Ghostkeeper (1981)

Author: Brett H.
Submitted by: Brett H.   Date : 2008-07-01 18:23

Directed by: Jim Makichuk
Written by: Doug MacLeod and Jim Makichuk
Produced by: Harold J. Cole

Reviewed by: Brett H.

In the Indian Legends of North America, there exists a creature called Windigo... a ghost who lives on human flesh.

If you ask anyone the word they generally relate the country of Canada to, the answer most likely given is, “snow.” If you requested them to keep firing off words, you’re going to hear a lot of “hockeys,” “beavers,” “moose,” and of course, “ehs.” Somewhere down the line, one is bound to mention the Native Canadians and perhaps, the legends of the people. With tax shelter laws in full effect, it seems natural that filmmakers from Canada would most definitely use the history of their people to their advantage. Backwoods horrors were not uncommon and a few even managed to take place in winter. But, how could it be that so few capitalized on the Native Canadian myths, such as the windigo? Such myths and creatures definitely are thrice as interesting as your typical slasher, would be relatively inexpensive to shoot and could generate some true scares. Ghostkeeper remains the sole example from the era that could hope to achieve some real Canadian legendry on the screen and the premise of the film is simply amazing for the Canuck b-movie fan. The synopsis would lead you to believe you’re about to trek into the cold, mountainous Alberta wilderness and watch three city folk do battle with a Native supernatural entity. Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as good as it looks on paper, because what’s on said paper is far from what the movie turns out to be.

The Alberta countryside has somehow attracted three city folk to its beautiful scenery and less than exciting rural folk for New Years. Jenny (Riva Spier), Marty (Murray Ord) and Chrissie (Sheri McFadden) aren’t content with staying on the beaten track, regardless if the weather is chilling to the bone and the local shopkeeper has warned them to stay on the normal paths. A no trespassing sign is all Marty and Chrissie need to see to make them want to go on a little adventure, and Jenny reluctantly goes along. Although Jenny and Marty are a couple, Marty seems to have a lot more in common with Chrissie, who we know is the snooty bitch because she rides her skidoo with one leg on the seat. It’s all fun and games until Chrissie crashes her snowmobile, rendering it useless without proper tools to fix it up. Luckily, the snowmobile breaks down in front of a large hotel that for some reason exists in the middle of nowhere with no road to it. Without much choice, the group goes inside and finds the place still warm, although uninhabited. The guest book reveals that there’s not been a visitor in five years.

There’s one can of food in the entire place, but the group sings songs by the fire and makes the best of the situation they’re in, all the while wondering if people from their own lodge were out looking for them. It turns out they’re not alone when they come face to face with a creepy, old, Native lady who seemingly lives their with her son. Holier than thou, Marty tells her that they will be staying in her building, to which she agrees. Something isn’t right with the old lady and her son is never around, either. There go the plans for the party. Soon enough, Chrissie goes missing (of course, we know she’s had a little accident with someone’s blade and her delicate throat) and the one working snowmobile has been tampered with. With waist-high snow, a pounding blizzard and no transportation, Marty and Jenny are stuck in the place. As strange things begin to happen, Jenny stumbles upon a book of Native legends and reads about the “windigo”, a giant spirit of the North that feasts on human flesh and the keeper that makes sure it’s fed because of an ancient power. ”No one in the mountains is ever alone…”

Ghostkeeper has got to be one of the most underachieving horror films that I’ve ever witnessed. The basic premise is so interesting, distinctly Canadian and terrifying that one could never guess from the plot outline just how bad the film would turn out to be. What is most admirable about films that use elements of nature to their advantage is that they’re the most realistic and easiest for anyone to identify to. In a haunted house film, the main goal for the protagonist is to get out of the house. In a city-set slasher film, the main goal is to go and get help, reach a phone, or at worst, go toe to toe with the villain and hope for the best. With a film like Ghostkeeper, the absolutely beautiful Alberta winter scenery is the true antagonist. There is no escape from terror. Stay in the old hotel and battle the creepy old lady and the being within, there’s hope for survival. The cold, Canadian winter offers little hope and you’re better off going at your adversary, no matter what tool of destruction his arm may wield. Beautiful to gaze at from afar, but deadly within hours, even minutes to an unprepared city slicker. In the middle of nowhere, there is no escape. Only panic and dread.

Sadly, Ghostkeeper barely manages to make this successful and to top things off, the supernatural behemoth windigo is completely wasted. Gone is the mythical creature of lore, present is a normal guy that is apparently a cannibal who gets two minutes of screen time. The old, Native lady is creepy with her warnings and subtle foreshadowing (not to mention she’ll stab the shit out of you), but a movie surrounding native legend will always die for me when her son looks more like a bearded white guy and brandishes a chainsaw as a weapon. The hotel used is great and eerie, but one also wonders just why the hell there’s an old lady there in the first place. The main characters are also easy to dislike as they never seem to worry about a damn thing the Albertans tell them. The film never really says why stuck up people like these would want to come out into the middle of nowhere in the first place, especially on New Years. In a nutshell, the lack of anything truly supernatural or mysterious turns this film into what amounts to essentially as a slasher with a low body count. Think what would happen if every cool thing in the plot outline was flipped upside down and that’s what you get. It sounds cool and it’s all true, but the appearance of interesting ideas are masked in a river of crap.

There’s a few problems with the pacing as the characters walk around too much and make several boneheaded mistakes. Other than disrespecting a creepy Native lady who could throw their asses out of her abode whenever she feels like it, the character of Jenny is particularly dumb, and she’s the one you’re supposed to respect. After being attacked by the chainsaw branding son, she returns to where the windigo lives in some weird iced place, presumably a basement. The mystique surrounding the film is totally lost in the translation and the dark VHS transfer adds confusion as well. And to further add to its slasherness, the surprise twist ending makes even less sense. The film should have been and could easily have been a supernatural spook fest sure to make the hair on any Canadian’s back stand up and it just wastes everything. One redeeming quality is the cinematography as it shows the mountains of Alberta well. The film makes you feel damn cold, that’s for sure. It’s also low budget, and you can tell because the wind howls when the trees don’t move and the supposed snowmobile crash is really just an actress jumping off while the camera shakes.

It’s so disappointing to see something so promising fall to pieces, but on the bright side, the film at least moderately fulfilled my winter themed horror needs with a splash of Native legend to boot. It’s not so bad until it all unravels and you realize that you’re in for a dumb twist and a hairy guy in a cellar who effectively does nothing. An easy film to compare would be the superb low budget chiller, Screams of a Winter Night, which remains one of the best rare features in horror history. It is everything Ghostkeeper should have been and you have to wonder if it was an influence. Why the filmmakers chose a nonsensical twist and a chainsaw over just sticking with the quality tale that dwells within the film is beyond logic. Granted, this is not the worst piece of horror filmmaking you’ll become privy to, don’t lose any sleep to track it down. My love for winter and Native legend themed horrors along with a moderate build up made this one watchable for me, but beware. Ghostkeeper had the potential to be one of the greats of Maple Leaf Macabre, but the windigo blows. Rent it!

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