Ghost Keeper (1981)

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A group of friends decide to spend their New Years vacation up in the Canadian Rockies. Three members of the group splinter off from the rest to explore the local area on a couple of snowmobiles. While out on their little excursion they become stranded at a seemingly empty lodge they discovered off the beaten path. With a horrible snow storm on their heels, and unknown miles away from their original lodgings they’re forced to stay the night. But they quickly realize the empty lodge isn’t as abandoned as it seems when they come upon an old woman who claims to be it’s caretaker. The elderly innkeeper is eccentric, but seems friendly enough at first, and sets them up in a couple of rooms for the night. But it doesn’t take long for the wayward travelers to find out that the little old lady isn’t as innocent as she appears, and that the tiny inn they’ve found themselves in is hiding a very dark secret.

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Ghostkeeper is a Canadian supernatural slasher from 1981, though I’m kinda reluctant to really add in the “supernatural” descriptor. The film is inspired by the North American legend of the Wendigo, which are evil spirits whose origin tales lie in the folklore of several Native American tribes. The Wendigo, most often anyway, are said to be malevolent, mythical creatures, who possess or influence humans with feelings of insatiable greed, hunger, and violence that oftentimes results in the cannibalization of other humans. So they’re basically very nasty little buggers. And the film sets up their inclusion in the first still-frame by giving the viewer a basic text overview of the Wendigo legend.

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Ahem….I think you spelled it wrong there, fellas….

But, there’s a problem. You see, about halfway through filming the production ran out of funds. So instead of abandoning the film or postponing it, director Jim Makichuk decided to just play it by ear, meaning the entire second half of the film isn’t just off script, but essentially flying by the seat of it’s pants with no script whatsoever. This choice had two consequences. The first is that the entire second half of the film feels like a muddled mess. The second is that our resident Wendigo, who is portrayed in the film as a physical being and a creature the film propped up at the very beginning as being the “Big Bad”, basically falls off the face of the earth. Oh, don’t get me wrong. He’s there, but now he’s been relegated to a distant background element. In fact, you only end up seeing him two times in the entire film, and both instances use the exact same frames of footage, footage that amounts to only a few seconds worth of screen time, even though much more was initially planned. So literally all you ever see the “evil spirit” do in this movie is stand up. That’s it. That’s how little money they had to work with. They were so poor they were forced to turn their star attraction into an afterthought. Which is why I pause when adding the “supernatural” descriptor. It’s there….I guess. But once they realized they really couldn’t use it, I feel like they could have replaced that angle with any number of other things and the film would have been far more effective.

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This is it. This is the extent of his participation. Soak ‘em in, folks.

I say that because, if you cut out the ambiguity of the supernatural element, which is surprisingly easy to do since it’s so damn near forgettable, the film actually works surprisingly well as a psychological horror/thriller. It’s kind of slow, very character focused and moody as all hell. Because if there’s the one thing this film really nails it’s the atmosphere. The bright, sparse landscape and the secluded lodge are stark and foreboding enough, but they also couple nicely with the dark and dingy lodge interior and it’s poorly lit, claustrophobic corridors. It’s a nice example of two completely different aesthetics complementing and working with one another. As the film progresses and the situations become stranger and stranger, the main players begin to realize the type of danger they’re in, and the snow-covered isolation surrounding them and the feeling of being perpetually trapped in the small, abandoned lodge becomes more and more prominent. In many ways it feels like a gringy-er, very low-budget take on The Shining, only with a much less coherent or gripping plot.

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That said, Ghost Keeper was still a rather low-budget, and then a distinctly no-budget, affair, which is accompanied by all the familiar caveats that follow such a production. For the most part it looks pretty good. The surrounding landscape is a pleasure to look at, and it’s obvious from the cinematography that planning went into setting up visually attractive scenes. But it also suffers from the film being too dark during night scenes, sound issues, and a myriad of dust and scratch marks on parts of the film itself. And of course, there are also some very obvious goofs, like snowmobile tracks appearing before any snowmobiles should have gone that way, and instance where the characters are clearly lying, like when they arrive at the lodge and comment on how warm it is inside, despite the viewer clearly being able to see their breath condensing in the air. That said, most of the issues are pretty minor, but they’re still noticeable enough to give most viewers pause for a second.

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Liers!

As far as the acting goes, the film is pretty solid, but largely unremarkable. The three leads fill their roles admirably, as one would expect. There’s the flirty blond Chrissy (because of course her name is Chrissy), the arrogant asshole Marty, and the expected “Final Girl” Jenny, who you can tell, even before they ever get to the creepy lodge, has put up with enough bullcrap already and is just in no mood to deal with any more. Then there’s the wise shopkeeper who the characters ignore because they think he’s just a boring hick (Or, really, it’s just Marty who treats him like a boring hick. You’re meant to hate Marty, by the way. He’s your typical arrogant, money-grubbing yuppy without a filter who seems to go out of his way to piss everyone off.) Then there’s also the innkeeper’s son, who’s this film’s stand-in for the “slasher” character, and the Wendigo who’s just….there for a couple of seconds. (And yes, I know. I get that the Wendigo’s forced limited use means it’s now supposed to be symbolic or allegorical, and that regardless of how much screen time the creature’s has, it’s influence is meant to bring out the various character’s dark, inner “hunger”, and that said hunger, be it physical, or monetary, or sexual or violent in nature, is meant to result in consequences that haunt the character’s and ultimately lead to their undoing. I get that. In fact, doing that is actually more accurate to the original stories of the Wendigo. But damn it, I was promised a damn monster and they didn’t deliver and I’m still a bit bitter about it. But I digress….) Anyway, the one standout in the cast is Georgie Collins, who plays the mysterious innkeeper, or rather, the titular “Ghost Keeper”. Collin’s performance is quite exceptional. She’s equal parts quiet and manic, but ultimately diabolical and 100% terrifying. Her role is actually quite short, but she’s so wonderfully successful at it that I would personally hold her in the highest of esteem in the great horror movie pantheon of Menacing Old Characters. She really is just that creepy. It’s truly a shame she’s in such a little known movie.

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Ghost Keeper is a film that’s not for everyone. It moves at it’s very own slow, yet deliberate pace. It’s the shining definition of a slow-burner type of film. Plot-wise it has a rather strong beginning, but thanks to a lack of funds the second half becomes a bit of an incoherent mess, meandering around rather aimlessly, and instead focuses on atmosphere rather than story. In that regard, the film succeeds by leaps and bounds. If there’s one thing the film has, it’s most definitely atmosphere. It’s lonely, it’s foreboding, it’s dark and it’s eerie. The creep-factor is pretty much oozing out of every orifice the film has to offer (….ew.) Yet at the same time, the plot is derivative, the dialogue is kinda clunky (and in some cases really clunky), and the ending….well, let’s say it lands with such a resounding thud that I doubt a majority of people are going to feel satisfied (All while that stubborn 1% will insist on its brilliance). So if you want to watch a slow, methodic creep-fest then this is your jam. But if you’re looking for something with a little more action and plot, then you’ll likely want to look elsewhere.

Ghost Keeper is available on several streaming services.

It is also available on DVD and Bluray, but I’m fairly certain those are long out of print.

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Michi

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