1976, Starring Christopher Lee, Tell Schreiber, Sally Gray, Ross Vezarian. Directed by Tom Y. Drake
British Columbia, what happened? While Ontario, Quebec and the Prairies were all aboard the Canadian Film Development Corporation funding train in the early 1970s, the West Coast was noticeably silent. Before they cemented their reputation as equals in Canada's b-movie realm with great little titles like Skip Tracer and Big Meat Eater, there were several years of inactivity that left the rest of the country scratching their heads. Just where were the Vancouver filmmakers, and what were they waiting for?
All that changed in 1976. BC's coming out party takes place in the first few seconds of Tom Drake's The Keeper, which opens on a close-up of a British Columbia licence plate. It's an announcement to the rest of the country that the West Coast has finally arrived to the funding party, but The Keeper doesn't stop there-- it raises the stakes by giving us the North American film debut of the master of evil himself, Christopher Lee!
Yes, even before he would appear in the much more popular Starship Invasions, Lee was in Vancouver torturing the rich and powerful as the titular Keeper. Ruling over a renovated mansion known as the Underwood Asylum, The Keeper conducts a series of cruel, psychedelic mind experiments with a machine that looks an awful lot like an electronic organ.
But it's no real organ, which is why private eye Richard "Dick" Driver has been hired by a mysterious client to investigate Underwood. After being caught by the police snooping around The Keeper's crypt, he learns that the police have the place staked out as well. Dick convinces them to share all the details that they know, in an effort to provide some exposition for the audience. He is told that all of the patients at Underwood are heirs to great fortunes, and the cops think it's mighty suspicious that just days after each one is released, they die in a terrible accident.
Disguising himself as "Richard Jones," Dick pays a visit to The Keeper and requests to see his "cousin" Mae. Actually Dick's partner, Mae has been working undercover as a patient at Underwood to discover what happens behind close doors. When they are left alone, Mae reveals she has nothing to report, except that The Keeper is using some kind of experimental hypnotherapy. Dick wants her to get out while she still can, and he promises to return for her that night.
Later in the recreation room, an inmate named Danny tells Mae he knows that she's not really crazy, and asks her to take a note to someone on the outside. If he is caught, he is afraid The Keeper will put him in " the Chair." But it's already too late, because The Keeper has the mansion wired, and overhears this exchange in his office. He takes Danny to the isolation booth and sits him down in a common kitchen chair. Through hypnosis, Danny reveals his childhood desire to be a police officer. The Keeper deputizes him, gives him a gun, and tells him that he has to protect Mae from intruders. So, when Dick scales the mansion to rescue his partner, there's Danny on roof in full policeman regalia, shooting at him. They struggle, and Danny accidently slips and falls to his death, forcing Dick to beat a hasty retreat without Mae. When the ambulance arrives, The Keeper tells the ERT that Danny was prone to sleep walking in dramatic costumes. What?
After a few telephone conversations with his mysterious client, Dick convinces the unknown man to meet him. Turns out that it's Gerald Biggs, whose twin brother George is an Underwood patient. Because they are twins, Gerald is affected when his brother is receiving hypnotherapy. As if to prove this, Gerald suddenly goes into a trance and is drawn to The Keeper's lair. Now, with both brothers seated in the chair, The Keeper decides to hypnotize Gerald to kill George.
Crafty Dick launches another brilliant plan-- this time he will intern himself as a patient. The police sergeant brings a comatose-acting Dick to Underwood, explaining that he is a narcoleptic who is unable to " mentally wake up." The Keeper must not totally be convinced of this (and who can blame him?), so he decides to hypnotize Dick and Mae at the same time. Just in case he hadn't already blown their cover with this ridiculous plan, Dick blurts out the truth under hypnosis and The Keeper ties them up in a locked room. With the help of the Bigg brothers (who were snapped out of their trances), they escape and put The Keeper in his own hypno-room. The cops storm the house, as a hypnotized Keeper reveals he's killing off the heirs to become rich and powerful. Dick has the madman arrested, but it's not over yetthere's still one more person Dick wants locked up.
While not a wholly terrible film, The Keeper is primarily a victim of bad timing. Vancouver's first real b-movie would have been more accepted if it had come out just a few years earlier, when Cannibal Girls, The Corpse Eaters and Deathdream had established the high bar for low-budget Canadian horror. But once Black Christmas raised the stakes for slightly more sophisticated Canadian trash, The Keeper was destined to get lost among superior films like Death Weekend and East End Hustle.
Despite some unsatisfying direction and acting on the part of everyone
but Lee, The Keeper does occasionally work. Making
up for the missteps are the low-budget visual effects seen whenever Lee
hypnotizes his patients. After a victim is seated in "the Chair," the
screen fills with a giant twirling hypno-disk as coloured lights flash
and disorienting stock images of lightning, barking dogs and stills of
the other actors fly by in rapid succession. Ghostly skulls and pocket
watches dance back and forth, punctuated by creepy organ music and
sound effects. This, and other scenes in which funhouse mirrors splay
images across the screen create a lighthearted spookhouse atmosphere
reminiscent of the gimmicky William Castle movies of the 1950s.
The Keeper is certainly better written than directed, which is not surprising, since screenwriter Tom Drake (Terror Train) was forced to take over when the original director left the production. Despite this setback, what emerged was Vancouver's b-movie calling card to the rest of Canada. And while the film can be uneven, Drake managed to offer up a unique retro-camp take on the oft-seen Canadian brainwashing horror film. No doubt Dr Tongue would approve.