probably appear to a motley crew like this rather than some clean-cut crew in a GAC production.

The dudes that introduced the movie at the Music Box praised Zane’s turn, noting that he turned his acting up to 11 (coinage: Nigel Tufnel) throughout, as much as Owen Gleiberman writing for Entertainment Weekly 27 years ago inveighed against it. “Like all of today’s wisecracking psychos,” Gleiberman wrote of Zane, “he derives his style from the Ur-moment of contemporary horror, that scene in ‘The Shining’ where Jack Nicholson axes his way into Shelley Duvall’s room and announces, ‘He-e-ere’s Johnny!’” I think they’re both wrong. Zane’s performance is far more modulated, a 3 here, a 6 there, occasionally dialing up to a 9 or a 10 before cooling back off, finding a sweet spot between the lampoon of debonair he plays in the parodic prelude of “Poetic Justice” (1993) and his thickly sliced holiday ham of “Titanic” (1997), epitomized in the scene where he momentarily masquerades as a bartender, playing more on a Spuds McKenzie tip, the straw that stirs the drink rather than the other way around. True to that, just as Brayker hands his knight duties off to Jeryline, Zane spiritually hands the movie itself off to Pinkett. That’s partially, it would seem, to set up a sequel that never materialized, though I’m thinking of this in broader, more cosmic terms. If The Sequels Matrix, “Resurrections” and “Revolutions,” were good for anything, it was to demonstrate that Jada was a bonafide burgeoning action movie star, so long as someone wanted to take advantage, which given the ghouls and goblins that run the industry, they haven’t. Credit to “Demon Knight,” however, which saw it all the way back then, foretelling a Hollywood prophecy still waiting to truly come true.

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