Writer’s Note: This is the second part of my celebration of Ernest Dickerson’s Demon Knight, which turns 20 today. Truly one of my favorite horror movies to come out of the 1990’s (or really, any decade), Demon Knight was a landmark endeavor for many reasons. You can catch up with Part One of my retrospective here.
In Demon Knight, Brayker (William Sadler) and The Collector (Billy Zane) are vying for control over an ancient relic that controls the very fate of humanity. The duo eventually face-off at a remote long-term hotel in New Mexico called The Mission where several residents end up getting caught in the middle of their epic showdown. The hotel is run by the wise-cracking, no-nonsense Irene (CCH Pounder) who makes it her job to keep her renters in line, including former convict Jeryline (Jada Pinkett), a well-meaning prostitute named Cordelia (Brenda Bakke) and her client, Roach (Thomas Hayden Church), the down-on-his-luck postal worker Wally (Charles Fleischer) and a lovable drunk by the name of Uncle Willy (Dick Miller).
On paper, the characters in Demon Knight almost seem like caricatures, or vague human representations of the various forms of sin, but with an incredibly nuanced and layered script to work from, several of the film’s co-stars found their roles so much more than just a random bunch of victims awaiting their fateful demises. To Bakke, Cordelia was far more complicated than your usual ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ that audiences see so often in the movies.
“I never saw Cordelia as a ‘whore’; she was damaged and a little sad and pathetic too but there was a lot going on with her that wasn’t written out on the page and that intrigued me. You don’t see that too often with horror scripts. I just thought she had some very interesting character dynamics, especially with Roach and Wally, and I liked the fact that despite all her flaws, she still had this sweet personality to her which made her likeable.”
For Fleischer, a veteran actor with over 40 titles on his resume, he relished his experience working on Demon Knight for several reasons. “I liked the fact that Wally had a duality to his nature and really, his only downfall was that he fell for the wrong girl,” explained Fleischer. “We’ve all been there (laughs) so he’s a guy I think a lot of people could relate to. It was also my first onscreen kiss too so that’s another reason that Demon Knight holds a special place in my heart, of course (laughs). But in all seriousness, I really don’t remember a movie that I’ve worked on where we all shared that kind of chemistry on and off-screen which is why Demon Knight is still one of my favorite experiences that I’ve ever had as an actor.”
Sadler also described his time spent on the set of Demon Knight as one of the best experiences he’s ever had as well, praising Dickerson for his willingness to let his actors play and find ways to add special moments to the film as they were shooting.
Sadler discussed Dickerson’s approach, saying “Ernest was always looking for those moments that would bring out the humor in the story; he was also very collaborative and was always open to anything you wanted to do with a scene or with your character, which really gets your juices flowing as an actor. I remember that when we were working on the scene when the Sheriff gets his head punched through, I went to Ernest because I thought it would add more intensity to the moment if my hands were cuffed and I had to struggle to find the keys before The Collector could do any more damage. Ernest loved it and we added it into the scene and I think that really makes that scene a lot more fun for audiences.”
The scene that Sadler references was also a lot of fun for both Dickerson and special effects artist Todd Masters too as it was their way of paying tribute to one of the greatest cult classics- and filmmakers- of all time. Masters explained, “The scene where Billy punches through John Schuck’s head was an homage that we wanted to do in honor of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive; we were all big fans of that movie on Demon Knight and it’s definitely funny now looking back, especially where Mr. Jackson’s career would eventually lead him (laughs).”
Another homage that Masters and Dickerson cooked up in Demon Knight happens when Zane summons forth his demonic minions. Intended as a celebration of one of the most beloved genre artists of all time, their need to rely on the use of stop-motion animation (as well as a few other tricks) was also due to time and budget constraints on the ambitious scene.
“The birthing scene was our tip of the hat to Ray Harryhausen,” remarked Masters. “Both Ernest and I were big fans of his and because we couldn’t do this elaborate set-up for the scene the way it was originally written, we really had to find a few tricks on how to pull all of that off on budget. I think those scenes may have been the final ones we shot too because I remember working with second unit that day and first unit had already finished up. We were under a lot of pressure to make sure we got it all right and got it done in time.”
After Demon Knight wrapped, Dickerson thought his shooting days on the film were behind him; as it turns out, he would end up reuniting with two of his co-stars to shoot an additional scene that came about after a test screening of the film had one of the producers jonesing to ‘spice’ things up a bit between Zane and Pinkett.
According to Dickerson, “The scene in the finale between Gerilyne and The Collector where he tries to seduce her wasn’t originally in the film and it’s something I’ve always felt just sticks out a little bit from the rest of the movie. But it came about because someone at a test screening asked ‘why didn’t the devil try to f--- Jada?’ and one of the film’s producers just got hung up on that idea so we came up with the disco seduction scene. We really tried to make it as fun as we could, and also still be respectful of Jada and her character too.”
“Billy understood the dynamic that the scene needed and knew The Collector wasn’t a character motivated by sex either,” added Dickerson. “So he made it more about his sexualized attempt to collect her soul more than trying to actually be intimate with her. And together, we all worked out how we were going to do it and made the best of it. In the end, the scene ended up being a lot of fun but that’s due to both Billy and Jada more so than anything else.”
Despite the fact that the scene was meant titillate audiences, it ended up being a moment of empowerment for Pinkett’s character, as she transitioned into the role of hero and feisty protector over all of mankind. It’s also the moment that Demon Knight makes cinematic history as Gerilyne became one of the very few (if any at all) black female heroes to ever survive a studio horror movie.
And at its core, that’s what Demon Knight is- an exemplary horror comedy that was far more intelligent and remarkable than perhaps it was ever given credit for at the time of its release. On the surface Demon Knight seems like another slick and sometimes terrifying romp featuring incredible special effects, a top-notch ensemble and a wicked sense of humor to boot. But if you dig a little deeper, Dickerson’s first foray into the genre world is so much more than that- it’s a celebration of why most of us fell in love with horror in the first place and it also dared to give audiences so much more than yet another cookie-cutter studio movie.
[These great photos were provided to us by F/X maestro Todd Masters (Slither, American Mary), who had previously worked on the Tales from the Crypt television series and was brought onto the big-screen production to not only create all the demonic creatures, but to handle Demon Knight’s ambitious gore gags as well.]