(This is a long, long overdue requested review. It was promised well over half a year ago, but after I lost the almost finished piece in a hard drive crash, I couldn’t seem to find the time to retype it right away. After that, honestly, I kind of forgot about it until the holidaysw. I’d say better late than never, but, you know… considering the stuff we review around here, there’s always the chance never just might be better.)
“Ready for your deadtime story?”
When two mysterious strangers arrive at Miss Irene’s boarding house one dark and stormy night, the residents at first believe Brayker to to be the insane one. But after the man known as The Collector punches his fist through the seemingly empty head of the local sheriff, the small group realizes that perhaps he just might be the crazier of the two. After being forced outside, The Collector calls forth an army of demons to lay siege to the building, but Brayker manages to seal all of the entrances with blood poured from a strange artifact he identifies as one of the seven keys of hell. Barred from entering the building physically, The Collector begins to tempt the occupants with visions of their darkest desires, eventually winning over some of the weaker folks with his false promises. After one of the misguided dolts erases the blood barrier and allows The Collector and his demons entry, the body count quickly escalates as The Collector attempts to acquire Brayker’s key. Mortally wounded in the ensuing chaos, Brayker passes both the key and his mantle of guardianship to Miss Irene’s niece Jeryline. Unfortunately, not only does the key appear to be empty of the demon-killing blood, but The Collector takes a sudden liking to the girl and attempts to dazzle her with dance. Will Jeryline be able to resist The Collector’s tantalizing tango and escape, or will Satan finally acquire the key and unleash eternal darkness upon the world?
Like it or not, there are two ways you have to judge a film like Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight. The first is obvious; you have to answer the question, “Is it a good movie?” Which around these parts is usually immediately followed by the question, “Well, compared to what?” Which matters because, you know, Demon Knight came out the same year as Braveheart. And Demon Knight ain’t no Braveheart. But compared to other dreck (Showgirls also came out in 1995 you know.), Demon Knight is actually a lot better than you might expect.
Okay, maybe not a lot, but it does have some things going for it. Director Ernest R. Dickerson learned his craft as Spike Lee’s cinematographer, so the movie has a slickness many of its similar budgeted contemporaries do not. The cast is made up of a to-die-for who’s who of dependable names such as Jada Pinkett (not quite) Smith, Thomas Haden (it should have been just me in Spiderman 3) Church, CCH (make a joke about me and I’ll tear your heart out) Pounder, and the inevitable Dick Miller. And the two leads are excellent. William Sadler, never afraid of slumming it, lends the whole exercise an air of gravitas it probably doesn’t deserve as the dead serious Brayker. And Billy Zane, who we all know has phoned it in way way too many times for movies that show up at 2:00 am on Cinemax, really gives it his all here. Coming across as a sort of better looking Beetlejuice, Zane’s obviously having so much fun as the maniacal Collector that his enthusiasm quickly rubs off on the audience.
So, yeah, when compared to your typical B-movie, Demon Knight is pretty good. But, as noted earlier, there’s another way you have to judge this film, and that’s by asking, “Is it a good Tales From The Crypt movie?” You see, there’s a lot more to to the title than just a name, there’s a legacy involved. Tales From The Crypt has its origins with M.C. Gaines, the man who way back in 1933 got the idea to collect together Sunday color comic strips and sell them in a magazine format. Basically, he created the comic book (which pretty much earns him a spot in heaven as far as this one time lonely geek child is concerned). After co-publishing titles with National Comics (the home of Superman and Batman) for a few years, Gaines founded his own venture, Educational Comics, which found success with titles like Picture Stories From The Bible. Yes, boys and girls, there actually was a time when one of the better selling comics on the market featured fairly bland adaptations of Holy Scripture.
Unfortunately, post-WWII comic readers had apparently grown tired of clergy approved reading material, so by the time Max died (Saving the life of a child! If inventing the comic book didn’t get him into the pearly gates, that sure as heck had to.), his company was in danger of going under. To save the company, Max’s son Will began experimenting with genres ranging from romance to westerns, but nothing seemed to be working. And then, noticing that one or two of his competitors were having success with new books featuring horror themed material, Will got the bright idea to turn some of the best talent in the industry loose on some decidedly non-clergy approved stories. And so, in October of 1950, under the less institutional sounding banner of Entertaining Comics, or EC for short, the first issue of Tales From The Crypt hit newsstands. To say the comic was a hit is something of an understatement. For the brief five years the U. S. Senate allowed the magazine and its sister titles to be published, EC ruled the racks. And it wasn’t just the horror angle that hooked and reeled readers in. The books adhered to a staggeringly popular formula that was actually quite simple, yet couldn’t seem to be replicated by EC’s competition.
The first ingredient was humor which was provided through the use of hosts like the Crypt Keeper, the Vault Keeper and the Old Witch. No matter how terrible the tale to be told, the gruesome guides were always there to lighten things up with a wise crack or well placed pun. “By using the horror hosts” explains comic historian Jerry West, “EC kept the perspective on what they were doing, and they reminded their readers that this was fiction and entertainment.” The second ingredient was gore, lots and lots of gore. When Gaines was brought before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954, he was asked if there was any limit he could think of that he wouldn’t put in a magazine because he thought a child should not see or read about it? Gaines responded, “My only limits are the bounds of good taste, what I consider good taste.” When questioned as to whether or not he thought a cover depicting a man with a bloody ax holding up a woman’s severed head was in good taste, Gaines answered, “Yes, sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic.” With that standard as its guiding principle, EC Comics produced some of the most grotesque imagery imaginable, stuff that movie screens wouldn’t get around to showing for decades. And with an artists pool that included the likes of as Al Feldstein, Wally Wood, Al Williamson, and Jack Davis, you can be sure that EC had the best drawn intestines in the comics biz.
The final ingredient should be apparent to anyone who has ever read the comics, but it was somehow missed by the U. S. Senate when they made EC the target of their scorn. In his article How The Jews Created The Comic Book Industry published in Reform Judaism, Arie Kaplan notes that “what set EC apart from its competitors was a commitment to moral themes. Story lines often dealt with the evils of abusive relationships, misguided patriotism, and racism. In writer Al Feldstein's "Judgment Day" (from Weird Fantasy #18, March/April 1953), for example, an Earth astronaut named Tarlton is sent to the planet Cybrinia to judge whether its robot inhabitants are socially and technologically advanced enough to join the Earth's Galactic Republic. Determining that Cybrinia is a segregated society (the orange robots consign the blue robots to economic discrimination and ghettos), Tarlton decides that Cybrinia cannot be part of the Republic until its people, like those on Earth, have learned to live together without discrimination. When Tarlton returns to his space-ship, he removes his helmet, and we see that he is a handsome Black man, "…the beads of perspiration on his dark skin twinkling like distant stars…" This O. Henry-style twist ending, typical of EC's horror and sci-fi stories, presaged the morality tales of later TV shows such as Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Star Trek.” In EC comics, the bad guy never got away, not in one piece anyway.
So successful was the EC method that even after the newly established Comics Code Authority forced an end to the print stories in 1955, the memories of them lingered in the minds of many a impressionable young future filmmaker. The first Tales From The Crypt movie hit the big screen in 1972, and though censors prevented British filmmakers from duplicating much of the comics’ more grotesque imagery, the formula was intact enough to please audiences and spawn a few sequels. That being the case, when the horror boom of the 80s hit, it was only natural that Tales From The Crypt would get another visit. Only this time, it was HBO bringing the stories to pay cable, so showing gory graphics wasn’t going to be too much of a problem (nor was gratuitous nudity and profanity for that matter). Complete with storylines and images taken directly from the comics, the show was an immediate hit. In fact, The Cryptkeeper himself (kind of a muppet from hell), would become such a cultural icon that he starred in two spin-off series, a tamed down Saturday morning cartoon version of the show (sorry kiddies, no piles of guts for you) and (inexplicably) a gameshow. Which finally brings us back to the subject of this review. You see, by the time the television show was nearing the end of its seven year run, HBO decided the EC formula was strong enough to once again apply it to a movie series. Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight was their first effort.
So given what we know of the traditional EC formula, how well does Demon Knight hold up as a Tales From The Crypt movie? Well, as far as the humor goes, the movie has a pretty good head start in that its host is a decaying animatronic puppet with a penchant for punnery. The Cryptkeeper is never laugh out loud funny, but he serves his purpose admirably enough by keeping the proceedings light. Billy Zane, on the other hand, is often hilarious, chewing up the scenery like he might never get to act again (which, considering all those Cinemax movies, is always a possibility). In fact, his crazed I hate hillbillies dance routine is arguably the best 15 seconds in the entire movie. As for the gore, the movie does quite well in that area also. Even though CGI was becoming commonplace by the mid-90s, the old fashioned goo-covered latex monster effects in Demon Knight are top notch and much welcome. All one has to do is watch an episode of Hercules The Legendary Journeys, which was just getting underway at the same time, to appreciate just how lousy low budget computer generated beasties could look back then. (For that matter, just watch some recent SyFy originals to see how bad they can look today.) So it’s kind of nice, relatively speaking of course, to see the rubber body parts fly.
As for the third ingredient, the moral component, well, the film sets up the parameters of good and evil pretty clearly from the beginning. Refreshingly, there are few gray areas, the demons are completely unsympathetic, and all of the people who switch to the side of evil get there’s and then some. In fact, the movie goes so far as to show that Brayker’s demon killing key actually received its powers by being filled with the blood of Jesus during the crucifixion. (You know, you would think the gospels might have mentioned this fact. Like maybe Matthew would have written “After they had crucified him, they divided his garments by casting lots; then they sat down and kept watch over him there.” And, lo, a goo-covered demon did come running by chasing some guy, and they all did say WTF! But since I didn’t see that in my bible anywhere, I strongly suspect the filmmakers made this part up.) And while one evil in the movie is defeated, only to be replaced with another, that’s okay. As director John Carpenter once said when discussing Tales From The Crypt, “In EC comics, and in much of horror, there’s a code that allows the bad guy, or the evil force, or whatever it is, to be, if not vanquished, then at least put at bay at the end so we can walk out safely.”
So, all in all, Demon Knight is not only a decent piece of B-movie fluff, but it handles the legacy of Will Gaines’ Tales From The Crypt pretty good as well. I have to admit though, as a Catholic, maybe my admiration for the movie is due in large part to the soft spot I hold for anything that shows such a respect for tradition. Of course, I realize that with Demon Knight, we’re only talking about a bargain basement picture show following a formula laid out by a 40 year old out of print comic book marketed towards adolescent gorehounds. With the Church, it’s something else entirely. When we’re talking about tradition in Catholicism, it can be anything from “the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time” which can be “retained, modified or even abandoned” (stuff like what prayers to say during the day, what saints to celebrate, or what language to say the mass in) to the Sacred Traditions (usually spelled with a capital “T”) the apostles “received from Jesus' teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit”.
Now it’s pretty easy to see why the big “T” Traditions are so important. Since Sacred Tradition is recognized as the entirety of the teachings of Jesus and the apostles which occurred between the time of Christ's birth and the death of St John, the last living Apostle, somewhere around 100 AD, this means essentially that Tradition predates both the first written books of the New Testament as well as the institution of the Magisterium of the Church. And because of that, nothing written in the Bible or taught by the Magisterium can be interpreted in such a way as to contradict Tradition. Recent examples of the restrictive power of Tradition have been Pope Paul VI’s encyclical upholding the Church’s ban on artificial birth control and Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter reaffirming the Church’s inability to ordain women to the priesthood, both of which were released despite the gape mouthed protestations of modern theologians and misguided congregations who wished to see the teachings overturned. So yeah, Tradition’s a pretty big deal, and more than worth defending and arguing over.
But what about the small “t” traditions, the stuff that can be changed. Is it really worth the time spent on the seemingly ceaseless quibbling over things like eating meat on Fridays, communion in the hand, altar girls, or whether the incense is in a censer or a bowl? Oddly enough, protestant author Dr. L. J. Mark Cooray, former Professor of Law at Macquarie University, thinks so. But, he writes, “the problem with traditions is that since they have been handed down over a long period of time, the rational bases are either not known by those who uphold them or cannot be lucidly explained… There is a rational basis for the traditions. However, they are embodied in evolved institutions based on experience. The rationalisation is often not provided. In this context, it has been easy for the socialists/progressivists to attack many of the values and institutions of the system… The intellectual sets up his own view, which he then parades as objective fact or theory. His analysis often proceeds in violation of the basic dynamics of human nature and human interaction. Such analyses do not take account of the existence of other possible viewpoints. The accumulated experience of the ages is discounted.”
This is exactly the problem philosopher and theologian Alice von Hildebrand saw happening in the Catholic Church when she wrote that “Tradition (which for Roman Catholics is as important as the Bible) should not be limited to matters of dogma and morals. It also includes forms of worship which go back for centuries and which establish a living bond between the past of the Church and the present. It is most unwise to proclaim that the second form of tradition is 'secondary' and can therefore be abolished. Let me repeat emphatically; secondary does not mean non-important; it means less important....but nevertheless of great significance.” She goes on to suggest that by turning their backs on the old traditions, “Contemporary Catholics find themselves more and more jailed in the narrow prison of 'their' time, 'their' nations, 'their' secular mores, and of the contemporary mediocrity which seems to be the birthmark of our epoch. Instead of breathing the pure supranational, supra-temporal air of the supernatural, they are more and more forced to breathe the fetid air of moral, spiritual, intellectual and artistic decadence; no wonder they are gasping for breath… We live in a world that is "alienated," cut off from its roots, from its past, from its "source." My students have taught me to sympathize with the anguish of those who do not know where they belong, who do not know “their name”.”
So, yes, given the consequences of abandoning them, it would appear that even the small traditions are worth arguing over. As Pope Bendict XVI explains, “The Church lives her life precisely from the identity of all the generations, from their identity that overarches time, and her real majority is made up of the saints. Every generation tries to join the ranks of the saints, and each makes its contribution. But it can do that only by accepting this great continuity and entering into it in a living way.” And one of the best ways to enter into that continuity is by exploring the centuries of traditions available to us as Catholics. You don’t have to choose to follow all of them, or even most of them, but you might be surprised at the benefits you get from following even a few. Hey, that game plan worked out pretty well for the folks who made Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight, didn’t it? And if you need any more encouragement to explore some of the old traditions, just think of what happens when you ignore them. Think of Rob Zombie. With only 27 years between the original Halloween and his (sigh) reimagining, he managed to (purposely) avoid almost every traditional trope established in that series, and instead of creating a Halloween film, ended up producing a pointless vulgar piece of white trash hillbilly horror. Do you really want the spiritual equivalent of that to happen to your soul?
Hard to believe, but 2011 marks the start of the 5th year of this blog. I can’t say I expected to still be around this long. Who knows, another 5 years or so and I could become something of a tradition myself. Ain’t that a scary thought?