After several successful seasons on HBO under its belt, Tales from the Crypt and its iconic host, The Cryptkeeper (voiced by John Kassir), made the leap to the big screen in January 1995 with the feature film Demon Knight. Directed by Ernest Dickerson and starring William Sadler, Billy Zane, Jada Pinkett, Dick Miller, Brenda Bakke, Thomas Hayden Church, CCH Pounder and Charles Fleischer, Demon Knight debuted at #3 its opening weekend and took in over $21 million during its theatrical run, making the first of the Tales from the Crypt a bona fide success (even if the critics didn’t seem to think so).
A movie best remembered by fans for its masterful blending of horror and comedy, an incredibly diverse and talented cast of players as well as an iconic soundtrack and jaw-dropping special effects to boot, it was love at first sight after I first experienced Demon Knight all those years ago and it’s a film that I’ve been endlessly raving about to fellow horror fans ever since.
And with the 20th anniversary of Dickerson’s modern genre classic this week, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to celebrate a film that’s not only entertaining as hell, but was a truly monumental achievement on several levels as well. Not only did Demon Knight kickstart several careers but it also gave many of its co-stars the ability to shine in fully-realized roles and may be one of the few (or possibly the only) times we’ve ever seen a black female protagonist in a studio-backed horror movie become the film’s hero by the finale.
Series and film producer Gilbert Adler had been long involved with the world of Tales from the Crypt and discussed the approach that he and his team took towards getting Demon Knight into production in early 1994, “Tales as a television series had been very successful and we knew we wanted to do something in long-form but while being respectful to the foundation that the series had laid. We had many conversations with Universal over several months before we were able to find a script that we knew we could adapt for the Tales from the Crypt format. I believe the original script had been over at Joel’s (Silver) office too for some time and had that special kind of energy (and monsters) that we were looking for.”
When it came time to bring a director on board the project, Adler approached an up-and-coming filmmaker by the name of Ernest R. Dickerson who spent the early years of his career working as DP for Spike Lee and had just made the transition over to the world of directing with his modern crime noir, Juice, and the intense urban thriller Surviving the Game. As most of the industry saw him as only as a ‘hip-hop director,’ Dickerson was happy to be offered a wildly unusual project like Demon Knight which varied greatly from the other films on his resume and those he was being offered at the time.
“I’ve always enjoyed films that did a bit of genre-blending and I thought the story for Demon Knight did that perfectly,” explained Dickerson. “It was the perfect storm of horror, humor, thrills, had some mystery to it- and a lot of emotion- so I immediately knew this was going to be a very atypical horror movie to be involved with. I remember Gil (Adler) came to me while I was mixing Surviving the Game and he must have liked what he saw that day because he offered Demon Knight to me right after that initial meeting.”
Adler knew he was going to need a special kind of talent to helm Demon Knight and immediately recognized Dickerson’s own sense of humor and keen ability to capture raw emotion and action, making him the right visionary for the job. “It’s always been hard to mix horror but I knew Ernest would do a great job at it; we were all on the same page from the very start of the project and that’s so important when you collaborate on something this ambitious.”
“We knew we were making something very different and we were constantly nervous about but we knew that at the end of the day, if audiences cared about these characters, they were going to love everything else about the movie. And that, to me, is the biggest reason Demon Knight stands out- you cared about all of these people, not just those with top billing, because we really paid attention to making sure all of those character relationships felt authentic,” Adler added.
As Demon Knight went into pre-production, Dickerson dug in with the film’s writers in order to expand the film’s mythology and the character’s stories within the script. He explained some of the changes that happened throughout the scripting process.
“I had thought of the idea of shooting out the eyes of the demons just because I thought that would make for a powerful visual,” explained Dickerson. “Seeing their lifeforce come shooting out of their eye sockets made a lot of sense too within the context of the mythology behind their existence. The look of the demons changed throughout pre-production too. Originally, they were supposed to look more human, almost like the corrupted versions of themselves but Todd pushed for them and created the version you see in the final film. I think it was the right choice too- their presence does a great job of elevating tensions and keeping audiences on their toes.”
Dickerson continued, saying, “The Collector was also originally conceived as a ‘flame demon’ but this was before the proper CGI technology existed so we had to scrap that idea. I think he ended up being a way more effective villain in human form than he would have been had he looked purely demonic because you can get a lot of humor out of that human presentation and I think that also allowed Billy much more room to play around too.”
For special effects maestro Todd Masters, who had also worked closely on the Tales from the Crypt series since its debut, he knew that having actual demons in a film named Demon Knight was going to be essential. “When I read the first script, it was chock-full of demons. I remember I submitted our bid back to the producers and soon after, I got a revised script and they had re-written the demons to be these cool looking guys wearing sunglasses in human form. They thought having demons would be too expensive, which I knew wasn’t going to fly in a movie that had demon in its title. So I went back to Gil and told him that we had to find a way to get back to having real demons and that’s when I worked out the cost-effective design concept you see in the film.”
“I wanted the look of the demons to be these really emaciated and dried-up creatures that looked like they had been laying around in the desert for eons. From the time that I had the initial conversation with Gil about the project, to the time they began shooting, that was about a month or a month and a half which meant we had to work fast and oftentimes, we were working on the fly to always stay a step ahead of production.”
“And because our budget was tight and the build on Demon Knight was ambitious, some of the guys from our crew ended up playing the demons in the film. We were planning on using leg extensions for the creatures, and since they were going to be around this stuff a lot and understood the mechanics, it just made sense. So they practiced a lot too which is why the demons end up looking so cool; they don’t look like guys trying to run around in suits,” added Masters.
Once the demonic issue was settled, it was time to start assembling the cast of players who would become the ‘chosen seven’ and the evil force hellbent on destroying them all. For the role of the film’s hero Brayker, Demon Knight producer Joel Silver reunited with actor William Sadler who he collaborated with on Die Hard 2 and had starred in the original episode of Tales from the Crypt as well. Sadler found the film a refreshing take on the horror comedy subgenre and his character incredibly captivating.
Sadler said, “What I found compelling about Brayker was that this wasn’t a life he ever asked for and there’s a huge amount of responsibility that goes along with being chosen to guard this key that holds our very existence in the balance. He’s a guy who has been running for 90 years and there’s a lot of weight that goes along with a character like that. He was so well-conceived and I really enjoyed the mythology aspects of his storyline too. Characters like Brayker- especially in the horror genre- are so rare and special and I’m honored that they wanted me to be the guy to play him.”
Playing opposite Sadler was Billy Zane who was tasked with bringing the enigmatic but deadly villain of The Collector to life for Demon Knight. Throughout my interviews, Zane was often referred to by his peers as an ‘old soul’ and praised for his dedication in creating the now-iconic performance.
“Billy did a brilliant job of adding that wicked sense of humor to The Collector,” discussed Dickerson. “He even made all the wardrobe choices for his character, including that great duster jacket which just made him look like such a timeless villain. A lot of Billy’s performance was improv too. When you have a talent like his, though, you’d be stupid not to give him the freedom with a character like and you could tell he really loved the character of The Collector too because he put everything he had and more into his performance.”
“I remember that the thing Billy does when he has the sponge in his mouth and offers it to Roach later on in the movie wasn’t in the script either. That was something he just came up with in the moment and he had props people racing around to find this sponge. We all thought the gag was great and was going to kill- and it did. You can’t help but laugh at that moment- it’s classic Billy (laughs),” Sadler added.