A flawed, muddled, but still minorly diverting and atmospheric mix of THE SHINING (1980) and THE SENTINEL (1977) – and enough FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) to get it reviewed on this site.
Perhaps dismissed by some because of its 1986 date stamp, it was actually shot at the tail end of 1980. Overshadowed by its fellow Canadian contemporaries, such as TERROR TRAIN (1980) and MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981), GHOSTKEEPER is perhaps the least remembered of the tax shelter slasher/horror films that came out of the Golden Era North of the Border. Much of that can be attributed to its disastrous production history and patchy release on home video. More of which later…
GHOSTKEEPER is a film of stark light and dark. Quite literally. It is split into the blinding white of winter and the impenetrable darkness of the later interior shots (not helped by overly murky prints and washed out video transfers). The setting is an isolated ski resort (it was filmed at Lake Louise, Alberta), where the snow is thigh deep and a group of thirty-somethings are celebrating ahead of New Year's Eve. Three of them take their snowmobiles to the local store: a couple, the sarcastic Marty (Murray Ord) and his dour girlfriend Jenny (Riva Spier); who looks daggers at the bubbly and flirtatious Chrissy (Sheri McFadden). After a brief spot of banter with the shop keeper – who intones “Mountains can fool you … there's a lot worse things than being lost!” in his best Crazy Ralph voice – of course the first thing they do is stray from the path to investigate a side road. This despite Jenny's sensible protests and the prominent 'Keep Out!' signs.
At the end of the track they discover an imposing hotel; seemingly shut up for the winter. Almost on cue, Chrissy manages to topple her snowmobile; she's OK, but the motor won't start. The group decide to take shelter in the building, and break in through a side door. They find a guestbook that says that no one has stayed there for five years, yet, curiously, the building is still being heated.
When the snowfall begins to get heavier, they decide to make the most of it by lighting a fire and opening some wine to ring in the New Year. But when they run out, Marty goes to hunt for some more. Shouting out in pain the others rush to him, to find that an old woman has bitten him (!). The woman (Georgie Collins), who has previously been spying on them from behind closet doors, tells them they cannot stay; but then seems to take to Jenny, who she calls a “tough cookie”. Understandably the group says they are going nowhere, as they would freeze to death; the old woman does a version of that joke about how things were worse when she was a kid – and says she even saw a bottle of whiskey freeze back in the 1950s! She won't be drawn on what she's doing at the hotel, but does casually say that her son is somewhere about the place, but he's not very sociable …
Eventually the old woman allows them to take rooms on the upper floors. In bed, Jenny and Marty squabble, as she accuses him of wanting to sleep with Chrissy. He tells her she doesn't own him, and says she doesn't seem to mind spending his money (charming!). He also accuses her going wacko like her mother, before going off to the bathroom. Meanwhile, Chrissy takes a bath (in her bra – which suggests some framing issues, or it was an unmatted print I saw). Or maybe that's what some people do? I wouldn't know. Not wearing a bra myself. ... Anyway, her spot of r&r is spoilt by whoever is watching her through the open door. That unseen someone dunks her head under the water, before dragging her into the ice cellar below the hotel …
It is clear from the off that GHOSTKEEPER was not going to be your average teenagers-being-chased-around-a-snow-lodge-by-a-mad-killer (although, arguably, it would have been more fun if it was). Unlike most of its contemporaries, the film introduces the notion of the supernatural: a title card talks about the Wendigo (spelt Windigo here), a ghost that lives on human flesh. Sadly, this idea is not brought to its full potential bar a few flashes of totem poles and books about the supernatural lying about the hotel. Whilst the title itself tells you all you really need to know, skip the rest of this paragraph if you don't want to know the film's surprise … <spoiler>The old woman and her son protect the Wendigo, who they keep locked in an ice room in the basement – although it is not clear if they are trying to keep it from escaping or they worship it. The woman eyes Jenny as a suitable replacement (as she is getting too old), which she eventually becomes by the film's close in an obvious nod to THE SENTINEL. Sadly, be it because of budget or lighting, the Wendigo is not very frightening looking – unless a fat bloke with a bushy beard gives you the willies!</spoiler>
According to the director, the money ran out halfway through filming – which explains some of the film's shortcomings. GHOSTKEEPER had a sizeable $750,000 CAD budget, and was shot on 35mm (which means that a decent print should really add something to the film – and such a thing is rumoured to be coming from Code Red soon). Because the film was shot in sequence, the first third – although deliberately paced (this isn't a film for people without patience) – builds the atmosphere and a modicum of tension nicely. However, once the money ran out the director decided, rather than junking the whole project, to continue but make things up as he went along. This also meant jettisoning some set pieces – as well as loosing the film's central villain!
This disjointed production is also reflected in the the performances of the actors. The three leads do well for the first half of the film, but Riva Spier as Jenny is unable to generate the kind of gravitas the role ultimately demands of her – and she seems to be sleepwalking through much of the latter part of the movie. This in itself lends the film a strange dreamlike quality, as Marty – not Jenny – goes mad initially; before the film gets to the climax you knew it would (shamelessly cribbing THE SHINING, which had opened to big box office a few months before this went into production). However, Collins – as the kooky old broad – puts in an admirably unhinged performance: that is one part pathos and regret and three parts unhinged.
It would have been interesting to have seen what GHOSTKEEPER could have been had the production been smoother and the director been able to finish the film as he had imagined it. It isn't hard to see why this has been overlooked (Overlook! Geddit?) in favour of the more commercial and fun offerings from Canada at this time. Another Canadian slasher movie – the perhaps even more troubled CURTAINS (which also began production in 1980 and didn't see a release until 1983) – was originally going to have a supernatural killer (a 500 year old Banshee), but that was jettisoned in favour of a more traditional tale of duelling actresses. However, INCUBUS – yet another Canadian production from 1980 – showed that supernatural slashers (with Freddy Krueger still four years away) could still make a splash at the box office. Incidentally, Paul Zaza – who scored most Canadian slashers of note – provides suitable icy sounds here (with what sounds like some identical stings from CURTAINS and/or PROM NIGHT, which he also composed).
After reading this you won't be expecting a full on slasher flick – although there are five deaths and a chase of a woman around the hotel with a man brandishing a chain saw – but this film has its fans. And I guess you won't know which side of the snowdrift you stand unless you take the leap.
female:2 / male:3
1) Female has throat slit
2) Male impaled on railings
3) Male stabbed in chest
4) Female shot with shotgun
5) Male frozen to death