Mix “Night of the Living Dead” with Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” movies, then add a hefty dose of “Beavis and Butt-Head”-style silliness, and you have “Tales From the Crypt Presents Demon Knight,” a fang-in-cheek horror thriller that likely will please fans and turn off non-devotees. Expect a big opening weekend, followed by quick dropoff. Homevid biz should be muscular.
Pic marks first attempt by exec producers Richard Donner, David Giler, Walter Hill, Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis to transform their popular HBO series (inspired by the notorious E.C. Comics of the 1950s) into a bigscreen franchise. Unlike previous incarnations, it’s a single, feature-length narrative , bookended by campy sequences featuring the Crypt Keeper, a grisly animated puppet (voiced by John Kassir) who’s fond of painfully bad puns.
Main story, scripted by Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris and Mark Bishop, is a familiar but fitfully exciting supernatural tale set in and around a spectacularly seedy desert hotel. Brayker (William Sadler), the mysterious new guest, turns out to be the guardian of an ancient key that keeps the forces of darkness from overwhelming mankind. Trouble begins when another stranger, the charismatic Collector (Billy Zane), shows up with two cops who believe Brayker stole the key from him. But when they aren’t quick enough to arrest Brayker and turn the key over to the Collector, all hell breaks loose. Literally.
Outside, the Collector summons skeletal, flesh-eating demons to help him invade the boarding house. (The demons,co-designed and supervised by Scott Patton, really do look like something drawn by E.C. Comics artist Graham Ingels.) Inside, Brayker uses the key — which, not incidentally, contains a vial of the blood of Jesus Christ — to protect the other boarding house residents by keeping the demons at bay. Temporarily, at least.
Chief among the not-entirely-innocent bystanders: Jada Pinkett as a beautiful ex-con who proves to be a dandy demon fighter; CCH Pounder as the gruff boarding-house manager; Brenda Bakke as a love-starved hooker; Thomas Haden Church as a cowardly tough guy; Charles Fleischer as a nerdy ex-mailman; Gary Farmer as a portly cop; and B-movie favorite Dick Miller as an aging drunk.
Under the lively direction of lenser-turned-helmer Ernest Dickerson (“Juice”) , “Demon Knight” basically is an extended cat-and-mouse game, propelled by alternating currents of splatter-pic gore and jet-black humor. It features various skewerings and disembowelings, as well as an uncomfortably graphic scene where Pounder has most of an arm ripped off by a demon.
“Demon Knight” is neither funny enough nor scary enough to be fully satisfying as either a shocker or a spoof. Pic’s main appeal will be for undemanding genre fans who enjoy juvenile comic relief while savoring messy murders and gross-out special effects. The jokey Crypt Keeper sequences (directed by producer Gilbert Adler, and featuring an unbilled cameo by John Larroquette) will doubtless delight these viewers.
Zane takes top acting honors, playing the Collector with a winning mix of insinuating menace and smart-alecky flamboyance. Sadler is effectively straight-faced as the heroic Brayker, while Pinkett again demonstrates eye-grabbing camera presence as a recruit in the fight against evil. Pounder and Miller are standouts in the supporting cast.
On a tech level, “Demon Knight” looks just as luridly garish as the comic books that inspired it. The special effects aren’t particularly special — occasionally, they appear to be deliberately cheesy — but they serve their purpose.
Like the HBO series, “Knight” often has the self-satisfied air of a private joke shared by industry insiders. Even so, it is not nearly so amusing as an earlier pic inspired by E.C. Comics, “Tales From the Crypt” (1972), a horror anthology that featured Sir Ralph Richardson as the Crypt Keeper and Joan Collins as the prey of a hatchet-wielding Santa Claus. Now that was funny.