Monday, March 11, 2019

"Railroad Guys Sitting Around by the Fire Whittlin' Wood" - Ghostkeeper (1981)

It is time to change gears a little and discuss the low-key, possibly supernatural Canada-set film Ghostkeeper (1981).

The critics of your universe and unduly harsh, as always. Reviewer itsbaylis writes, "To say the plot was flimsy would be an understatement, and frankly an insult to other flimsily plotted films. It's barely existent, let alone flimsy. There doesn't seem to BE one." Reviewer WisdomsHammer writes, "It was painful but I kept watching, hoping it would get better. Hoping for at least a good payoff at the end. That didn't happen." And reviewer anxietyresister calls the film "a sorry piece of trash that should be avoided at all costs."

Read on for a more balanced view of this chilling film...

“In the Indian Legends of North America, there exists a creature called Windigo...a ghost who lives on human flesh.” So begins the film with a classic text introduction, a paragraph so perfect that its only flaw is the capitalization of the world “legends.” The film begins with shots of snow-covered mountains. A couple rides a snowmobile through a valley full of snowmobile tracks. They reach a general store and enter, the man (Marty) hurling verbal insults that identify the couple as “city folk” making fun of “country folk”: “I thought these places always had old railroad guys sitting around by the stove whittlin’ wood.” (He does not explain, unfortunately, what a “railroad guy” might be.)

A third snowmobiled, a woman in a pink snowsuit named Chrissy, arrives to find the couple, who explain that they are taking a break from the ski lodge. She also explains that the “city folk” are a group of geological engineers.

The general store proprietor, who resembles a pipe-smoking Gordon Jump, tells the group, “You best stay with the roads. These mountains can be tricky.”

“We can handle ourselves,” replies city man Marty.

“Mountains can fool you. They’re dangerous.”

Chrissy replies dismissively, “How can mountains be dangerous? They’re so beautiful.”

The trio leaves the general store (which for some reason is full of clothes on dry cleaning racks) and heads out into the mountains on their two snowmobiles. Despite the proprietor’s warning, they find a snow-covered road with a “Keep Out” sign and decide, in fact, to not keep out.

The snow picks up, but the group finds what appears to be a hotel or lodge in the middle of nowhere.

Chrissy immediately overturns her snowmobile, which then refuses to start, forcing the trio to enter the apparently abandoned lodge. For some reason, this involves a difficult, five-minute trudge uphill through several feet of snow.

When they reach the front door, Marty finds it locked. “Try to force it open,” suggests Chrissy. Marty tries again and the door opens.

Inside, they check the guest book and find that nobody has checked in for five years, though the place is suspiciously heated. Marty says optimistically, “It’s going to quit snowing pretty soon and we’ll be out of here pretty quick, so let’s just get comfortable.”

Getting comfortable, of course, means splitting up. Chrissy sits in a chair and stares out the window, while Jenny experiences a quick cat-scare, and Marty checks out the food supplies—which consist of exactly one can of peaches. (None of them think to look for a telephone, or a car, or a replacement snowmobile.)

Night falls. Marty tends a fire in the lobby fireplace while singing a ridiculous and racist song. “You’re terrible,” Chrissy laughs.

Jenny says, “Before, I was in a room upstairs, and I felt somebody else was there.”

Marty replies, oddly, “Well, maybe it was one of us.”

“No. It was somebody...or something else.”

This spurs Chrissy to tell a wholly inappropriate story about how she wanted to be a prostitute when she was 16—and she seduced her substitute teacher for money.

Marty wanders into the dark hotel to find a bottle of wine when he is attacked by somebody or something who turns out to be an old woman. “You can’t stay here,” she says. “You gotta go now.” The old woman seems to take an interest in Jenny, whom she calls “a tough one, cookie.”

The woman says ominously, “No one’s ever alone in the mountains here.”

“You just don’t like answering questions, do you?” asks Marty.

“And you don’t like not asking them,” she replies. She also tells them her boy is here. “He’s around somewhere. He’s never off too far.”

After the nameless old woman’s cryptic and ominous statements, she leads them upstairs to two guest rooms. Marty and Jenny share a room, and Marty quickly acts like a jerk. He calls Jenny crazy and tells her she’s scared of “flipping out, just like your old lady.”

Meanwhile, Chrissy decides to take a bath, complete with dozens of candles, during which she is spied upon by a man—the woman’s son. He grabs Chrissy and pushes her under the water, then carries her unconscious body out of the bathroom. He takes her to a room that appears to be made of ice, then slits her throat and gives her to a bearded man. Later, we see his shadow chopping something with an axe.

Back in their room, Jenny infuriatingly apologizes to Marty. “Maybe I’m going through some kind of stage or something. Maybe it’s insecurity. You know I’m afraid of being crazy. I don’t want to be like my mother. I live in fear of that.”

He grins. “You really jump on me sometimes.”

They agree that they should both try to work harder at the relationship. He’ll try to be less of a gaslighting jerk, and she’ll stop calling him out for being a jerk.

In a spooky sequence, Jenny gets out of bed and wanders through the hotel with her blanket. She overhears the old woman talking to her soon, though we only hear her side of the conversation: “You done good...It’ll be fine...He needed us...You know that.” Then the old woman catches a glimpse of Jenny, and Jenny wanders away.

Morning comes quickly, and with it the sounds of Marty trudging through the snow and trying futilely for several minutes to start the snowmobiles. He finds out one of the wires has been clipped.

While Marty finds a shed to look for something to repair the snowmobile, Jenny sits inside the lodge, admiring the charming teepee light fixtures, until a drug the nameless old woman put in her tea causes her to black out.

Later, Jenny wakes up in a strange room. Instead of trying to escape or making a fuss, she sits in a chair and reads a little book called Indian Legends of Canada. She turns right to a chapter called “The Cannibal Giant.” This alarms her, and she runs out of the room, down a hallway, and to the room with ice walls, which is locked with a big padlock, though the key is sticking in the lock.

In a scene that is not edited optimally, she unlocks the padlock and screams, having seen the bearded man held prisoner in the room. Then the nameless woman’s son approaches with a revving chainsaw!

In another scene that is not edited optimally, Jenny somehow escapes the chainsaw, passing the man in the narrow hallway and running away. She is chased into the attic by the son, but she escapes onto a part of the lodge’s roof and manages to knock the son off the roof. He falls, impaled on a short length of fence whose purpose is uncertain.

(His death proves he is not the ghost of the title, but leaves the audience wondering why they could not hear his side of the conversation with his mother the previous night.)

She tries to explain what happened to Marty, but he says something like “You’ll never get away with it” and runs away from her.

Then the snowmobile explodes when the old woman looks at it askance.

In a bold plot development some might poo-poo as absurd, but which features a tour de force performance from actor Murray Ord, Marty immediately goes insane, painting his face with grease and running off to find Chrissy.

A few minutes later, a snowshoer with a rifle sees snowmobile tracks leading past the “No Trespassing” sign, despite the fact that it ha snowed all night and much of the day. Shaking his head, the snowshoer follows the tracks.

For unexplained reasons, Jenny follows Marty out into the snow. They become separated, but the snowshoer walks directly to the lodge, where the old woman waits for him enthusiastically—with a knife. She stabs him. Tragically, we never find out what the snowshoer is doing, as his only line is, “Hello? Anyone home?”

Jenny returns to the abandoned lodge, where she finds a shotgun in a closet (instead of taking the snowshoer’s rifle, which he leaned against the wall near the front door). She confronts the old woman, who says, “You couldn’t kill me. That’s something a crazy person would do, and you’re not crazy, are you?”

“What do you know about that?”

“Oh, I know a lot of things. And you know who I am.” The woman holds a knife behind her.

“I’m your mother,” the woman tells Jenny. “Look at me.”

“No, my mother’s dead!”

“No, Jenny. I’m not dead. Come to mother!”

Shockingly, Jenny shoots the woman.

Jenny goes down to the room with ice walls and opens the door again. She sees the monster inside and says, “It’s all right. Jenny will look after you now.” Then she shuts the door.

In the chilling ending, she finds Marty’s frozen body in the woods. She tells him he should have listened to her, then (with questionable efficiency) says she’ll be back for him. In the end, she sits in the abandoned lodge and pours herself some tea.

Co-written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Jim Makichuk, Ghostkeeper is a fine example of a low-key horror film. In fact, in the end, almost nothing is cleared up, and the audience leaves with a satisfying sense of mystery. Even the title of the film is unclear, as there does not appear to be a ghost, though there are several keepers (presumably, based on the pre-credits text, keepers of a Windigo). Perhaps the nameless old woman is a ghost--she does blow up a snowmobile engine with her mind, which is something I assume ghosts can do--and perhaps she is not. Perhaps the bearded man in the room with ice walls is a Windigo, or a Wendigo, and perhaps he is not. Perhaps the old woman is Jenny's mother, and perhaps she is not. Perhaps Jenny is insane, and perhaps she is not. The mysteries continue...

Another reason to recommend Ghostkeeper is its realistic depiction of a snowy Canadian mountain landscape. Unlike most other movies that are not Bill Rebane's The Capture of Bigfoot (1979), Ghostkeeper includes many long scenes of characters struggling to trudge through deep snow. That is what winter landscapes are like, and perhaps that trudging is truly the most horrifying thing about the Canadian masterpiece known as Ghostkeeper.