The most disturbing horror movie of the past few years isn’t a movie at all. It’s the video for Soundgarden’s ”Black Hole Sun,” in which sunlit middle-American backyards are infested with grinning human vipers. When I first caught it on The Box, the interactive music-video channel, I was so spooked I almost couldn’t make it to the end. (Naturally, I had to order it again three times.) A David Lynchian dreamscape of suburban hell, ”Black Hole Sun” has the quality that’s missing from all the cheap-jolt supernatural thrillers that pass for horror in the ’90s: a sense of revelation, of darkawe.
These days, the typical cinematic creep show is liable to look more like Tales From the Crypt Presents Demon Knight. Conceived as a feature-length episode of the HBO series, the movie quickly establishes its schlock pedigree, its utter grade-Z cheesiness, by gathering a bunch of innocent mortals in a creaky old hotel and attempting to frighten them (and us) with that proverbial costume-shop antique, the dripping ghoul. As the film’s demonic ringleader, the Collector, sprinkles phosphorescent green blood into the earth, rotting skeletons rise from the grave, bits of decayed flesh stuck to their bones, their skulls topped with matted hair, their bodies coated with goo. Oooo, scary! This is the sort of monster that was spoofed more than a decade ago in Michael Jackson’s ”Thriller” video, the sort that’s turned into a complete joke by the film’s own supercilious puppet host, the Crypt Keeper.
The joke is on Demon Knight, a movie destined to take its place alongside all the interchangeably cruddy horror thrillers that line the shelves of video stores. Like those films, Demon Knight is a patchwork of mediocre special effects, most of them lifted from the two sacred texts of grue, Night of the Living Dead and The Exorcist. As the hero, scowling William Sadler brandishes the movie’s chief ghoul-fighting artifact, a key that contains the blood of Christ. As the Collector, sexy, shaven-headed Billy Zane punctuates his slashing mayhem with sarcastic one-liners. Like all of today’s wisecracking psychos, he derives his style from the Ur-moment of contemporary horror, that scene in The Shining where Jack Nicholson axes his way into Shelley Duvall’s room and announces, ”He-e-ere’s Johnny!” In retrospect, the horror genre died — creatively, at least — in that moment. That’s when it officially became a goof, a junky spectacle of Grand Guignol camp. Is there anything more dispiriting than trash that flaunts its lack of conviction? To call Demon Knight a popcorn movie is to give it too much credit — I doubt it would raise the pulse of Orville Redenbacher.D+