'Demon Knight' Turns 20: 10 reasons the horror-comedy classic deserves our admiration
All hail a cult classic.
When "Demon Knight" premiered in theaters in January 1995, the kickoff to Universal's would-be "Tales from the Crypt" big-screen franchise suffered from generally negative reviews and mild box-office - only to develop a healthy cult following among lovers of old-school creature features in the intervening years. I remember seeing it on a Friday night in a packed house and loving every minute of it, from Billy Zane's over-the-top bad guy to those A-grade practical monster effects.
Though the Ernest R. Dickerson-directed film was followed by two inferior movies - 1996's heinous Dennis Miller vehicle "Bordello of Blood" and 2002's "Ritual" - "Demon Knight" holds up one of the best horror-comedies of the 1990s. As it hits the two-decade mark, I'm counting down 10 reasons why it deserves our admiration.
Billy Zane makes a great scenery-chewing villainPhoto Credit: Universal Pictures
Zane was never hotter or more electric than in his role as The Collector, a wisecracking minion of darkness who besieges the inhabitants of a rundown boarding house. The actor's fleet-footed, Cheshire cat charm is on full display in a performance that helps set the tone for everything else around him. "Come on out everybody, it's time to play!" he sing-songs. That about covers it.
It's the rare horror film with a black woman protagonistPhoto Credit: Universal Pictures
Long before her fan-favorite "Gotham" turn, Jada Pinkett Smith was fierce and believable as Jerilyne, the rare black woman protagonist in a mainstream horror film. Despite her slim frame, the actress exudes a physical and mental toughness that makes her transformation into full-fledged ass-kicker feel plausible.
It has some great practical creature effectsPhoto Credit: Universal Pictures
Only a nudge before CGI took over completely, "True Blood" special makeup effects artist Todd Masters and crew crafted some of the coolest, slimiest practical creature effects of the '90s, from Billy Zane's army of snub-nosed demons to the fearsome, tongue-wagging "Cordelia monster." If you're a fan of tactile, old-school effects wizardry, "Demon Knight" is your jam.
C.C.H. Pounder. That is all.Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
The two-time Emmy nominee brings a seen-it-all steeliness to the role of boarding house matron Irene, and it's a testament to her skills that she manages to strike just the right comic notes in a role that might otherwise have been forgettable. No joke: her alcohol-fueled post-dismemberment scene is a scream.
It uses its characters' psychologies to forward the plotPhoto Credit: Universal Pictures
Screenwriters, take note: this is how you write a genre film. "Demon Knight" is no Bergman movie, but it fleshes out its cast of characters far more than is typical of the genre, and in fact uses their various psychological hangups to move the plot forward by making them fodder for the Collector's wish-fulfillment mind games. Humanizing a prostitute in an 80-minute monster movie? Give it up.
It upends the rules of the genre in unexpected waysPhoto Credit: Universal Pictures
SPOILER ALERT! The kid dies in this. He is blonde, he is adorable, and he does not make it to the final reel. Few horror films would dare dispatch a pre-pubescent character and then actually ask us to laugh about it, but thanks to the light comic tone Dickerson sets early on, the twist works without offending our sensibilities.
It's actually funny.Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
A lot of horror comedies only think they're hilarious (ahem, "Warm Bodies"), but the zippy humor in "Demon Knight" works because it never feels like it's trying too hard (forget about the punny Cryptkeeper bookends). It helps that Dickerson assembled a cast of actors who know how to sell the material, with special shout-outs to Zane, Pounder and a "Wings"-era Thomas Haden Church as the misogynistic Roach. I'm sorry, but when Cordelia punches that demon and then apologizes to it? I'm giggling.
It doesn't waste any of its starsPhoto Credit: Universal Pictures
Though Pinkett and Zane are ostensibly the stars here, "Demon Knight" is a true ensemble effort that gives every major cast member at least one or two big moments. From C.C.H. Pounder's "That's me giving you the finger" zinger to Thomas Haden's Church weaselly bargaining session with the Collector to "Uncle Willy's" sex-fueled fantasy sequence, even the most minor supporting characters are given their time to shine.
It sets up a specific set of rules and then actually sticks to themPhoto Credit: Universal Pictures
It can be a little irksome when a film - even one as ultimately silly as "Demon Knight" - sets up the rules of the world and then defies them at every turn. Dickerson doesn't fall into that trap. Witness the consistency of the "blood seal" rule, which doesn't allow the Collector or his minions to pass through any entrance sealed off with the fluid contained in Brayker's key. It may seem like a small thing, but it's shockingly rare for a genre film to abide by its own conventions.
It knows it's ridiculous.Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
"B-movies" always work best when the assembled talent understands the inherent ridiculousness of the material they're working with (don't get me started on the "Underworld" movies). In "Demon Knight," Dickerson has the audacity to shoot the the film's ludicrous Jesus Christ flashbacks like a damn Soundgarden video. Nope, no pretentiousness here - just good, old-fashioned monster movie fun.