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Slave traders bring back an evil voodoo entity that is accidentally freed by the Confederate army during the Civil War. The entity possesses the bodies of the dead soldiers to create an army of its own bent on conquest, using the corpses of both the North and South. Written by
Few films have managed to so completely defecate away a great premise as George Hickenlooper's Grey Knight aka Ghost Brigade aka The Killing Box. Adrian Pasdar's Union officer teams up with his onetime friend and now Confederate prisoner of war to track down a band of renegades from both sides who are wreaking indiscriminate havoc on the countryside, committing atrocities and leaving bodies crucified upside down in their wake. But they're not the usual renegades: when slave traders brought their human cargo with them from the West Indies a hundred years earlier, they unwittingly took something else as well - an evil spirit raising the dead to form an army of its own and leaving their mismatched human hunters with the problem of killing soldiers who are already dead
With some similarities to S.P. Somtow's brilliant epic novel Darker Angels cross-pollinated with Peckinpah's Major Dundee, this should have been so very much better than it is. Produced for Civil War buff Ted Turner's theatrical division but barely released on video in a heavily cut version, having seen both the studio's version of the film and the director's cut, I'm afraid that much of the blame for the fact that an intriguing script has been turned into such a frustratingly below-average movie can be laid firmly at director George Hickenlooper's door. Sadly, his inept direction is barely a step up from Ed Wood, unable to use his limited budget to his best advantage - in addition to his terror of long shots (most of the film is played in flat two-shots or medium close-up), in the early medic sequence the camera is all too obviously just moving around in a circle to make both set and the handful of extras look more substantial (he fails miserably). Worse, he can't handle action or, to any great effect, actors.
Judging from his audio commentary on his cut on Laser Disc, his awe at Coppola's achievements with Apocalypse Now has led him to slavishly imitate rather than innovate (Martin Sheen even has a cameo as the general sending Pasdar on his mission). Every other comment on the disc is about how this shot or that cast member or that piece of make-up was inspired by Apocalypse. The trouble is that where Coppola had tens of millions of dollars, this looks like it's been funded by a whipround in a local bar. Hickenlooper, of course, made the brilliant documentary Hearts of Darkness: obviously, he's still travelling down that river long after Coppola packed his bags and went home...
A truly gifted documentary-maker, he just seems clueless about how to compose a dramatic shot or propel action: he seems to be at the mercy of events rather than controlling them. Hopefully someone will be able to salvage the remake rights and do the premise justice, but in the meantime Hickenlooper should return to what he does best - making great documentaries rather than bad fictional features.
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