The ‘90s often get a bad rap with horror fans. After the numerous successful slashers and creature effects films of the ’80s, the ‘90s offered a different variety of horror fare. Though there were plenty of hits, hidden gems, and misunderstood classics, the ‘90s usually don’t get the kind of love that other decades get when it comes to horror. It’s time to change that.
As the intro to this column states, the appraisal of ‘90s horror is not usually a favorable one. Not only do I hope to remove that stigma by spotlighting numerous films from the decade, but this entry gives me the chance to double down on my refusal of that notion by praising one of the greatest achievements in horror history: HBO’s Tales from the Crypt.
Tales from the Crypt aired for one season in June 1989 with a truncated order of six episodes. However, when the series became a runaway hit with both audiences and critics, the show returned the following year in full force. The EC Comics adaptation wasn’t hindered by censorship standards, and that allowed the creators to go absolutely wild with these pulpy slices of fiendish fiction. John Kassir’s impish embodiment of the Crypt Keeper would go on to become a bonafide cultural icon of the ‘90s, and the show would attract an amazing array of young and seasoned talent. When people say that the ‘90s wasn’t a good decade for horror, they have to be forgetting the incredible success of Tales from the Crypt.
It was such a success that the producers were able to create a theatrically distributed feature film during the show’s run. Instead of taking inspiration from the plethora of EC Comics stories, the movie would be a completely original tale. In fact, the script had been kicking around since 1987 — before it was ever attached to Tales from the Crypt — and finally ended up getting made with Ernest Dickerson in the director’s chair. And when it was all said and done, the world was given Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight.
And it’s one of the greatest horror films of the ‘90s.
The setup is what drive-in connoisseur Joe Bob Briggs would call “spam-in-a-cabin.” Well, in this case, it’s a decrepit boarding house that ends up being besieged by a smooth-talking demon known as the Collector (Billy Zane). He’s hunting down a drifter named Brayker (William Sadler) in order to obtain a mystical artifact that will allow demons to rule all of existence. A supernatural siege movie gets underway, and the wackadoo spirit that was the bedrock of Tales from the Crypt is allowed to flourish in the biggest ways possible.
We have to start off talking about the cast because this is a home run ensemble. William Sadler is appropriately gruff, tough, and mysterious as Brayker. Jada Pinkett gives the character of Jeryline a ton of personality, and her performance completely helps sell her eventual arc. CCH Pounder lends her unflappable badassness to Irene, the caretaker of the boarding house. You have Thomas Haden Church scumming up the joint as the aptly named Roach. And then you get the wonderful pair of Charles Fleischer and Dick Miller doing their dependably great character acting.
But, this movie is owned by Billy Zane as the Collector. It’s not hyperbole to say that this is one of Zane’s absolute best performances. His grasp of the material’s tone is unparalleled, and he relishes every single moment he gets on screen. His ability to juggle between charm, buffoonery, genuine menace, and gleeful evil is a sight to behold. When we talk about the horror icons of the ‘90s, the Collector should be a no-brainer entry on that list.
Thankfully, there is plenty to adore about Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight on top of Zane’s delightful scene-stealing. Todd Masters and his crew get to go hog-wild with the effects. This movie is deliciously goopy, gross, and impressive. Not to mention that Dickerson directs the film with real kinetic energy. He cut his teeth on episodes of Tales from the Darkside and was the cinematographer on Spike Lee’s groundbreaking Do the Right Thing. A clear fan of the genre, Dickerson gets to let loose with the kind of abandon that imbues the movie with the kind of youthful spirit we associate with Tales from the Crypt.
Whenever the discussion of ‘90s horror comes up, there are only a few big releases that most people will highlight. It’s baffling to me that Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight doesn’t get brought up as one of the decade’s best. Between the show’s triumph and the fact that we got two movies out of the brand — spoiler alert: Bordello of Blood is not gonna be featured in this column — we should be trumpeting Tales from the Crypt as one of the best examples of ‘90s horror. And Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight delivers everything that works about the series with the stylish flavor and narrative satisfaction of a feature film.
When we end up cataloging the greatest horror films of the decade, there is no doubt that Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight is going to be in that lineup.
On a related note, check out the brand new documentary Horror Noire on Shudder to see more about Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight and many other excellent films!