We know that February, the shortest, coldest, and most oddly spelled month of the year, is Black History Month. It is also, less well known as, Women in Horror Month. It’s probably a bunch of really obscure things, too, like Belgium Waffle Month or Shar Pei Month, but I’m focusing on the first two. I realized I dropped the ball on Black History Month, up to now, so I decided to go with a horror movie with an African American woman lead. The first thing that came to mind was DEMON KNIGHT, starring Captain Niobi herself, Jada Pinkett (pre-Smith). After a little more thinking, I still only had DEMON KNIGHT. Sure, there’s BLACULA (and SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM), SUGAR HILL, GANJA AND HESS, but I didn’t think of those until literally just now and I’ve already watched DEMON KNIGHT, so that’s what you get. It’s okay though, DEMON KNIGHT is a fun one.
The sleepy town of Wormwood, NM (pop. 11) suddenly gets a wake-up call when a late night car chase ends in a fireball. The sole survivor seems to be Brayker, a mysterious, lumpy faced stranger (William Sadler) on the run. He meets up with lovable drunk Uncle Willy (Dick Miller!), who takes him to the Mission Hotel to lie low. His dinner with the colorful locals at the hotel is cut short when his pursuer, Billy Zane in a cowboy hat, shows up miraculously unharmed by the fiery car crash and demanding the return of an ancient flask-like key he claims Brayker stole. He’s fooled the town’s two cops into believing he’s a normal, non-demonic collections agent. When the lead cop wises up, Zane drops the pretense and punches through his head. Brayker forces Zane out of the hotel using the power of the key, but the Collector (that’s Billy Zane) is not about to give up. The Mission Hotel is about to become the Alamo for Brayker, ex-con Jeryline (Pinkett), no non-sense owner Irene (CCH Pounder), Uncle Willy, an emotionally insecure hooker, the guy who did the voice of Roger Rabbit, and the guy from WINGS who was also the grumpy guy’s friend in that movie about wine. The Collector cooks up a batch of glowing eyed ghouls to find their way into the hotel, but he also tries to telepathically seduce the patrons into turning on Brayker. The stakes are higher than they know. If the key falls into the Collector’s hands, the world becomes a demon playground. To further complicate things, Brayker’s time is running out. Fate has brought him to the Mission Hotel to find a successor, someone to carry on the fight against the Collector and his demon knight brethren, and eventually marry Will Smith.
DEMON KNIGHT is officially titled TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT. It was the first movie version of the TV horror anthology series TALES FROM THE CRYPT, to be followed by TALES FROM THE CRYPT: BORDELLO OF BLOOD, which was to be followed by nothing. They originally wanted FROM DUSK TIL DAWN to be one also, but Tarantino wanted too much money. It is bookended with cheesy Crypt Keeper pun-tastic vignettes, but aside from that, it’s a real movie. The director is Ernest R. Dickerson, who up to this point had only done the urban drama JUICE and the awesome SURVIVING THE GAME, a THE DEADLIEST GAME type movie with Ice T outsmarting a bunch of psychotic rich white guys. He did a few more movies after, but is mostly known now as an in demand TV director, including stints on THE WIRE and WALKING DEAD. He does a good job here keeping a pretty standard siege style movie lively and letting the solid cast do their stuff. He also balances out the horror to humor ratio well, though he goes a touch overboard with the wackiness in a couple of places. Still, things are satisfyingly bloody and even a bit disturbing at times. He does kill off a kid, but he lets a cat live, so he’s not totally hardcore.
The movie is very much an ensemble piece; most of the actors really get a chance to shine. William Sadler plays a good hero, adding a nice degree of desperation and weariness to the stoic Brayker. Thomas Haden Church’s Roach is a phenomenal douche bag, more than willing to sell out humanity in a very short sighted attempt to come out on top. Sort of a white trashier Donald Trump. At one point he has a car battery hooked up to his nipples. He’s not being tortured, he’s just being kinky. Charles Fleischer’s nebbish ex-postal worker Wally doesn’t get to do that much before being taken out, but there is a cute joke about the seemingly nice guy stashing a crate of machine guns and planning to actually go postal. Dick Miller gets way more screen time to be scruffy and lovable than in his usual cameos. He also gets an amazing death scene (SPOILER, but come on, has the lovable drunk ever survived a horror movie?). CCH Pounder plays a total badass, as usual (how could she not with a name like CCH Pounder). She has such an intimidating stare down that I half expected the demons to sheepishly look at the floor and apologize for messing up her hotel. Not even losing an arm can slow her down. When Billy Zane’s character tries to tempt her into switching sides, she gives him the phantom finger.
Speaking of Billy Zane, he gives one of my all-time favorite bad guy performances. With his awshucks grin, Zane just radiates charisma in this role (and most of his roles that don’t involve TITANIC). Aside from the occasional long fingernail, he’s never done up in demon makeup. He’s just a charming guy who wants to be your friend… and destroy everything you’ve ever cared about. There are a couple of times he treads close to BEETLEJUICE hijinks, but he rides it out well and even manages to make an impromptu disco ball dance scene with Pinkett seem tolerable. He is especially good in the seduction scenes, each tailored to exploit the hotel survivors’ weaknesses. They don’t all work, Pinkett and Pounder stand up to him, but his temptations of Brenda Bakke’s doe eyed prostitute and Dick Miller’s Uncle Willy are believably successful. It’s funny that Zane doesn’t even bother trying to tempt Roach, he just waits for the self-serving prick to come to him. He’s got great chemistry with Pinkett, especially in the beginning when she's scared but impressed with him (as opposed to the end when she’s scared but pissed). Even though it would mean the end of the world, I still kinda wanted him to win.
Clearly Zane is the best part of the movie, but Jada Pinkett is a close second. I like the way they pull a Ripley with her. She was fairly new to the scene in 1995, immediately striking with short blond hair and a defiant pose, but for the first half of the movie she seems like just another potential victim. When the shit really gets crazy, though, she steps up her game until she’s going toe to toe with the Demon Knight. There’s a fantastic scene where she slowly emerges from the shadows covered in the protective blood of a martyr, ready to pick a fight. We know she’s scared, but she woman’s up. She’s the chosen one.
Plus, she’s in her underwear, so that’s a bonus.
One weird thing, for a movie that actually depicts the crucifixion of Christ, it’s not all that religious. There is some talk about God and Genesis (the book, not the band), but Christ is just referred to as “a carpenter”. The key originally contained some of his blood, which would ward off the demons, but it was because he was a martyr, not specifically the Son of God. In fact, the blood of a thief or a WWI soldier works just as well. It’s a good thing, because they go through a lot of martyr blood in the movie, and that’s just one night. I’m sure finding a martyr to tap off from isn’t easy, but she’s going to be damn harder pressed to find a Blood of Christ refill pack.
Obviously, it’s not an important work of cinema. It’s a fun little diversion with some very enjoyable performances. It’s so low key, in fact, that you almost fail to notice what sets it apart from most other horror movies. It has two African American actresses in prominent, kick ass roles, one of whom not only survives, but is the real hero of the film. What I think is really cool about it is that they are not specifically black roles for actors, but roles for actors who happen to be black. It’s the kind of casual diversity that Hollywood should strive for. Not bad for a horror movie introduced by a wisecracking puppet.