A ghost reborn: Alberta-shot cult film from 1981 to be screened as part of National Canadian Film Day

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It all began with the hotel.

While there are some fine performances in Jim Makichuk’s 1981 cult film Ghostkeeper, it could be argued that the unsettling focal point has always been Lake Louise’s Deer Lodge.

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The hulking building was first erected as a teahouse in 1923 before becoming a hotel in 1925. When a small cast and crew descended on the closed-for-the-season and unheated inn to shoot their film in 1980, it required little embellishment to become a creepy backdrop for a horror film.

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Producer and co-writer Doug MacLeod had worked at the Deer Lodge and knew the family that owned it, which made it a potential resource for filmmakers eager to make their debut feature at the lowest possible cost. A few years earlier, John Carpenter’s pioneering slasher flick Halloween had become a surprise hit despite its deceptively simple premise and low budget. So MacLeod and Makichuk, who knew each other as early members of the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers, began toying with the idea of making a horror film that required limited settings and a small cast and crew. In the grand tradition of use-what-you-have filmmaking, Makichuk and MacLeod went with whatever they could get their hands on. Since an empty lodge in the snowy wilderness was available, that became the hook.

“I was aware of it and its possibilities as a location,” says MacLeod in an interview with Postmedia from his home in Canmore. “That’s what drove Jim and I to try and work out a story that could be set in a single location at a time when it was effectively closed. In those days, it was very quiet up there in Lake Louise during the winter and we shot it prior to the ski season starting.”

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Ghostkeeper
A scene from Jim Makichuk’s 1981 film, Ghostkeeper. Courtesy, Calgary Underground Film Festival cal

So, in late November 1980, production began on Ghostkeeper with a small crew and handful of actors decamping to Lake Louise for the 20-day shoot. Makichuk and MacLeod’s screenplay revolved around three young and reckless snowmobilers (played by Riva Spier, Sheri McFadden and future Alberta Film Commissioner Murray Ord) who find themselves stranded at a seemingly abandoned lodge in the wilderness during a blizzard. They eventually discover they aren’t alone and encounter a creepy caretaker (played by Calgary theatre veteran Georgie Collins) and her equally creepy son. Soon, the three hapless snowmobilers are up against a supernatural force, a creature the writers loosely based on the malevolent Wendigo of First Nations folklore.

Mayhem ensues. There are traces of Halloween, The Shining and Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be found in Ghostkeeper, but the film stands on its own.

Forty-three years later, it is considered by some to be a cult classic, praised for its eerie atmosphere, expressive cinematography and relatively subtle storyline.

It has been rediscovered by a new generation of horror buffs, particularly after it was released on DVD for the first time in 2012 and later on Blu-Ray in 2017. On April 17, there will be a free screening of the film at the Globe Cinema as part of National Canadian Film Day in partnership with the Calgary Underground Film Festival. MacLeod and Ord will be among the guests attending the screening. 

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MacLeod says he doesn’t remember what the exact budget was of Ghostkeeper but various sources have put it between $650,000 and $750,000, which made it a decidedly shoestring venture for those days. He also wasn’t involved in getting investors for the film, but Ghostkeeper is generally considered Alberta’s only film that was part of the “tax shelter” era of Canadian cinema, a productive period from 1975 to 1982 when the federal government would allow investors to deduct 100 per cent of their investment in Canadian feature films from their taxable income.

He was overseas making a commercial when Makichuk informed him that the funding was more or less in place. As is often the case with Alberta, Mother Nature co-operated by providing knee-deep snow for the cast and crew to trudge through. Since it was closed, the lodge wasn’t heated. No post-production effects were required to see the actors’ breath as they spoke. Because it was off-season, cast and crew were able to acquire relatively cheap accommodations nearby and the lodge’s fully equipped kitchen allowed everyone to eat their meals without leaving the set. The budget was tight, and so was the timeline.

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“It was tenuous, you were working from week to week,” MacLeod says. “It was just making sure you had enough to make payroll, that was the key thing. You had to feed people and pay them and you basically marched on and you never let up and you had to be tenacious to get the job done. Jim certainly was, he understood the constraints. We did whatever we had to do to get it done.”

While making the film may have been tenuous, those who worked on it remember a jovial but professional set, with Makichuk allowing both his actors and cinematographer John Holbrook plenty of freedom to contribute ideas.

“We shot everything in one building, or within 200 yards of the building, and we ate there for lunch and then we all stayed in a hotel not far from Deer Lodge,” says Ord, who played arrogant male lead, Marty. “We got together in the evening with the crew because it was a small crew and we’d have something to eat and a couple beers. So it was very collegial that way because there was nowhere else for any of us to go. Nobody lived there, including the crew. So a lot of times I’d be sitting down having a beer with the electrical person and the gaffer and the grip or whoever it may be. I think that really contributed. Not only was it professional but it was more family-like.”

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Ghostkeeper
Sheri McFadden in a scene from Jim Makichuk’s 1981 film, Ghostkeeper. Courtesy, Calgary Underground Film Festival cal

Ord knew MacLeod because both had worked for Access, Alberta’s educational cable station, in the 1970s. Specifically, they worked on a program called Scoop, which starred Ord as a journalist who would travel to Alberta schools to get the “scoop” on various educational activities. He had gone through the theatre program at the University of Calgary, trained under improv guru Keith Johnstone and later joined a Victoria-based improvisational troupe. Before Ghostkeeper, he had landed a few roles, most notably a small speaking part in Robert Altman’s Alberta-shot 1976 western Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson. But to land the lead in a film, even a low-budget indie movie, was a dream come true for the actor.

It was also a plum gig for John Holbrook, whose cinematography was key to capturing the haunting vibe of the script. He wanted to use Alberta’s natural light as much as possible and didn’t want to bring in typical movie lighting. While inside the Deer Lodge, much of the lighting was provided by the kerosene lamps the actors were carrying. It was an effective device,  allowing Holbrook to capture an appropriately imposing dark and shadowy look.

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“When I read the script, I realized we didn’t have much of a presence of the actual (monster) … so I figured I had to make this really dark,” Holbrook says. “To make it scary, there has to be a lot of dark corners and dark areas where this monster could be hiding. That’s the kind of theme I went with, keeping it moody and dark.”

Meanwhile, Alberta’s mountain scenery and blustery climes offered a certain stillness that made for a chilling, dramatic backdrop for the film.

“There was this spookiness,” Holbrook says. “There was always drifting snow off of the trees. The wind would come up and it would blow these fine bits of snow and there would be this kind of haze that would go through the shot. It really lent itself to the mood of the show. When it was cloudy, it really had a spooky feel to it.”

Ghostkeeper
Georgie Collins in a scene from Jim Makichuk’s 1981 film, Ghostkeeper. Courtesy, Calgary Underground Film Festival cal

While Ghostkeeper may not be the most beloved film to come from the tax-shelter era, it is representative of what the government was attempting to achieve during that period. The idea was to boost the number of films made in the country, which also resulted in young filmmakers tackling more commercially feasible genres. But the tax-shelter era was not without controversy. In some circles, offering such a generous tax credit to films like David Cronenberg’s early gore-filled gross-outs like Shivers, Rabid and Scanners, for instance,  was a distasteful use of the public purse. Of course, all three of those movies are now considered classics. Some acclaimed films came from the period, including French auteur Louis Malle’s Oscar-nominated Atlantic City with Burt Lancaster, and British director Peter Medak’s The Changeling with George C. Scott, both from 1980. But it was often unclear how these films were “Canadian” in any way, other than the fact they were made using a generous Canadian tax credit. A number of films made during that period were just plain bad. Many were never released.

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“It’s always been a problem for the Canadian film industry,” says U of C associate professor Charles Tepperman, who covers the tax-shelter era when teaching Canadian cinema. “Are we trying primarily to support commercial goals or are we trying primarily to support cultural goals? The tax-shelter era raised a lot of questions about that. Ultimately, a huge number of films were produced but a film scholar once estimated that about 40 per cent of the films produced and shot in and around 1979 never got released.”

Still, a number of them – including Ghostkeeper – hold up. While the film probably had a tenth of the budget of The Changeling, it is still representative of the period, Tepperman says.

“It is a film that is of the moment because it’s Canadians trying to make genre films,” he says. “Like Cronenberg’s early films, they were seeing that making genre films as a way to a bigger market, not just Canadian audiences but a global audience as well. It’s a way you can make your name. It’s still something Canadian directors do, they make genre films and hope they can break into the industry that way.”

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Jim Makichuk.
Filmmaker Jim Makichuk on the set of 1981’s Ghostkeeper. Courtesy, Calgary Underground Film Festival cal

Many of those involved in Ghostkeeper stayed in the industry and enjoyed successful careers. Holbrook had a long career as a camera operator, moving on to films such as 1982’s First Blood and teaching at the Vancouver Film School. At 78, he still makes films and music videos. MacLeod became a busy producer and production manager, working on films such as Superman III and television projects like North of 60 and The Sheldon Kennedy Story. Ord continued to act but eventually moved behind the scenes as a producer and locations manager. He was president of the Alberta Film Commission from 1996 to 2001 and co-founder of the production company Alberta Film Entertainment, which helped bring films such as Brokeback Mountain and Brad Pitt’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to Alberta. He still works in location management. A few years back, he showed director Jason Reitman several locations in small-town Alberta that would eventually be used for 2021’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife.

Makichuk was 35 when he directed Ghostkeeper, having studied film at the Banff Centre, Simon Fraser University and the University of Detroit. He had a colourful career in TV news and commercials before turning his attention to film. His 1976 film Cooperage won a Genie for Best Short and was a finalist in the 1976 Academy Awards. He eventually moved to Los Angeles where he worked mostly as a screenwriter in film and television. He returned to Calgary in 2016 and is currently in long-term care. He wasn’t able to participate in this article but spent years promoting Ghostkeeper. He stayed friends with MacLeod, Ord and Holbrook and would keep them informed about their little film’s fortunes as it slowly became a cult classic.

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Ghostkeeper
Murray Ord and Riva Spier in a scene from Jim Makichuk’s 1981 film, Ghostkeeper. Courtesy, Calgary Underground Film Festival cal

As for the Deer Lodge, it’s still there. Roughly 20 years ago, Holbrook brought his family to Lake Louise to stay at the hotel. He says that working on Ghostkeeper was one of the most positive experiences he ever had on a set, but the creepiness he helped create within those walls continued to haunt him.

“When we got in there, I said ‘I can’t stay here, it’s too spooky. I can’t sleep in here,’” says Holbrook. “So we went somewhere else. We cancelled (our reservations). We were making a spooky film and my whole mind about it was ‘How do we make this thing as spooky as possible?’  I was scared to stay there.”

There will be a free screening of Ghostkeeper at the Globe Cinema at 7 p.m. on April 17.

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