Director Dickerson, far right, with stars Zane and Sadler
"The horror genre is notorious for excluding African American elements," Jada Pinkett grouses in the opening of Scream 2 (1997). That's true for the most part, but just two years earlier, Pinkett starred in a great little movie that bucked that trend: Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight.
Demon Knight was directed by Ernest R. Dickerson, an African American New Jersey native who attended historically Black Howard University before heading to NYU Film School. There, Dickerson met Spike Lee, and cut his teeth as cinematographer on a number of Lee's early films, before eventually becoming a director. Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight was Dickerson's first horror film, and his association with the genre has continued as he's transitioned to television directing. His credits include numerous episodes of Dexter, The Walking Dead, and other horror series—as well as one installment of The L Word (Season 2, Episode 7 "Luminous").
Pinkett as Jeryline
A spin-off of the HBO series—which was itself an adaptation of the notorious 50s horror comics—Demon Knight is a fun creature feature that features the only Black final girl I can ever remember seeing. That the girl is Pinkett, at the height of her butch hotness, which is icing on the cake for queer horror fans. The story concerns a centuries old battle between good and evil, embodied by Brayker (William Sadler) and the Collector (Billy Zane in an awesomely scenery chewing performance). The Collector is after Brayker for the last of seven "keys" necessary for darkness to take over the universe, but Brayker holes up in a ramshackle inn with a motley crew including Jeryline (Pinkett), a world-weary ex-con, and the inn's owner Irene (veteran character actress CCH Pounder). The group struggle to survive the night after the Collector conjures an army of demons (realized through stuntmen and awesome prosthetic effects).
Pounder as Irene
Demon Knight is an effective horror romp that is aware of the genre's tropes and manages to have fun with them. It's by turns creepy, funny, and even a little moving. The tone also reflects the tongue in cheek Tales from the Crypt series perfectly. Of course, most great horror movies need a great leading lady, and Pinkett does not disappoint. She has the most compelling arc of any character in the movie, and her athletic physicality is on full display as she battles monsters and the Collector. She ends up covered in blood, but not in the way you might expect. Jeryline is no damsel in distress. Pounder, meanwhile, also defies the "Black character dies first" stereotype; her acerbic character wields a mean machine gun and gets some great lines even after her arm is ripped off.
With Jordan Peele's Get Out scheduled for release on February 24, Black HIstory Month is a great time to check out another awesome bit of Black horror, directed by Dickerson and starring the future Jada Pinkett-Smith.