Oct 11, 2012

Ghosts That Still Walk (1977)

Writer-Director: James Flocker
Producer: Lynn S. Raynor
Music: Hod David Shcudson, Ron Stein
Cinematography: Holger Kasper
Gold Key Entertainment; 96 min; color

Ann Nelson (Alice Douglas), Matt Boston (Mark Douglas), Caroline Howe (Ruth Douglas), Jerry Jensen (Henry Douglas), Rita Crafts (Dr. Sills)

Sometimes the most obscure artifacts of pop culture get lodged in our collective subconscious. In the days before infomercials, this unassuming film made an impression upon UHF-surfing night owls, if for at least one image.  After six decades of fantasy cinema featuring humans besieged by numerous ghouls and goblins, Ghosts That Still Walk offers the intriguing premise of an elderly RV-ing couple being pursued by boulders! This sequence is surely reason enough to warrant a watch. However, as in the case of most films released by Gold Key Entertainment, this movie is better to have seen than to sit through.

In the late 1970s through to the early 1980s, this fledgling company must have had a singular mandate to sell the most lethargic micro-budgeted science fiction or horror films to TV stations as late-night filler. Films like The Lucifer Complex, Captive, or Target Earth?, produced in the waning days of the public's fascination with paranormal, provided sleep aid to unsuspecting insomniacs. However, despite that many of these movies are a chore to sit through, they do leave a strange impression afterwards: much the same as after having had a long gruelling road trip through unknown territory. One's taxed stamina is the price paid for discovering something unusual.

Alice Douglas' 15 year-old grandson Mark's recent history of head pains has caused her to seek the help of Dr. Sills, who suggests that they both go under hypnosis to re-visit some past trauma in each of their lives. It is revealed his ailment, and their recent encounters with strange phenomena, are related to the native mummy that Mark's mother Ruth had found in the desert while researching for a book on Southwest natives. Before the film's present, she had gone insane- another supernatural incident revolving around the discovery of the corpse. When Alice is under hypnosis, the viewer sees via flashback the incident in which she and her husband Henry are pursued by boulders while driving their RV through the desert. Mark's hypnosis reveals that the young man had an out-of-body experience, therefore causing the spirit of the native corpse to infiltrate his body.

Although there are overlapping characters in both of these lengthy sequences, this film still feels like two episodes from a failed horror anthology series that are stitched together. The wraparound narrative explains away further plot details not illustrated in either of these, and becomes a third story thread which flashes back to the exploits of Mark's mother, as told through her manuscript, which Dr. Sills reads in voiceover. On paper, at least, it appears that writer-director James Flocker has a great deal to say for himself. The text is abundant in nuances of metaphysics and new age religion ("the physical body turns to dust, the spiritual body is in heaven, and the third body is on an astral plane") that would seem inviting to a tuned-in 1970s audience. However, in its denouement, this narrative suggests that this dilemma of possession can be thwarted by Christian beliefs (perhaps a sneaky way of inferring that since Columbus, native customs have been eradicated by the white man's contrasting values).

This film is however corrupted by the director's limited visual vocabulary, and lack of editing rhythm. The well-remembered boulder sequence is more interesting for its original concept than its execution. This nearly twenty-minute scene simply cannot be upheld by repeated shots of a silhouetted over-the-shoulder of Henry in the cab, Alice trying to maintain her balance in the kitchen, the grandfather's reactions, and keys moving by themselves in the ignition.

Mark's flashback sequence is equally tedious, with repeated shots of the rocky ravine, the mother in the desert ("I could hear you calling me; you drew me into the darkness”), multiple takes of the Geiger counter hitting the ground, jumpcuts of Ruth turning in bed and flashcuts to the mummy. Its rhythm coupled with the soundtrack of overlapping voices almost makes this passage an interesting attempt at experimental cinema, except that the images we are made to see in repetition are rather pedestrian. The one interesting shot from this sequence after Mark is taken over by the spirit. He is lit with a hard key in the foreground, while we see his silhouetted house in the background. This layered image is simple to do, yet nicely conveys the character's out-of-body transformation, and perhaps comes the closest to the kind of moody cinematic poetry that Flocker strains to achieve.

For the well-remembered boulder sequence, and other reasons, Ghosts That Still Walk is one of the better Gold Key offerings. James Flocker has no grasp of pacing or screen composition, but this film still leaves an impression for its fascinating ideas, and unique atmosphere conveyed by a layered soundtrack of chanting, indecipherable voices, and natural sounds. (His follow-up film, The Alien Encounters, is an equally interesting misfire where the writing surpasses the visual experience, and likewise features a denouement in the white desert sands.)

1970s paranormal-themed films in general, and Gold Key Entertainment movies in specific, may have flaws, but appear today as charming snapshots of old-fashionedness that one doesn't see in movies anymore, or perhaps not even in their time. There is a JFK-era Leave It To Beaver wholesomeness beneath the supernatural veneer, seen in Mark's "golly gee whiz" demeanour. Whatever these movies may lack in production values, pacing or scripting, they still have a ragged authenticity in their regional feel, as in this film's travelogue approach when the elder Douglases visit an Old West tourist town, and in the casting of unknowns (although Ann Nelson would go on to do a memorable bit in Airplane! as the old lady who commits suicide).

Ghosts That Still Walk is no classic awaiting rediscovery. It is frustratingly tedious, even more in that its unique ideas are haphazardly realized. To it's credit, it lingers in the memory for days afterwards: a reward similar to the sights experienced in a long road trip.

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