***/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras A
starring Billy Zane, William Sadler, Jada Pinkett, Brenda Bakke
written by Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris & Mark Bishop
directed by Ernest Dickerson
Bordello of Blood
*/**** Image B Sound C+ Extras A
starring Dennis Miller, Erika Eleniak, Angie Everhart, John Kassir
screenplay by A.L. Katz & Gilbert Adler
directed by Gilbert Adler
by Walter Chaw I didn't have HBO as a kid. Didn't even have cable. When I went over to friends' houses, I would spend a lot of time wanting to watch MTV to try to catch up on all the popular culture I was missing. "Remote Control", the first Jon Stewart show, "Dream On", "The Kids in the Hall"--each of them represent gaping holes in my pop education. Lump in the Walter Hill-produced "Tales from the Crypt" anthology program with that group of things I knew about but only by title and reputation. My first exposure to the EC Comics-inspired/adapted-from show was through reprints of "Tales from the Crypt" and "Strange Tales" comics during the early-'90s industry boom. Then Ernest Dickerson's fantastic Tales from the Crypt Presents Demon Knight (hereafter Demon Knight) satisfied every single expectation I had of something seeking to honour the ghoulish, sometimes puerile depravity of William Gaines's seminal source material. It's as gory as it is corny and smart as hell for recognizing that those were the only requirements. Doesn't hurt that the practical-effects work is goopy and inventive. Oh, and the cast is exceptional.
Start with Billy Zane as the baddie, a high-ranking demon called "The Collector" in the credits but unnamed in the film. Bald, handsome, clothed in braggadocio and unctuous charm, Zane nails a kind of alpha-male insouciance funny for its dogged insistence and, until the very end, its confidence in its eventual victory. (The Collector would be at home in any number of frat comedies.) He's on the trail of drifter Brayker (William Sadler) and an ancient artifact Brayker carries with him filled with sanctified blood collected, we learn in flashback, literally at a certain mount in Calvary. The Collector corners Brayker at an out-of-the-way hotel peopled with the usual suspects, like the ball-breaking proprietor, Irene (CCH Pounder), lovers Cordelia (Brenda Bakke) and Roach (Thomas Haden Church), resident alcoholic Uncle Willy (that guy Dick Miller), and ex-con cleaning woman Jeryline (Jada Pinkett, pre-Smith). Part of the brilliance of Demon Knight is that it's at its essence very interested in character development. None of these people are as they seem initially. The Collector's attempts to infiltrate the heroes' stronghold have to do with discovering each individual's yearning (the need for connection, the need for respect, the need for booze) and exploiting it. When there's nothing to exploit, he sets others against that person. That level of complexity lends the piece surprising pathos.
Consider the moment The Collector "seduces" young-ish Cordelia. Identified as a prostitute, the butt of jokes and abuse, self-conscious about her standing within this group, she goes to a window and sees The Collector outside. He reaches up for her, tells her about herself, promises to treasure her. It's a classic, nay, archetypal romantic tableau: the paramour performing a serenade. Director Ernest Dickerson, Spike Lee's former DP, lights Cordelia in a soft glow. He puffs her with a tiny burst of air when The Collector blows her a kiss. It's delightfully, perfectly overdone--none of it subtle, but all of it unexpected for its tenderness. Of course she turns into a demon. And then she turns against the schlub (Charlie Fleischer) who, earlier, had revealed his unrequited feelings for her by saving her life. Demon Knight gives a shit about notes like that. It sees the death of its characters as tragedies, and it's smart enough to identify that demons are the interesting element in pretty much every drama in which they find themselves. Even traditional hero-drifter Brayker is cast against type, with great character actor Sadler doing a defeated, melancholic version of the Man of Action. Best, though, is Pinkett, who proves not only an able "final girl," but a complicated one, too. She's awesome. Without fail the best part of bad movies, Pinkett's the best part of this good one as well.
The effects work is fantastic. Even the instantly-dated lightning effects are instantly-dated in a nerd-credible way, while the practical effects are inventive and disgusting. The way the actors interact with them is exhibit A in why CGI should play a supporting role and not serve as the central agency. If pushed, I'd say the practical effects are also the main selling point of Tales from the Crypt Presents Bordello of Blood (hereafter Bordello of Blood), if not the tits. Of course, the main attraction of maybe seeing supermodel Angie Everhart's goods is just a tease--probably something to do with her being engaged when shooting began to one Sylvester Stallone. Bordello of Blood's a non-starter: an adaptation of the very first screenplay written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale and produced as something like a favour to the same, the whole thing stinks of slapdash puerility. It's bad enough that the same year's From Dusk Till Dawn, sporting the exact same premise, looks like a masterpiece by comparison just for having that one line where bad guy George Clooney is called out for not being able to distinguish between Asian ethnicities.
There are no good characters in Bordello of Blood. Hero dick Rafe Guttman (Dennis Miller) is so smarmy and self-satisfied that there isn't a moment you're not rooting for his death. Miller is entirely apathetic towards the project. He's too good for it. In the history of active sabotage, this one's right up there, and people who deride guys like Nicolas Cage for doing shtick should watch this as an example of what that really looks like. It will come as no surprise that Miller discarded the script in favour of ad-libbing highlights from his stand-up routine, then at the height of its mercurial popularity: Making references to "Karloff" and cocking his eyebrow archly at every situation he's too smart for, he's the embodiment and warning of what happens when people who don't respect the genre decide they're going to participate in it. He's the wedding guest who doesn't believe in the marriage and is enough of a cocksucker to let everyone know it. Nobody cares. It says something that Corey Feldman, Angie Everhart, and Erika Eleniak, trying to shed her "Baywatch" image in a "serious" role as the assistant to a rabid televangelist (Chris Sarandon), are all more ethical about their work in Bordello of Blood than Miller. Not wanting to do the film, Miller asked for a million bucks, thinking the producers would never pay it. When they did, he came over and shit on the rug. That's Miller.
With a mediocre comic doing an arch routine in the middle of a production suddenly crippled by his salary and an undercooked script, it's kind of a miracle the film isn't worse than it is. Private eye Guttman is hired by Katherine (Eleniak) when her brother (Feldman) goes missing at the titular brothel. Turns out Lilith (Everhart) has returned from the great hereafter to, um, open a brothel. This leads to many topless vampires destined to get exploded by super-soakers filled with holy water, in an odd echo of the same year's Mars Attacks!. If the movie's plot is every bit as flimsy as Demon Knight's, its sloth and the relative crappiness of its cast (only Sarandon and the late Aubrey Morris acquit themselves with any verve) demonstrate how it's less about plot than it is about writing and performance. Honestly, there are easier and better ways to see boobs.
Bookending the two features are vignettes in the "Tales from the Crypt" style featuring the Cryptkeeper puppet (voiced, as on TV, by John Kassir). For Demon Knight, there's a nifty little EC-flavoured bit involving a rendering vat and a comely adulteress in a hot bath (plus John Larroquette); for Bordello of Blood, there's a gambling thing taken from one of the Walter Hill-directed episodes of the series proper. Neither has much to do with the film it decorates, but do stay past the credits of Demon Knight for some acknowledgment that they were aware they may have captured lightning in a bottle there.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
Scream Factory releases both Tales from the Crypt flicks (there were actually three, but luckily I didn't have to review Ritual again) in serious editions that shame, again, Dennis Miller's insufferable superiority. It's fun to look back at the trail of burned bridges in Miller's wake to find him now, twenty years on, this miserable, flame-throwing Conservative with neither audience nor credibility. People are who they are and they always were and always will be; I hope Miller and Victoria Jackson are very happy together. Anyway: Demon Knight lands in a 1.85:1, 1080p transfer. The image is more than adequate throughout; Universal appears to have finally abandoned the practice of recycling dated masters and allowed these films a fresh pass through the telecine, although HiDef can't help but bring into relief budget constraints and occasional, maddening descents into fuzzy focus (see: the first scene in the motel with CC and Sadler). Thankfully, the makeup F/X look moist and appropriately biological, and blacks are true. Shadow detail, important in a film set entirely at night, is sometimes-startling, and there is a blessed lack of print damage and a curbing of edge-enhancement--just two of the artifacts common to Universal's catalogue titles. If the cool palette is sometimes reminiscent of the studio's tendency to purplish colour grades for their '90s transfers, it seems more intentional here than usual. Due care was definitely applied. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is preferable to the 2.0 DTS-HD downmix also on board the disc. Discrete channels get a great workout as the Collector's sneaky machinations (particularly in the cellar sequences) fill the soundstage. I like all the whooshing sounds that pan from one speaker to another. Cheesy, but effective.
Dickerson appears on a feature-length yakker. So does, separately, the special-effects team. Dickerson is soft-spoken and somewhat incredulous that this film has had the longevity it's had. He spares a kind word for everyone involved and goes into some detail about developing the characters with the cast as they went along. He trainspots practical effects, including some very convincing rear-projection work. Filmmaker Michael Felsher joins Dickerson as moderator and some-time chorus. He does this thing I notice I do in interviews where I over-insert myself with agreement and prodding. It's great social lubricant, but it's intrusive in a dialogue meant for public consumption. Still, Dickerson is so chill that all is forgiven. I love the conversation around how he wanted to subvert the audience's expectation that Pinkett, given her gender and race, would be the first to die. Preach. If the commentary too often devolves into scene narration, at least it does so in warm company. The other yak-track reunites makeup head and creature performer Walter Phelan, creature effects head (and head of the company who did the effects for the series) Todd Masters, mechanical effects guy Thomas Bellissimo, and visual effects supervisor John van Vilet and is full of great information congenially delivered, along with a lot of fooling around. I love these guys. They remind me of kitchen staff. They make fun of the money-men, make note of boobs, and explain in detail how various gags were pulled off throughout the flick. In fact, it's the superior track despite the lengthy silences between gags. My fave is probably the revelation that most of the lightning stuff was done on a Mac.
"Under Siege: The Making of Demon Knight" (58 mins., HD) interviews all of the principals about the experience of making the film while also providing insight into what was to have been the picture's original ending. Mark this as an example of how test audiences can sometimes guide filmmakers in a better direction. Not often, but sometimes. Okay, maybe just this one time. The actors are very complimentary towards one another and the film, albeit uniformly surprised that something like this has continued to garner interest and adoration. I want to reiterate my interest in seeing Pinkett Smith in everything, please. She's fantastic. A badly-mic'd panel from the American Cinematheque event honouring Dick Miller and Joe Dante (10 mins., HD) sees Dick Miller, Dickerson, and Rick Baker discussing Demon Knight in the cursory way that Q&As allow.
Bordello of Blood's 1.85:1 1080p transfer is likewise married to 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD MA tracks. Like Demon Knight, this one sees a considerable improvement from previous home releases, yet still betrays some weaknesses in the original production. And as Bordello sports more daytime scenes (which is weird for a vampire movie, you'll agree), the corner-cutting is harder to ignore. A quick comparison demonstrates little difference between the two listening options, owing to a disappointingly sedate mix. On the 'bright' side, Miller's endless mugging is clear and easy to understand. Writer/co-producer A.L. Katz records a good-natured commentary that tells the major stories of the shoot while demonstrating a healthy sense of self-deprecation. He knows that his movie is a mess and spends ample time reflecting on what didn't work--and what did. The highlight of the piece is "Tainted Blood: The Making of Bordello of Blood" (60 mins., HD), a new doc that is, really, one of the best of its kind. Start with Corey Feldman, incredulous that he didn't make any friends on the film. He does an exceptional Dennis Miller impersonation and identifies Eleniak as distant and paranoid. Cut to, yes, Eleniak admitting that she was distant and paranoid. Everhart comes across as a genuinely sweet person, talking about how she was an untrained actress terrified during the shoot and then how Sly dumped her in the middle of it. She really wanted to make this work. The piece made me hate Miller even more, a real feat. My favourite part of this instantly classic supplemental doc is when it's revealed that Miller's improvisation destroyed entire plot points, leaving everyone to struggle along, hoping that something would materialize in the editing room. Upconverted theatrical trailers and animated still galleries round out the respective presentations.