Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Ghost Brigade – review

Director: George Hickenlooper

Release date: 1993

Contains spoilers

Also known under the titles Lost Brigade, the Killing Box and Grey Knight, I came across this film in Silver and Ursini’s the Vampire Film. As I watched it part of me wondered whether I should do a ‘Vamp or Not?’ article – but despite the feeding being mostly hidden these do fall into the vampire camp I think. I was also rather taken by the American Civil War setting. Of course the idea of a troop of undead soldiers was not new, the Lost Platoon had been two years before and contained a character who was a civil war soldier. However I was, as I’ll mention later, also reminded of a much later film as well.

The film has quite a cast, all told, but as much as the setting worked for me, and as much as the film didn’t sugar coat things, the horror aspect fell all too short I’m afraid.

Ray Wise as Thalman
The film is narrated by character Capt. John Harling (Adrian Pasdar, Near Dark, Marvel’s Avengers Assemble – Blood Feud & House of Frankenstein) who tells us that the year is 1863 and that the battle where confederates and unionists fought side by side is now never spoken of. We then see the remains of a battle investigated by Col. George Thalman (Ray Wise, Reaper: I Want my Baby Back & Tom Holland’s Twisted Tales). They find his men crucified upside down, one has a buckle from the 51st Alabama regiment stuffed in his mouth.

Adrien Pasdar as Harling
The camera pans through a field hospital and when I say the film didn’t sugar coat things, this is what I meant. The brief view we get of it shows something that is less surgery and more butchery. The screams of the wounded drowned by the screams of those being treated. A messenger comes for Harling, he has a head injury and is awaiting discharge to go back to his ministry. The fact that he is a preacher at heart and the fact that we are told that he has become “accustomed” to morphine following the injury are not exploited in depth at all. He is summoned to General Haworth (Martin Sheen).

Corbin Bernsen as Strayn
The general is having his portrait painted and Thalman is with him. Due to his tracker skills Harling’s discharge is being postponed. However the 51st Alabama is meant to have been butchered, their Colonel, Strayn (Corbin Bernsen), captured. Even more worrying is that intelligence suggests that there are Union soldiers in the rogue Confederate unit’s ranks. Strayn had been Harling’s teacher before the war and owes him a favour. He finds him in the stockade and tries to recruit him to go with them – Strayn refuses, at least at first.

That night a group of Union soldiers besiege a house. The Confederates inside have civilian prisoners but that doesn’t stop cannon fire when they refuse to surrender. Suddenly a group of soldiers walks out of the misty night towards the Union line. Gunfire seems to be useless but the Union soldiers charge into the mist. Suddenly the soldiers are at the house and some of their ranks have been swelled by some of the Union soldiers who minutes before had charged them – a Confederate, Elkins (Roger Wilson), calls himself a recruiting officer.

Cynda Williams as Rebecca
Eventually Elkins makes his way to the prisoners. One has tried to escape and – in one of the hints at feeding – we see her with him, bloodied at the neck. The other, Rebecca (Cynda Williams), is a mute – but she has powers. She summons flames that Elkins shrinks from and makes good her escape – he does follow but the running waters of a stream thwarts him. The attack at the house – and the death of a soldier who kills himself rather than be “recruited” convinces Strayn to go with the tracking party. Rebecca travels with them also.

the brigade
So, the vampires… Known in this as Makers, they were originally from Africa where a tribe kept the demonic entities trapped. When slavers took/killed the village one of the slavers climbed into the cave they were trapped in and became infected (for want of a better word) and brought the plague to the Americas. Slaves managed to trap them in a cave in the US. The remnants of the 51st Alabama were caught in a killing box in the creek and pulled under the water into the cave – where the weak were for food and the strong were made. A Union cannon burst open a way out on the bank.

crucified to prevent rising
They cannot cross running water and are afraid of fire (and highly flammable it seems) as mentioned. The sun will kill them and silver both wards and kills. The silver killing leads to the creation of silver plated bayonets and silver bullets/musket balls – all of which brought the similar scene in the later Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter to mind. As one recently turned Maker dies he asks that at dawn his body is lifted up so as to preventing him sucking life from the earth. The crucifixions were to prevent the weak rising. One of the heroes is bitten and becomes feverish, he then apparently feeds on an animal but Rebecca gives him her blood (she is the last descendent of the African village) and that stops the turn.

from the dark, whistling Dixie
So, where did it go wrong as a film? Frankly with the horror. The platoon of vampire soldiers never seem that scary, they saunter around whistling Dixie (literally) but we see little in the way of horror from them. The attack on the Union Platoon (not the first lot we find dead but the one we see charging in) is lost in mist. When they approach Harling’s line the first time they quickly retreat without actually doing much. They needed beefing up (and we quite frankly needed some violence and gore) to make them terrifying – rather than just guys with white war paint on. Padsar and Bernsen keep things ticking along well, Ray Wise hams it up as only Ray Wise can (he is always a delight to watch) and Cynda Williams is a presence to recon with despite not having a line. However a horror film needs horror – to be fair there is a director’s cut version that might have more oomph, the version I saw was uploaded to YouTube. 4 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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