Exhuming TALES FROM THE CRYPT: Dawn of the Demon Night
A mere two days after the first tale of this column aired, the Cryptkeeper and full graveyard’s worth of friends had their giant Hollywood movie premiere on January 13, 1995, with Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight. Produced by the same gang of super producers—a murder of who would later birth Dark Castle Films and continue the gimmicky horror magic on the silver scream—the movie also paired veterans of the show like William Sadler and Billy Zane with a great batch of stars, old and new, genre-centric and less-so, including Jada Pinkett-Smith, Dick Miller, CCH Pounder, and Thomas Haden Church.
Today, Demon Knight is comfortably acknowledged as a solid action-horror entry from Ernest Dickerson, one of the rare directors who is as acclaimed for his cinematography and directing talent as he is appreciated for making fun-but-smart genre pictures. It has a fancy Scream Factory collector’s edition Blu-ray release and constantly comes up as a favorite for horror fiends on social media. While tastemakers enjoyed the film immediately, and countless more joined them when it hit home video, professional critics proved that the first cut IS the deepest: Even for the writers who enjoyed the film, the word “garish” comes up in nearly every review from 1995.
“The joke is on Demon Knight, a movie destined to take its place alongside all the interchangeably cruddy horror thrillers that line the shelves of video stores. D+” –Entertainment Weekly
“’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.” – Variety
“The movie wears a phosphorescent grin.” – The New York Times (C’mon: I had to include one cool one.)
Falling about $2 million short of its budget on opening weekend, the film would eventually become a quiet success and reach $21 million domestically. With consistent airings on HBO and video rentals, the film has built up nearly 25 years of word of mouth love with fans of the show and beyond.
Season six is the last Tales from the Crypt season shot in the US before its move to the UK on a reduced budget for its final bow. If Demon Knight was a runaway success, would that have changed anything, or was the writing on the wall no matter how much the wallpaper cost? Consider that anthology series are notoriously varied in quality, and while the well for thirsty yet talented writers will never dry out, reaching out to the fresh, vibrant voices once you’ve tapped out the famous and the reliable takes time and resources most of these operations either don’t have or just don’t care to have after years of churning out episodes.
Still, despite its shaky start, we got a solid season here, and Demon Knight has aged beautifully. In 1996, the following year, The Frighteners did underperform at the box office, but From Dusk Till Dawn did well against its budget, and both were originally slated to be Tales from the Crypt releases. While that banner fell away for both, both juggled horror and comedy and they, alongside Demon Knight, are all considered cult classics to a huge swath of horror fans, proving that there was, is, and most likely always will be a healthy audience for hacky jokes AND hacking body parts in the same scene.
I could Monday Morning Drawn-and-Quarterback all day here, but I’d much rather dive into the last rites of season six. I was hard on it at the beginning, but now I’m just sad to see it go.
Season 6, Episode 13: “Comes the Dawn” based on Haunt of Fear #26
Directed by: John Herzfeld
Written by: Scott Nimerfro
Originally aired: January 11, 1995
Director and writer pedigree: This is the last Scott Nimerfro script he did while also working as an associate producer on the show, but he’ll thankfully be back for a handful more as “just” a writer in season seven. In my humble opinion, this is his strongest script so far.
John Herzfeld is a fun surprise this show gives us a few times each season: A non-genre director (in this case, his career has been mostly focused on TV movies with some detours into crime films) who helps bring to life one of the best and most effective episodes of the season, if not the entire show. While he did write and direct 2 Days in the Valley, a star-heavy crime movie that could definitely be a cousin to the appeal of Tales from the Crypt (and that’s not even counting all the cast members who have appeared in both!), it still didn’t hint at his ability to pull off what he did here.
Other notables: Ok I’m geeking out. On the first season finale of Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In, he showed the wonderfully brutal Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2, and I was reminded that Michael Ironside, among his giant Scanners, Total Recall and Starship Troopers credits and countless others, was pretty great in that as well. The next day I put this episode on, and voila! It’s like he knew I wanted to see him in some more gore. This, of course, is his second appearance on the show, and thankfully he’s given much more interesting things to do here than he was there.
But the real treat is one of my favorite character actors of all time: Susan Tyrrell. Since seeing her in John Waters’ Cry-Baby as a kid, she’s had my heart, but in the past couple of years, I’ve been enjoying digging deeper into her work on Blu-ray with Forbidden Zone, Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker, Rockula, From a Whisper to a Scream… she’s the beautiful, loving, hilarious, and weird parts of the chaotic, messy heart of punk rock and delivers her usual perfection here.
Does It Deliver?: Sergeant Burrows (Bruce Payne) and Colonel Parker (Ironside) arrive in a remote Alaskan bar, where we quickly learn they’re hunting a grizzly bear, and this expedition ain’t entirely above board. Jeri Drumbeater (Wu) a Desert Storm veteran who worked under Burrows, is a local who agrees to help them navigate the terrain. What could go wrong during an illegal hunting trip in inhospitable weather smack in the middle of Alaska’s no-sunrise-for-you cycle? Let’s just say that some legendary nocturnal beasts have a bone to pick their teeth with when it comes to our former military men, and revenge is best served very, very cold.
Even with my earlier gushing on the big name genre actors, Vivian Wu was the real surprise superstar here. Her role has a lot of complexity to it, and she not only pulls it off flawlessly, but it’s also such a unique character that you really can’t take your eyes off of her. If you dig the frozen tensions of The Terror and The Thing (and who doesn’t?) with a very small dash of The Descent, 30 Days of Night and shades of The Twilight Zone’s “Red Show” episode, you’ll definitely enjoy this, which managed to do a lot with replicating a frosty, claustrophobic Alaskan look and feel with what obviously wasn’t a whole lot of set. I loved everything about this episode, which ended up being a full-tilt classic monster horror episode with lots of the nasty, bloody stuff along with some mysterious, tense plot-building. It’s easily one of the very best of the season, and I can’t imagine it not being in the top 20 for me overall.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “… and if it doesn’t work out, he can re-enlist: In the Marine CORPSE!”
Season 6, Episode 14: “99 & 44/100% Pure Horror” based on Vault of Horror #23
Written and directed by Rodman Flender
Originally aired: January 18, 1995
Director and writer pedigree: Rodman Flender returns to direct his second and final Tales episode; the distinction is that he also wrote this one, and it’s one of the very small handful of scripts he’s written in general. The vibe here is much more Idle Hands Flender rather than The Unborn Flender, and with news that he recently directed a horror comedy called Eat, Brains, Love, a title that Tales would definitely use if it was still on air, it’s good to know that his heart and other vital organs are still in the gory laughs game.
Other notables: The original Willard himself Bruce Davison stars, and Ricky Dean Logan, aka Carlos from Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, has a role.
Does It Deliver?: Luden Sandelton (Davison) runs a natural soap company that’s running into financial problems after their star begins fading after years of being on top. Part of the blame falls on the packaging design, which was done by Mrs. Sandelton, Willa (Cristi Conaway.) Her specialty is in grisly, Clive Barker-esque paintings, but she’s determined to design the new boxes. She’s also juggling not liking her husband much along with a sloppy affair, and when her earnest husband won’t grant her a divorce, well… sometimes life imitates art, work always finds a way to spoil the fun.
To quote the prophets Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat, “Two steps forward, shame on you. Two steps back, shame on me.” Man does the ending deliver on gore AND nudity, but the way we get it is so stupid. Our beautiful lead is hilariously ruthless, and the comedically brutal tone is fun, so this one falls solidly in the “enjoyable” quality, but I can’t help feeling like the ending was a little too telegraphed for how rushed it ultimately felt, and that’s by Tales from the Crypt standards! When all is said and done, this is average in the “poisonous marriage” category of the show but ranks highly when it comes to practical gore effects. Plan your evening accordingly.
(I will always appreciate that the artist for soap packaging was interviewed on a local news station at all, let alone that it ends up that it’s pretty much a set-up just to insult her.)
Best Cryptkeeper line: “Looks like Willa’s changing her school of painting: from art ghoulveau to ghost impressionism!”
Season 6, Episode 15: “You, Murderer” based on Shock SuspenStories #14
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: A L Katz & Gilbert Adler
Originally aired: January 25, 1995
Director and writer pedigree: It’s an all A-list crew again, with founding executive producer Robert Zemeckis fresh off of his Oscar-winning mega-hit Forrest Gump to direct his last Tales from the Crypt episode. With him are the ever-reliable and talented producer/writers Adler and Katz, the former of which was also one of the writers of Yellow, the most acclaimed of the Zemeckis-directed episodes.
Other notables: With a cast that includes a beautiful David Lynch/Brian De Palma party of Isabella Rossellini, John Lithgow and Sherilyn Fenn, it’s an embarrassment of ill-gotten riches here. This is also the last of Alan Silvestri’s episodes composing, making it a lucky seven in total. From his work in Predator to The Abyss to most of Zemeckis’ films to Avengers: Endgame, his signature was definitely appreciated on the show.
Does It Deliver?: Lou Spinelli stepped away from the window of the high-rise conference room, pulling himself out of his thoughts. Sure, his body was here listening to some advertising gimmicks from the beautiful and plucky Erika (Fenn), but his mind was elsewhere… and it wasn’t anyplace restful. Ah, a phone call… from the wife. Saying that a plot to kill her failed, and his best friend and plastic surgeon, Oscar, (Lithgow) was down for the count. Lou wondered how he got there… anywhere. A criminal who got a new face to start a fresh life, he’d made it so damn far, only to have greed, double-crosses and manipulation sour the whole thing. At least he wouldn’t be alive to see how ugly it’d really get… or do you need to be alive to see that?
Easily, this is the most I’ve ever been conflicted about an episode. On one hand, the first person perspective is a great nod to my second-favorite noir, Dark Passage. I love that Isabella Rossellini is doing a visual tribute to her mother Ingrid Bergman’s role in Casablanca—and they’re not just relying on her being a near clone of her—the wardrobe and makeup are also perfect. I’m a gigantic fan of Sherilyn Fenn in everything, but I’m especially a sucker for when she channels old Hollywood (Audrey Horne, of course, but also Fatal Instinct and her portrayal of Elizabeth Taylor.) The focus Zemeckis gives to emerging technological filmmaking methods brought us wonderful gems like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Death Becomes Her and Forrest (er, FEARest) Gump, so it’s fascinating going into this knowing that he’ll finally dive into that for television.
Then again, while the episode references Bogart as a separate person who’s most certainly not the main character, emphasizing the fact that Lou only looks like him, it still puts both the clunky delivery and shaky mid-90s CGI in stark relief in comparison to the real deal. While this is stuffed full of great actors, they can only do so much as it feels like they’re reacting like the glazed “try to read this person’s face to guess if they’re telling the truth” in the videogame L.A. Noire. Finally, we end up getting not the trailblazing Zemeckis here, but rather, we get the Zemeckis who’s often strangled by the tech itself and gives us… experiences… like Welcome to Marwen and The Polar Express. Honestly—and I know this isn’t the TV show to clutch my pearls at—but how Bogart’s likeness is used here makes me uncomfortable.
Beyond the argument against tackiness (and this pre-dated that Fred Astaire selling Dirt Devils commercial by two years!), no matter how iconic his face and voice were, Bogart was a real human being. The entire episode centers around his face being almost dead only until he’s actually an inner narrating corpse that gets hung, its spine snapped… you name it. At the time, his widow, Lauren Bacall, was still alive, as his children still are. To put it plainly, technology wasn’t at a point where this could work, and the fumble makes it seem even grimmer because it just looks so weird. There’s nothing human to connect to. This was done by Ken Ralston from Industrial Light & Magic working with the acclaimed Bogart impersonator Robert Sacchi, so if the best looks like this… it should have waited. It ranges from looking like a superimposed painting to an early Playstation game to seeing a projected face over a shape like it’s the freakin’ Haunted Mansion. Plus, this is a few years after Crispin Glover’s lawsuit against the Zemeckis film Back to the Future Part II using his likeness, and it feels like the director is still pushing hard on exactly what he can get away with when it comes to portraying celebrities who aren’t actually there. It’s not uncanny valley, but it’s definitely an unsettling place and I wouldn’t want to live there.
“We actually extracted footage of Bogart from a lot of his older movies (including Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and Key Largo), colorized him and changed things like where his eyes were looking because he has to be looking right at the screen. Then we put him in new footage with our actors. It’s sort of the next step in what is possible to do with this technology.” – Robert Zemeckis to Los Angeles Daily News in 1995.
Honestly, this one is an absolute must-see, but that’s because its parts are worth more than its whole. The effects have to be seen to be believed (trust me, screen captures do the spooky movements no justice); the nods to things like Mickey Spillane are charming for crime fiction nerds like me; the performances, despite the weird hurdles they have to clear, are interesting, and hey… it’s a last episode for one of our founding Crypt Daddies. Plus, the Hitchcock/Gump bookend scenes are delightful and contain some of the Cryptkeeper’s most iconic work.
While “You, Murderer” might have failed at an enormous component all while avoiding committing fully to being either a full parody or full homage, everything else supporting the big clunker is working like the rent’s due tomorrow. It really is strangely fascinating and nearly impossible to look away from. It’s almost like a hardboiled antihero from a noir itself: Sure it’s rough on the edges, but you’re with it all the way, baby.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “Scary is as scary does!”
Based in the incredibly down-to-earth city of Las Vegas, NV, Stephanie Crawford is a freelance writer and co-host on The Screamcast. You can follow her hijinks, writing and frequent podcast appearances on Twitter @scrawfish and at House of a Reasonable Amount of Horrors.