SANTA BARBARA –“The Grey Knight,” which is being released in foreign territories under the more appropriate title “The Killing Box,” is a suspense drama with more promise than payoff. Ably produced for under $ 1 million, the Civil War-era thriller, the debut feature by documentarian George Hickenlooper (who co-directed “Apocalypse Now: Hearts of Darkness”) is a bit schizophrenic, part art-house item and part mainstream horror flick. But it’s got enough going for it and, with the additional lure of Corbin Bernsen, cast wonderfully against type, could find a select audience.
Film details the aftermath of a massacre of Confederate soldiers, who were literally boxed in by Union soldiers and the elements. Only survivor, Col. Neimiah Strayn (Bernsen), is drawn into an investigation of bizarre murders that subsequently take place at the massacre site.
In return for the promise of a pardon, he joins a former West Point student, John Harling (Adrian Pasdar), who is now a captain in the enemy army, and his superior officer, Col. George Thalman (Ray Wise), to find the renegade regiment that is purportedly perpetrating the heinous execution-style murders.
They are joined by a mute witness, Rebecca (Cynda Williams). Strayn at first reviles her for the color of her skin, but a strange kinship develops between them.
The expedition into the Dixie heart of darkness unearths an army of the undead who can no longer distinguish between gray and blue — equal opportunity murderers. There’s a logical, and somewhat predictable, genre climax.
On his first feature outing, Hickenlooper deftly handles performers and period subject matter, encircling himself with top-flight craftsmen like lenser Kent Wakeford and editor Monte Hellman.
Working against him is the unsatisfying script by Matt Greenberg. It captures the surface structure of a ghostly, ghastly yarn without the kinds of nuance and observation that could have lifted it higher.
In trying to lay in texture, Hickenlooper creates a hybrid. Without scripted support, pic falls short of its Conradian aspirations. But in trying to move away from its genre, it doesn’t work as a horror film.
Bernsen shows a facility with heroic bravado. In an underwritten part, Pasdar holds his own, as does Cynda Williams, who never goes for the obvious facial contortions when enacting a mute character. Ray Wise might have taken heed, as his character steps over the line of credibility one time too many.
Technical credits are above par. Mick Strawn’s production design makes whole cloth out of remnants.