There's something really special about winter horror films, and Canada really specialized in these for obvious reasons from the 1970s until the early '80s with titles ranging from Black Christmas to Curtains. Though not as widely seen as some of its companions, the low-key chiller Ghostkeeper packs in much of that same atmosphere as it strands a trio of characters in the middle of a snowy nightmare. Unfortunately it was barely released and mostly found its fans through a VHS release in the '90s from New World, but it's an unassuming little spooker worthy of a little more attention.
After some opening text about the "Windigo... a ghost who lives on human flesh" (which doesn't really play out as you'd expect here), we meet our three potential victims-to-be: Jenny (Rabid's Spier), her boyfriend Marty (Ord), and boy-crazy friend Chrissy (McFadden), all of whom get stuck in the countryside when their snowmobile conks out. After some wandering they end up at the Deer Lodge, a closed hotel seemingly inhabited only by a creepy old woman (Collins). However, she's got a nasty surprise or two hidden away waiting to come out at night, and when they aren't busy exploring through the shadows with oil lamps, the visitors are soon fighting for their lives.
Shot in the mountains of Alberta, Canada for a budget of $650,000, Ghost Keeper is a bit of a slow burner but weirdly appealing if you're willing to go along with its peculiar rhythms. The actors don't have to do anything too demanding beyond looking scared or apprehensive (except for Collins, a stage actress who gets to chomp some big chunks of the scenery), but director Jim Makichuk conjures up a palpable icy, gothic mood, aided by a rich score by Paul Zaza, who also worked on My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night, and several Bob Clark films. And if you're a snowmobiling fan, you'll get plenty of that, too.
The New World VHS release of this film wasn't terribly impressive; overly dark and weirdly framed (missing information on the sides while exposing some extra unmatted info at the bottom, often with disastrous results including the memorable bathtub scene), it was at least competent enough to win over horror fans who wanted something a little different from the jokey fare more popular at the time. The Code Red DVD (distributed through them directly online) features what is purported as "the only surviving 35mm print," and thankfully it's in very nice condition overall. There's some minor damage here and there (the bulk of it in the opening minute or so), but the colors are surprisingly solid and it's a major upgrade across the board in every respect. The restoration of the original framing also helps considerably, bringing much-needed focus to many scenes that seemed aimless and confusing on the tape version. The biggest extra is a fun audio commentary with Makichuk, Spier, and Ord, moderated by Jeff McKay, which covers everything from the tax shelter nature of the project, its near extinction halfway into the production, the shooting of almost everything in sequence, and the downside to shooting in the Canadian wilderness at the height of winter. "Interviews with the Ghostkeeper" is actually two interviews, one an audio chat with cinematographer John Holbrook (accompanied by stills from behind the scenes and the film itself) and a video one with Collins, who talks about the difference between acting for film and her much busier stage work as well as her specialized character acting. Finally you get some self-described "Pointless Code Red Trailers" for The Last Chase, Brute Corps, the awesome Devil's Express (seriously, when is that one coming out?), and Nightmare.