Dead on Arrival

I have a number of bones to pick (sorry) with Demon Knight, a supposed horror movie from the perpetrators of HBO's Tales From the Crypt anthology series. But the most damning criticism is the simplest: It just isn't scary.

Gross is another story. The filmmakers have trucked in barrels of glossy gore to satisfy the discriminating teen viewer. The movie is long on blood but short on fright, and suffers as a result.

It is, however, mildly entertaining once you accept the cliched dialogue, the stock characters out of horror-movie central casting, the disappointing plot (complete with pseudoreligious overtones), and the generic slimy, toothy, decomposing demons. Billy Zane plays the Collector, assigned to recover a key (the seventh!) that will enable Satan's minions (the boss never is mentioned by name, but you get a pretty good idea that it is on his behalf that the Collector collects) to unlock the forces of darkness and allow evil to rule the universe. No, really. Zane is actually very good in the role, bringing just the right mixture of camp charisma and irreverent humor to the part. He's no Tim Curry (nor is this movie another Rocky Horror Picture Show) but Zane gives the Collector a sort of likable elan, which makes you kind of pull for the guy. Especially since the goodest of the good guys, a harried-looking fellow into whose care the key has been entrusted, is such a deadly serious straight-shooter.

Here's the premise (and remember, I didn't come up with it): An otherwise nondescript guy named Brayker (played humorlessly by William Sadler) has the key. The Collector wants it. Brayker holes up in a low-rent rooming house that used to be a church. He figures he's safe there because the Collector needs seven people present to work his voodoo, and the house is home to only five: the ditzy hooker, the flinty old man, the jaded landlady, the uppity maid-handywoman (Jada Pinkett), and the wimpy ex-postal worker with the hots for the bad girl. But the Collector shows up with a sheriff and a deputy in tow, and all hell -- or at least the part whose job it is to snatch the key -- breaks loose.

The original five are joined by the hooker's boyfriend-john (a charmer named Roach), a little kid, and a cat, plus Brayker and the deputy (the sheriff doesn't last long enough to count). The key contains a magic liquid that wards off evildoers; it becomes the humans' first line of defense against the Collector and his rotting, dripping, ectoplasmic posse. You also can kill the ghoulies by shooting out their eyes (from the front of the head or the back), which lays the groundwork for many lovely scenes of ghost carnage a la Dawn of the Dead (only higher tech and therefore less realistic).

I won't ruin the suspense by revealing who lives and who dies, but suffice it to say there are fewer of the former than there are of the latter. It doesn't matter anyhow; once you've made it through the first 30 minutes, you'll have a pretty good idea how it all ends up. All the fun is in the (sorry again) execution. And that's where Billy Zane and, to a lesser degree, Jada Pinkett, click.

The wait for a truly scary movie, however, continues.


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