There ain’t no cure for the summer time blues but 1981’s GHOSTKEEPER works as a mighty fine placebo. Director JIM MAKICHUK thankfully resists gilding the lily and permits the frozen Canadian landscape to play its own chilly tune. There’s no spray-on frost on these windowpanes. Snow encrusted trees tower like glittering skyscrapers and we’re shown that walking a few feet through the accumulation is a feat in and of itself. Filmed on location in a preexisting lodge/hotel, the devil’s in the details everywhere you look. Some accuse this movie of being a poor man’s THE SHINING but you’ll find no clean, calculated imagery here, it’s all very worn and haggard and the dark, damaged indoor photography reads like bad memories better left avoided. There’s a vibe established and it’s pretty powerful even if the spine of GHOSTKEEPER is frustratingly brittle.
Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before; malfunctioning vehicles result in the seeking of shelter in a seemingly abandoned whatever. Hoary as it may be, this is my jam; this is my favorite song on the radio. Let me introduce you to Jenny (RIVA SPIER) an introverted doormat-in-training who lives in fear of losing control like her insane mother once did. Then there’s Marty (MURRAY ORD) her too casual boyfriend who understands that ambivalence is the sharpest knife in the drawer when tormenting your partner. Our “three’s a crowd” trio even comes complete with a bubbly flirtatious blonde ripe for punishment named Chrissy (SHERI McFADDEN). I think we’re meant to dislike Chrissy, but thank God she’s present. Sure, she’s a floozy and macking on Marty but at least she’s lively. It’s New Year’s Eve gang, lighten up!
These characters don’t sound particularly likable because they’re not but their dysfunction adds to the grim mood. There doesn’t seem to be any space for gallantry and we sense early on that Jenny stands alone. The three eventually encounter the caretaker of the hotel, a foreboding older woman (an invaluable GEORGIE COLLINS) who apparently buys her apparel at “Gap for witches.” The crone wastes no time sprouting ominous warnings and suggestively compliments Jenny on her “inner strength.” I don’t want to give away the ending but there’s a bit of a lift from THE HAUNTING going on here. Jenny is being groomed and her so-called “inner strength” seems to be her advanced ability to stay tight-lipped while catering to others. The point is made that Jenny is a seasoned pro at keeping certain monsters at bay and that the old woman is getting a bit long in the tooth for whatever her mysterious racket may be. I should also mention that the hag has a son who runs around with a chainsaw and that there is a weird igloo prison in the basement housing a ghoul.
Now I know that all sounds inviting but don’t let’s everybody jump on the GHOSTKEEPER train just yet. Exactly half of you will hate it. There’s zero gore and it loses some major steam toward the end. In other words, you need to put two quarters in for every gumball you get out of this machine and I don’t think everybody is going to have the patience for that. It’s really rather frustrating because it does such a fine job of setting you up and then just when it has you where it wants you, it loosens its grip. It whispers in your ear, expertly tunes your fork and just when you’re preparing for the bite down it mumbles something about Indian legends and lets the moment pass. Still, somehow some of the seemingly throw away imagery (for example: a long line of empty chairs facing windows filled with nothingness) wedge their way under your skin and set up camp there. A chase scene through the attic is not exactly miraculously staged but the attic itself is an authentically unnerving space where you’d never want to be.
The ultimate ending is gratifying enough but things do get murky just as they should be crystallizing. If you happen to favor misty ghost stories that linger rather than jack in the box scares though this is a true find. Personally, I’ve never met an early eighties Canadian horror film scored by the guy who did MY BLOODY VALENTINE and edited by the guy who did BLACK CHRISTMAS that I didn’t like. It’s true that I craved for it to gel and be less gentle but the apprehension it inspires (at least for awhile) is pretty impressive. It’s hard to forgive a film for not dropping the hammer when it has you in the position to do so, but it certainly deserves some credit for getting you in that position in the first place. So O.K., maybe my snowshoes were not exactly blown off but I did feel a chill in July during a hellish heat wave and that my friends is pretty darn cool.
NOTE: Thanks to Amanda and Taylor for pushing me to see this one!
NOTE 2: The above video has nothing officially to do with GHOSTKEEPER but who cares. I think they make a good team.