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The Passion of the Ghostkeeper

It’s about time that I wrote about Ghostkeeper. But first, I want to recount a curious incident which happened in the SFX office, not long after the first issue was published. The phone rang, and I answered it. (This was 1995, hardly anyone had email. Communication was still done by phone, fax and post. It was like the Middle Ages.) A French voice said, in English: "’Allo, zees is ze editor ov ays-eff-ex magaseen.” Which was an odd thing to say because the editor of SFX magazine was English and sitting where I could not only see him but actually reach out and touch him. (It was an absurdly small office with five desks crammed into a space which could have comfortably accommodated two.)

      It turned out that there was already a magazine called SFX, published in France, about which none of us knew. I knew there had been a British music mag called SFX back in the early 1980s when the abbreviation meant ‘sound effects’, but by 1995 it meant ‘special effects’ and a French glossy all about effects on TV and in films was using that title. They were rather surprised to see a British glossy all about fantasy, sci-fi and horror appearing with the same title. But an amicable settlement was reached. French SFX wasn’t available in the UK and British SFX wouldn’t be available in France. Fair enough. We did later have Italian, Spanish and German reprint editions and it was fun reading what I had written in another language. But the reason I mention all this is because of The Passion of Darkly Noon.

      The Passion of Darkly Noon is an intense, powerful British horror movie, starring Brendan Fraser, which was released in 1995, the second feature by enigmatic director Philip Ridley. After his acclaimed debut with The Reflecting Skin, a vampire picture which is so much more than a vampire picture, Ridley disappeared for five years then eventually returned with Darkly Noon. However, this work-rate was clearly a bit frenetic so he then waited another 14 years before his third feature, 2009’s hoodie horror Heartless.

      Now, I like Brendan Fraser. I think he’s a terrific actor who ably combines the comic with the action-packed, and that’s why he’s the go-to guy for family-friendly action movies and live-action cartoons: The Mummy, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Dudley Do-Right, George of the Jungle - and of course the utter brilliance that is Looney Toons: Back in Action. (Speaking of which: where oh where is the special edition of that film? For Heaven’s sake, there exists deleted footage of Jenna Elfman in a fur bikini and someone is keeping this from us. It’s neither right nor fair!) So anyways, Brendan Fraser: hunky body, little boy face, charming smile, impeccable comic timing, he can babysit the kids any time.

      Unless you’ve seen him in The Passion of Darkly Noon. It’s a long time since I watched that movie but the image of Brendan Fraser, painted blood-red, wrapped in barbed wire, madness in his eyes, is burned onto my optic nerve. Fraser is a survivor of a Waco-style siege on a repressive ultra-religious community, who is taken in and cared for by free-spirited Ashley Judd. Viggo Mortensen is a mute carpenter and Grace Zabriskie is a trailer-living woman who may be a witch, or something. It is a stunning film and even as I type this I’m making a mental note to track a copy down and rewatch it. The Passion of Darkly Noon is, in a word, superb.

      And when the film was released on VHS, after a very limited theatrical run, there it was on the sleeve: "’superb’ - SFX”. Which was very exciting: my first ever sleeve quote. Except that, when I checked my review in SFX, I never used the word ‘superb’. I laid all sorts of plaudits on the movie but I never used that one particular word, and it was the one word that the rental VHS sleeve ascribed to the magazine (and mine was the only review we published). I found this situation very odd: why invent a one-word quote like that? The only explanation I could come up with was that perhaps the French magazine also called SFX had described the film as ‘superb’. Thinking about it now, there aren’t really many special effects in The Passion of Darkly Noon, so that seems unlikely, but the alternative is that someone at the video label paraphrased our review with a word that I never wrote.

      As a reviewer (I’m not a critic and I’m not even sure what one of those is; I just write reviews) it’s always a treat to see my words used to publicise a film. I rarely get mentioned by name, but I know that they’re my words. During my SFX days I ended up on a few book covers too and was particularly excited when my quote appeared on the paperback of Lawrence M Krauss’s book The Physics of Star Trek, because that did actually use my name. The downside of that achievement was that I felt the need to go out and buy the paperback simply because it had my name on it, even though I already owned a review copy of the hardback. So it ended up costing me money. And you know, writing stuff for sci-fi mags is not exactly a high-paying job.

      All of which brings me, by a very circuitous route, to the subject of Ghostkeeper, which has not one but two quotes from from me on the sleeve of the Code Red DVD released last year. And I’m quite happy to see my quotes on there because I’m rather proud of being instrumental, in my own little way, in reviving interest in this fascinating movie. Most times, a review is a review and who cares? It makes no difference. Maybe a few people say: "Oh look, MJ Simpson says it’s good, I’ll chance a few bucks on a copy.” But for each of them there is probably somebody else saying: "Well, if that idiot Simpson likes it, the movie must suck big time.” You win some, you lose some. But sometimes a review is the little push that starts a snowball down the mountain.

      Ghostkeeper, I should explain, is an early 1980s Canadian horror movie directed by a chap named Jim Makichuk, who started out in TV news and learned all the film-making ropes with a view to directing features. In 1980 he found himself with a cool location - a mountaintop hotel, closed all winter, apparently isolated but actually right next to a big ski resort - and some investment. This was a ‘happy time’ for Canadian film-making with Government tax breaks encouraging investors, and from those investments we have the likes of Scanners, Porky’s - and Ghostkeeper. The story is loosely based around the native American legend of the Windigo or Wendigo (later used by Larry Fessenden for his own horror film) which is a sort of cannibalistic demon-thing. Three tourists on their skidoos end up at this remote hotel run by one apparently bonkers old lady but with a secret in its rooms.

      Ghostkeeper is laden with atmosphere. It’s chilly to watch, the hotel interiors are brilliantly creepy and the snowy exteriors wonderfully evocative of isolation. But it’s not quite the film that Makichuk set out to make. He shot the footage pretty much in sequence and consequently had about half the movie in the can - the first half - when he discovered that a problem with one of the producers meant the money was running out very fast and he had about a day to shoot his creature shots so he shot a bunch of random stuff. It’s not a big suit creature, just kind of a scary guy, but that makes the story all the creepier. All the big chase/action stuff planned for the third act had to be dropped, leaving a film which stumbles to a halt enigmatically, raising more questions than it answers. And lots of second unit stuff was filmed to bulk out the running time which likewise has an unexpected benefit, pacing the story and building the atmosphere in a way that might not have worked anywhere near so well if all had gone to plan.

      Ghostkeeper never played UK cinemas but it did appear over here on VHS, released in 1986 by Apex Video (as Ghost Keeper). The mid-1980s was a boom time for home video releases (the 1984 VRA notwithstanding) and companies like Apex were banging out rental tapes as fast as they could, and not bothering about little things like whether the sleeve bore any relation to the film contained therein. As far as I can tell, where no obviously usable artwork was easily to hand, 1980s video companies would just just use any old pre-existing piece of fantasy-themed artwork. I’m guessing they maybe bought these up in job lots from defunct paperback publishers. Clearly somebody, somewhere, sometime went to the trouble of painting the image used on the Apex Ghost Keeper sleeve - but they certainly didn’t do it for this film.

      As you can see, the sleeve features a quite magnificent Inca/Aztec vulture-demon thing with stepped Meso-American pyramids under a blood red sky. It’s a whole continent away from the snowbound film itself, half-heartedly represented by a couple of small stills on the back of the box. I think I must have picked up this tape from a bargain bin in Stoke-on-Trent sometime in the early 1990s. It travelled down to Bath with me, then up to Leicester three years later, along with hundreds of other VHS tapes and one or two of those weird new things called DVDs (it was totally the Middle Ages). In January 2006, when I was getting rid of a lot of old tapes because I had started buying too many DVDs, I rewatched Ghostkeeper and posted a review onto my website.

      It’s always a treat to hear from film-makers whose work I have featured so I was delighted to receive an email out of the blue from Jim Makichuk, thanking me for the review. We stayed in touch and a couple of years later did a phone interview which also went onto my website. One of the reasons I had reviewed Ghostkeeper specifically was because no-one else seemed to have written anything about it, but once my review and the interview were out there and linked from the IMDB, people searching for info on this old movie they remembered had something they could read. And this started to generate interest among fans of 1980s and/or Canadian horror and create a market for a possible DVD release.

      It’s very tempting to assume nowadays that every film ever made, at least since the introduction of colour, and at least in English, has been released somewhere on DVD but actually there are plenty of movies still awaiting a proper release. Until last year, Ghostkeeper was one of those limbo titles: released on VHS back in the day, even uploaded to the web from a VHS source apparently, but not legitimately available on a shiny drinks coaster. Kudos to Code Red (whose website says the movie has "garnered a large genre fanbase over the years and has been voted one of the most anticipated Canadian horror films for a DVD release”) for reviving Ghostkeeper. The disc has some interviews and a commentary by Jim and the two lead actors, full of great reminiscences about this film and the early 1980s Canadian cinema industry in general. The release has generated some great reviews and now people are starting to ask Jim when he’s going to make Ghostkeeper Part 2. It could happen. And in a lovely touch, Code Red have even reproduced the ‘demonic chicken’ image from the old APEX sleeve on the disc itself.









MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.