Demon Knight (1995)
Demon Knight contains just about everything I want in an ideal horror film -- a great story, mystery (in a wide sense), tension, atmosphere, mythology, scares, action, gore and a sense of humor. That's not to say that it's the perfect film or even my favorite, but Demon Knight might serve as a textbook case of what makes horror. As such, it at least earns a place on my list of the 40 or so best horror films of the 90s.
I don't want to spoil the joy you'll get on your first viewing as the premise falls slowly together like pieces of a puzzle during the first 20 minutes or so (that's the mystery aspect). However, I can tell you that Demon Knight has something to do with demons (that's generous of me, eh?) and a grand mythological story that ties them in with the bible and warns of the possibility of their gaining control of the universe. The titular knight both refers to a literal knight-like figure who tries to prevent the demons' bid for universal kingship and is a pun on "night." Both "Demon Knight" and "Demon Night" are titles literally suiting the film.
While what I've told you about the premise might sound a bit pompous a step removed like that, nothing about Demon Knight plays pretentiously. Rather, this is a gritty, claustrophobic film that knows how to frighten and take you on a wild roller coaster ride through a dark and dingy boarding house containing outcasts with attitudes as well as present an alternate history of the universe.
Given the history of Demon Knight, it's surprising that there aren't problems with the script. Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris and Mark Bishop wrote the first draft in 1987, eight years before the script finally made it to the screen under the aegis of the deservedly successful camp-gore horror Tales from the Crypt moniker as the Cryptkeeper's first film. It had undergone various rewrites by various parties who were attached to make the film over the years, including Demon Knight's eventual director Ernest Dickerson and producer/director Gilbert Adler.
Based on what I've heard about the various instantiations of the script, successive rewrites tended to improve it, and Dickerson and Adler made sure that Demon Knight gained some of the twisted humor that Tales from the Crypt is known for as well as upping the demon quotient-a smart move that gives the most intense segments a From Dusk Till Dawn like violent, chaotic action.
Setting Demon Knight during one night in only two primary locations was another smart move (and one that was in the original script) and allows Dickerson and Adler to keep their direction taut and focused. Cinematographer Rick Bota is a great asset in this respect as well, his camera motion often resembling a ride in the "Spook-O-Rama" (the haunted house at New York's Coney Island back in its last heydays) which Famous Monsters from the Vault's Steve Kronenberg rightly cites as the key to "the best horror films-those that effectively convey atmosphere or shocks...the camera really takes us on a journey to a film's supernatural world resembling those inescapable fun house cars."
Of course the cast is important in Demon Knight's achieving that critical balance that is the mark of 10's, and Billy Zane as a psychotically twisted Garth Brooks, William Sadler as a biker who seems deeply perplexed about something like the philosophical interpretation of quantum physics, Jada Pinkett as a less confident Bruce Willis with a criminal record, Brenda Bakke as a sassier Aretha Franklin whose body gets even less respect, CCH Pounder as a public service minded prostitute, Charles Fleischer as the offspring of Charles Whitman and Ted Kaczynski, etc. all provide depth, charisma and the kinds of interaction that are the mark of great dramas as well as manic horror/action flicks.
I'm not about to argue that Demon Knight should have swept the 1996 Oscars (although I'd like that in an ideal world), but you can't ask for a much more entertaining and satisfying horror film cum amusement park ride.
Dickerson, a former cinematographer for Spike Lee, chose this project because of his lifelong adoration for the genre. He previously worked on James Bond III's Def by Temptation.