It's funny, but considering the horrors of combat--not to mention the fact that Gettysburg is among the most haunted places in America--it's curious that there aren't more horror films set during the Civil War. (There's plenty of fiction to be found, though, from S.P. Somtow's DARKER ANGELS to Dan Simmons's novella "Iverson's Pits;" there's even a whole anthology of stories called CONFEDERACY OF THE DEAD.) George Hickenlooper's 1993 film GREY KNIGHT tries to rectify that, but his toothless approach wouldn't cut it as a Halloween offering on the Hallmark Channel.
GREY KNIGHT is the director's cut of a film initially released as GHOST BRIGADE (and pretty much sank without a trace soon thereafter); the latter was essentially an attempt to be "less arty," reducing some character development and adding a more horror-film type score. Never having seen BRIGADE, I can't say if the trims were effective, but from what I was able to see in KNIGHT, I doubt they'd have made much difference. The film's got some fairly serious baggage, and the soundtrack is the least of its problems.
With a screenplay by Matt Greenberg (who'd go on to pen HALLOWEEN: H20 and 1408), the film stars Adrian Pasdar as a Union soldier investigating the crucifixion-murders committed by renegade Confederates. Accompanied by a mute slave girl and a prisoner of war (Corbin Bernsen, in a strong, uncharacteristic performance), Pasdar and his troops soon discover that the slain men are part of a voodoo curse, and they're forming an army of the living dead.
This sounds like a can't-miss scenario, but Hickenlooper never mines the visceral potential in either the atrocities of battle, nor the supernatural aspects of the premise; not that I'm begrudging him for taking a subtler route, but the film fails to generate any tension or suspense, not even a sense of danger (on the battlefield or off). There's an attempt at a couple of blue-filtered dream sequences, but these too are unenthused and bring nothing to the film; nor does Hickenlooper's decision to shot many of the actors in shadow, which looks like a filmmaker overreaching for technique instead of create any mystery. The battle scenes are unconvincing, a result of a limited budget no doubt but nonetheless, there are Civil War re-enactments at county fairs with more energy and verve than what's found here.
Making matters worse is a plot that unfolds as a series of grave pronouncements than a genuine story arc; much of what we need to know is never presented in a straight dramatic fashion, but muttered in barely-audible dialogue. It's incredibly difficult to follow exactly what's going on, or the significance of most events. And while we're on the topic of delivery, why does everybody mumble and rasp in this movie? The worst offender by far is Pasdar (best known to readers here for the classic NEAR DARK, or to mainstream audiences for his fifteen-minute heartthrob status on the show PROFIT), who speaks so low and garbled he's practically unintelligible; I was waiting for it to be revealed he'd been shot in the throat or something.
The best part of KNIGHT is its cast (even the ones who mutter), if only for its modest roster of stars to be: Billy Bob Thornton has a brief role as a member of the undead army--Hickenlooper would also direct SOME FOLKS CALL IT A SLING BLADE, the short film that springboarded you-know-what--as does David Arquette. (Look quick for Matt LeBlanc as a dead soldier.) But even the best of them phone their roles in, like Martin Sheen's cameo as a Union general. Even the usually-dependable Ray Wise seems grossly miscast as Pasdar's commanding officer, whose screaming delivery is more like an ineffectual middle-manager than a colonel in the military.
If it hadn't kept its more macabre elements on the sidelines, GREY KNIGHT (or GHOST BRIGADE or THE KILLING BOX or whatever the hell you want to call it) might not've disappeared without a trace. A disappointment as both a horror and a war film, it's recommended only to those enjoy any of the above actors.