I picked up George Hickenlooper's Grey Knight - shilled overseas with the infinitely cooler title of The Killing Box - with low expectations. I was expecting a hammy Southern revanchist horror flick about crazed hillbillies, with a schmeer of post-Glory Civil War class and Apocalypse Now guerra matto.
What's actually in the Grey Knight package is an odd fusion of Ken Burn's Civil War docu-epic and Victor Halperin's sadly under discussed Revolt of the Zombies. And, honestly, as far as inspirational shotgun weddings go, that's not half bad. Plus, on paper, the flicks got a pant's load of talent of talent to thrust that premise with gusto. Director George Hickenlooper was fresh off his brilliant documentary Hearts of Darkness. Monte Hellman, elder statesman of independent American cinema, was holding the editor's razor. In front of the camera, there's a cast full of competent actors: Corbin Bernsen, Adrian Pasdar, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, David Arquette - admittedly not the greatest show ever assembled under one roof, but certainly enough talent to get this strictly B-grade fright flick off the ground.
So, why do the results feel so lackluster?
Grey Knight suffers because it can't commit to its own weird premise. Either because Hickenlooper didn't think a monster pic was worth the effort or because he simply grew interested in narrative threads and themes peripheral to the main plot, the finished product feels schizo. In fact, the divided intention is so strong that one can almost tease out the other flick, the one I suspect Hickenlooper really wanted to make.
Let's talk about the movie that actually ended up in the can. Set at the height of the War of Northern Aggression, the stories centers around two principles: A union tracker named Thalman and a former Reb officer turned-POW named Strayn. This duo gets put in charge of the effort to find and neutralize a rogue group of Confederate and Union troops who are attacking Northern and Southern forces in Tennessee. Aside from showing the minimal effort at target discrimination that we use as the thin moral line between "just war" and "inhuman slaughter," this rogue group further distinguishes itself by crucifying the men it takes prisoner. The prisoners are hung upside down, nailed to a crude X of wood.
As it turns out, the renegade group is actually possessed by evil African spirits called the Makers. Once trapped in a well by the warriors of a tribal village, these spirits were freed by slave traders. These traders than brought the spirits to North America where (from what I could understand of the backstory) enslaved descendants of the original warrior tribe trapped them in a underwater cave in Tennessee.
We get all this backstory from Rebecca, a mute psychic ex-slave who comes long on the expedition to 1) give the viewer exposition on a need to know basis and 2) provide Strayn with a highly dubious shot at racial and historical redemption by becoming his love interest. Unable to speak for herself, she exists mainly so that the white characters in the film can position themselves with regards to the race issue. This embarrassingly clichéd character is all the more painful to watch because she's played by the talented and fiercely beautiful Cynda Williams, whose participation in this film was a brief pause between the sad end of her promising early career (Mo' Better Blues and One False Move) and the start of her transition to cheesy softcore (Wet and Condition Red). That filmmakers couldn't find anything better for Williams to do than to play a mute liberated slave who falls for a Confederate officer says something deeply sad about Hollywood.
But back to the film.
The Makers were released by a cannon blast during a short near-massacre of Strayn's forces. Strayn himself was carted off to Bowling Green prison, but his dead me are resurrected and, zombified, start to march in search of blood and new recruits. I should mention here that Grey Knight's undead are a curious breed: Like vampires, they drink blood and increase their numbers by feeding on the blood of their victims. They're also unable to cross running water, vulnerable to silver, and only come out at night. However, they've got no fangs. They all wear white smears of what I suppose is meant to evoke the face paint of African tribal warriors. These undead are also vocal and intelligent, even emotional: They mourn when their own get killed.
After a few one-sided encounters, the remnants of the Union scout group end up teaming with the remains of a Confederate rear guard unit to fight the undead troops. There's a battle. Some people die. The end.
Questionable as the racial politics may be, far more crippling are the films visuals. Though Hickenlooper and Hellmann have a study and functional sense of narrative, the film has a dull, washed out feel to it. Whether this was the unfortunate result of an effort to give the film a faded, historical look or simply the result of a lousy color transfer, I couldn't say. The result is a milky, muted palate that drains life from the film far more effectively than the movies pseudo-vampires. Hickenlooper also fails to bring his combat scenes to life. Although early film effectively presented the madness of Civil War Era combat, filmmakers from the 1960s and on have too often relied heavily on the assistance of Civil War re-enactors. The result, aside from fielding armies of retired white collar workers, is that the combats have a sort of stagy calm. Hickenlooper's fight scenes feel leaden.
That said, there's something interesting in Hickenlooper's faint commitment to the story he's shooting. Despite setting up the clear premise that the undead troops are (literally) bloodthirsty monsters, Hickenlooper gives a handful of them some key speeches that, I believe, suggest the outline of the film he would have rather made. Strip away the monster movie trappings and, instead, imagine a band of Southern and Union soldiers who have gone rogue because they refuse to fight for either cause. The Southern boys don't want to die so rich folks can keep slaves. The Union boys don't want to die in a far off field for a cause they don't sincerely care about. Instead of putting down a semi-zombie outbreak, the scout unit is meant to find these dangerously freethinking individuals and crush their rebellion before it spreads to other troops. That story is, I think, what Hickenlooper wanted to do. His speeches about finding a third way out of the war, his attention to curious historical details, his refusal to embrace any of the larger moral issues of the conflict at the cost of an oddly myopic populism - it's when he's focusing on what he cares about, the flick gets a shot in the arm. Sadly, those bright moments aren't enough to carry the whole film.