After five successful seasons on television, the creative team behind HBO’s Tales from the Crypt decided it was time for a new feature film. Given that there had been a Tales from the Crypt feature film in the 1970’s, nobody involved with the show wanted to retread old ground. This new movie went in a different direction. It wasn’t related to any existing Tales from the Crypt storyline. Instead, it was treated like an episode of the series that just happened to be feature-length, which is a large part of why it works. While Demon Knight was never an original story in the EC comics, it matches the tongue-in-cheek tone of both the comics and TV series. As would probably be expected, this was a pre-existing script, but it doesn’t suffer for that. In fact, the Demon Knight script was almost made a couple of different times with major horror directors at the helm before it wound up in the Tales from the Crypt offices. Child’s Play’s Tom Holland, Pet Sematary’s Mary Lambert and Charles Band’s Full Moon Features were all involved at various points.
Universal finally picked it up and chose it over two other films in the running to be Tales from the Crypt movies, neither of which was ever produced. Luckily, the studio found a script that captured the tone and spirit of the show perfectly. It feels like just another episode of the show in nearly every way—something that sadly could not be said of its follow-up, Bordello of Blood.
We start off with the traditional show intro, which unlike most TV-to-movie adaptations has not been changed a bit. Then we have the Crypt Keeper’s introduction which appropriately sends up the entire movie business. When we get into the film, the opening credits are exactly the same as the series. For something that is inherently an anthology, the sense of visual continuity and tone between the films and the feature is incredibly strong.
As a film on its own, Demon Knight holds up. It’s all-around funny, gory entertainment that builds up a sense of mythology at the same time. The atmosphere, characters and FX all gel together perfectly well. Everything is somewhat heightened, ever-so-slightly larger than life. Billy Zane is an exception, only on the grounds that he is as over-the-top as can be. Given its modest budget and over-the-top performances the film probably should not work nearly as well as it does, but it does anyway. It holds up admirably.
Character actor William Sadler is a reasonable action hero but he is surprisingly heartfelt as the lead. Jada Pinkett-Smith also comes into her own as a hero by the end of the film. Finding strength and, more importantly, sharing strength is an overriding theme of the film. It’s a religious horror movie, technically, but it’s one of the most accessible of its type. Demon Knight requires no prior knowledge of Christian mythology in order to work. It gives the story a purpose, but there’s not really an inherent message. Instead, we have a story structured like Night of the Living Dead , in that it is a group of people trapped in an isolated location against overwhelming odds. In this case, demons are the antagonists. It’s just icing on the cake to have Billy Zane playing the classic Devil figure with unbelievable charisma and enthusiasm.
This is so much more than a Tales from the Crypt movie. It works perfectly as a standalone effort and it works completely as a part of the series at the same time. Usually, it’s almost impossible to find that kind of equilibrium. But Demon Knight makes it look effortless. It’s still a campy feature, to be sure, but there’s a good balance of characters and a cast who understands, at the very least, the tone of the material.
More importantly, the movie doesn’t feel nearly as dated as most of the films of its decade. The isolated location might have something to do with that. Billy Zane’s performance is just as intense and fun as it was when the feature was initially released. The amazing practical effects still hold up. The design of the demons are great and while they falter in the flashbacks, they are incredible in the ongoing narrative. The atmosphere is strong, moody and dark. Rick Bota, who shot most of the episodes of the television series, really gets to prove himself as a cinematographer for the first time.
Demon Knight might not be the most remembered horror film of the 1990’s, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold up. It was a work of pure horror entertainment in a time when most horror efforts were labeled as psychological thrillers and oddly catered to mainstream critics. Demon Knight was more focused on making sure that the audience had a good time with the film. It brought back some of the fun and charm of the previous decade. While it might be one that many people still haven’t seen, it’s nonetheless a hard one not to like. It’s an unexpected gem, one that I’m grateful for and one that showcases what the team behind Tales from the Crypt was capable of when they were at their best.