For vulgar, gory fun, try 'Demon Knight'

January 13, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Alas, poor A.G.S. and S.L.P! They take umbrage that a critic could give both "Dumb and Dumber" and "Forrest Gump" three stars.

"We can not imagine how you could give the same rating to a movie about drinking urine from/disposing of urine in beer bottles . . . to a movie about a man with truly righteous beliefs TC and strong moral values . . . We could go so far as to say 'Dumb and Dumber' lacks taste."

A.G.S. and S.L.P., do yourselves and me a favor: Stay out of "Tales From the Crypt Presents Demon Knight." It lacks taste too, but it sure tastes good, and, darn it, I'm giving it the same three stars!

"Demon Knight" is a pure product of what someone far wiser than I has christened "The New Vulgarity," and New England transcendentalism it ain't. Rather, it's a seething, crude, boisterous, hostile, antic, vigorous explosion of gore and bad taste across a lot of genres, tracing its origins back through Mad magazine to the E.C. horror comics of the '50s. Quentin Tarantino is its patron saint, with his unique flavor of splatter-pop-nihilism, but the New Vulgarity is bursting out all over, all over the meadow and the dale.

Look, you either get it or you don't. You can look on representations of carnage for their comic meaning, or you can't. You understand it's only a movie, or you don't. No wider cultural gap exists between camps in this country than the one between those who get it and those who don't (or won't). So I say to the sensitive, the meek of heart and refined of taste: Go see "Vanya on 42nd Street."

If you get it, "Demon Knight" will be the one to see. It's tacky, high-camp horror chock-full to bursting of blasphemed visions and hellish apparitions, all played for laughs. Introduced by the zany animatronic crypt-keeper who's become so popular on the well-produced HBO series from which this project springs, the story is fish-brain primitive but extremely well staged and imagined.

Square-jawed, blond-headed Willaim Sadler, entirely too handsome to be a movie star these days, is fleeing a vicious bald pursuer (Billy Zane) across the desert. Eventually, after an auto accident, he takes refuge in a sleazy New Mexico hotel. We know we're in crypt territory when Zane punches the sheriff so hard his fist explodes out the back of the man's head.

The movie turns out to be a minor epic of siege warfare, reminiscent mostly of George Romero's outlaw classic, "Night of the Living Dead," but done on approximately 50 times the budget. Zane, an extremely amusing and self-possessed villain, is a demon from hell, who, from spots of his own iridescent green blood, can conjure a demon army of hunch-backed lesser demons, who set about to rip through the hotel, kill everybody and finally get to Sadler.

Why? Sadler is something like the Universal Soldier or the Knight Templar of the Realm; he's the last in a long line of key carriers who date from the Crucifixion, and he carries the Seventh Key -- by which the gates of the hot place may be opened, and the phrase "hell on earth" thereafter takes on a new meaning if the bad boys get hold of it. But the key is also a vial that contains the blood of the Lamb, which can be poured on sills and turn them into instant demon-proof storm windows. The best thing about all this is that it may actually make sense if you bother to think about it, which I didn't and who would?

Of course, sense isn't the point. The point is sensation and laughs, both of which "Demon Knight" offers in spades. Director Ernest Dickerson, for many years Spike Lee's cinematographer and director of the superb "Juice," knows a lot of things about sheer storytelling that Spike hasn't mastered yet. It has no big meanings, and the performances, including Baltimore's Jada Pinkett as the toughest of the citizens hiding in the hotel, are pretty thin. But this baby really hums along, and for the right kind of sick and twisted mind (such as my own), it's great fun.

"Tales From the Crypt presents Demon Knight"

Starring William Sadler and Jada Pinkett

Directed by Ernest Dickerson

Released by Universal

Rated R


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