Popular Culture is an impossibly large and ever-growing thing. It’s impossible to see everything and as a result, some things fall through the cracks. Maybe a book or movie or game was critically panned, maybe it was a commercial flop, maybe it just didn’t make a lasting connection at the time. Whatever the case, these bits of pop cultural refuse are forgotten and overdue for A Second Glance.
Last Time on A Second Glance: The Atomic Knights (1960)
Grey Knight is a movie that almost no one remembers. The horror western is an underutilized subgenre that sadly has few truly great movies and though this isn’t one of them it still remains a very interesting entry. Grey Knight is no triumph of its genre but it succeeds enough in tone to mask all the ways it fails in nearly everything else.
Grey Knight was written by Matt Greenberg. Greenberg is perhaps most famous for writing the post-apocalyptic dragon movie Reign of Fire. George Hickenlooper directed the film. Hickenlooper is famous for directing Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse; a documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now. The film suffered several re-cuts in post-production and exists under three names: The Killing Box, Ghost Brigade, and Grey Knight. The Grey Knight edition of the film is George Hickenlooper’s preferred cut.
The movie opens with a group of Union soldiers found crucified upside down by a Northern patrol. A Confederate belt buckle is found in the mouth of one of the corpses, belonging to a group of soldiers once lead by Colonel Nehemiah Strayn (Major League’s Corbin Bernsen.) Strayn just so happens to be a prisoner of the Union forces but has no love for his northern enemies and refuses to help. Captain John Harling (Near Dark’s Adrian Pasdar) trained with Strayn and claims the man owes him a favor for not taking his life in a duel years prior and so Harling is conscripted to get Strayn to help the Union find his men. Harling calls in his favor and Strayn sets off with a Colonel (Twin Peaks’ Ray Wise) and a small regiment to hunt down these despicable murderers.
As the journey goes on Strayn finds out that his men have returned from the dead as nocturnal creatures that can’t cross moving water and can only be killed by fire and pale metal such as silver. He learns from a mute former slave that an ancient evil accidently brought to the Americas by a slave trader is capable of bringing the dead back to life and that they will kill until there is no one left.
There are a lot of very noticeable issues with Grey Knight. The picture is muddy and flat, night scenes are too dark and the shadows only serve to make it harder to distinguish what is happening onscreen. The action scenes are poorly staged and most of the shots are flat close-ups with barely a long shot in sight. The entire climactic battle was clearly shot during the day and post-converted to look dark with a filter. Many of the performances are stilted or genuinely awful and there are far too many characters, many of whom add nothing to the plot. And yet all of these sins are forgivable.
First off, Grey Knight’s greatest strength is Corbin Bernsen. Bernsen gives maybe the best performance of his career as Nehemiah Strayn. Strayn grows more sympathetic and the movie peels away the layers of meanness to reveal a good heart at the bottom of it all. His relationship with the slave girl Rebecca, noteworthy due to Strayn’s racist tirades earlier in the film, is one of the better character developments.
The evil militia is an understated menace. They only have a few scenes and there is nothing particularly ghoulish looking them about them, sporting some white paint streaked on their faces to give them a tribal look. It’s not so much what is shown of the enemy as what isn’t. There’s a spooky quality to the way they seem to always be lurking nearby waiting to slowly walk out of the fog. When they do appear it’s surprisingly chilling.
The film’s tone is so beautifully gloomy and creepy. Real photographs of injured soldiers from the Civil War are used and the brutality of the war in general serves as a way to set the stage for the supernatural horror to come. On the DVD commentary track, Hickenlooper talks openly about his admiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s vision for Apocalypse Now and how he wanted to try and bring some of that feeling through in this movie. Hickenlooper certainly bit off more than he could chew in hoping to do for the Civil War what Coppola did for Vietnam but his atmosphere of death and pain is one of the film’s more successful traits. It is rare that a movie can skate by largely on atmosphere but Grey Knight uses its surprising depth and disturbing feel to such great effect that it becomes easy to overlook its narrative and technical flaws.
Grey Knight won’t impress everyone; it does have several problems and the story builds slowly which may bore some viewers. Those who enjoy horror westerns, particularly if they enjoy this film’s cinematic soulmate Ravenous, will surely find something to enjoy here. The film can only be found on DVD or VHS but copies are easy to find and online don’t tend to be very expensive.