Friday, November 6, 2015

Past Misdeeds: Ghosts That Still Walk (1977)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

The teeth-grindingly sweet American teenager Mark (Matthew Boston) suffers from weird headaches and seizures. His doctors fail to find a physical explanation for the boy's symptoms, but there is enough strangeness to his family backstory to let them recommend psychiatrist and holistic weirdo Dr. Sills (Rita Crafts) to his grandmother Alice (Ann Nelson). Since the death of his grandfather Henry (Jerry Jensen) during a vacation trip with Alice and the nervous breakdown his mother Ruth (Caroline Howe) had, Granny is the only grown-up taking care of Mark, and in her bible quoting, but sweet way she's more than willing to go to Dr. Sills if it is of any help to her grandson.

Now, if someone suffering from Mark's problems came to you, you'd probably try and concentrate your first inquiries on him. Dr. Sills doesn't. She seems a lot more interested in the grandparents' deadly vacation trip and the notes his mother took while working on her last book, a treatise on a little known South-Western tribe of Native Americans.

Granny has repressed most of what happened on the fateful vacation in their camper, but every quack's best friend - hypnosis - leads to the rather puzzling story of an invisible force taking control of the elderly couple's car and driving them out into the desert where they are attacked by rolling stones (not the Rolling Stones, mind you). More invisible force shenanigans follow, until poor Henry dies from a heart attack while balancing on the top of a rampaging camper. Alice chooses to treat everything that has happened as a dream message send to her directly from her old buddy God, but mostly represses the whole incident.

Even more interesting than the hypnosis session with the old woman is what her daughter's notes have to say. Ruth found the mummy of a Native in the desert and got it into her head to revive the dead guy's astral spirit (not to be confused with his physical or mental spirit, as the film helpfully explains) to learn all that is to learn about his tribe's culture. Mummy-man is rather grumpy though, and bad things start to happen.

Of course, now that Dr. Sills is on the case, there's just a little mumbo jumbo to go through until we get to something amounting to a happy ending.

Among the few people that know his name, Ghosts That Still Walk's director James T. Flocker's films have the reputation of being as weird as they are cheap, and Ghosts surely isn't an exception. Part horror film, part new age idiocy fest, it is wholly peculiar.

Technically, there's not too much to talk about here - for a locally produced low budget film, Ghosts looks nice enough, the acting's not all terrible and everything does feel mostly competently made, while the plotting drags and meanders to get the film to a sellable running time, as is usual in this type of film.

What is more interesting, and therefore actually worth talking about here, is the truly weird mood Flocker somehow summons out of a mobile home, a few unremarkable interiors and a whole lot of desert. It's not a truly horrifying type of weirdness, but rather the feeling that something about the film is slightly off, as if Flocker was visiting us from a parallel dimension just a wee bit different from our own, a place where you just make a film about possessive spirits and rolling stones without showing the slightest bit of scepticism about your ideas and where no viewer has any disbelief that might need suspension.

Usually, I am quite annoyed when filmmakers throw their new age beliefs in my face (even I have standards regarding how much stupidity I am willing to take), but in this case I have no problems with making an exception for the sheer matter-of-factness of the film's tone and the unusual nature of the rolling stone scenes. The latter aren't as suspenseful as Flocker seems to have imagined them, but work as a perfect way to achieve that floating feeling non-mainstream cinema can induce in the brain.

The beauty of the whole thing is how little sense it makes to people not inhabiting the filmmaker's mind, while it is completely obvious that to him, it all is perfectly sensible and logical.

There is a constant tension between the mundanity of the non-desert places (too) much of Ghosts takes place in and Flocker's bizarre brand of new age Christianity. It's as if your pious, but down to earth grandmother suddenly started to explain to you how perfectly common astral travel was in the bible, and reincarnation? Totally Jesus' way!

One can feel an admirable stubbornness at work somewhere below the simple surface of the film; while watching, I could never shake off the feeling that I was witnessing something intensely personal, made by a true believer in something that could never be properly articulated through a more common filmic language, always waiting for a possibility to get out, yet never really able to.

I'd call the film a major achievement, if I only knew what exactly it does achieve, or what Flocker set out to achieve with it.

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