Monday, March 24, 2014

No Reservations: THE GHOST DANCE (1980)

Maybe it is because I was growing up during that time period, but it seems like 1970s America was obsessed with Native Americans.  Perhaps it had something to do with the 1976 Centennial (“Happy birthday to us for the land we stole!”) or American Indian Movement?  Or maybe that littering commercial?  Nah, it was totally because of THE MANITOU (1978).  All jokes aside, Native Americans in non-savage roles seemed to figure prominently in the motion picture industry (and not just when Marlon Brando was attention whoring) in the ‘70s and early ‘80s and nowhere was this more apparent than in horror cinema as the mysticism of Native Americans proved to be fertile ground.

Perhaps it was Stephen King mentioning in his novel “The Shining” about how the cursed hotel was built on top of an ancient Indian burial ground, but soon medicine men of both the good and bad variety were filling up the screen with chanting in titles such as the aforementioned MANITOU, PROPHECY (1979), NIGHTWING (1979), WOLFEN (1981) and SCALPS (1983).  One of the most obscure entries in this subgenre is THE GHOST DANCE (1980), a regionally shot horror film that not only got in on this Native American craze but also jumped on the slasher train rather quickly.

The film opens with a group of anthropologists removing a coffin from a burial site in the desert.  This is obviously bad news.  How do we know?  Because an Indian guy is standing nearby with his arms crossed and shaking his head side to side.  That evening a man named Aranjo (Henry Bal) sneaks onto the site and digs up a pot containing a satchel. We also know this is bad news because when a security guard comes out to check on things, he is bitten by a rattle snake and then impales himself on a piece of metal.  Aranjo returns home only to get his wife nagging at him.  That doesn’t bother him as he has discovered “the source…the power” as he tells her. Soon he is conducting a ceremony and is possessed by the spirit of Nahalla (also played by Bal).  That is bad news for the wife as she gets her throat cut by him.  It is also bad news for a family friend who shows up the next day as Nahalla sicks the family dog on her (or maybe he turned into this dog, we’re not quite sure).  Damn, that is a lot of bad news for the first ten minutes of a film.

Back at the University, we met Dr. Kay Foster (Julie Amato, looking a lot like Judith Light from WHO’S THE BOSS), who was responsible for the unearthing of the burial ground and keeping this Indian mummy under wraps (ah, boo yourself!). She teaches a class about “The Ghost Dance,” an ancient Indian religion created by Wovoka.  Remember this kids because it has nothing to do with the rest of the film.  Back at the site, some workers get into an accident straight out of THE OMEN (1976) as Nahalla causes their truck to back up and crush the legs of one of the workers (one worker is played by Don Shanks, who would go on to play Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN 5 [1989]).  Kay heads out to the site with her beau/Indian reservation liaison Tom Eagle (Victor Mohica). Okay, out of all the character names you’ve encountered so far, care to guess who is going to be the hero of the film?  At the site they encounter some grumpy tribal elders, who get in a dig at Tom by saying, “You of all people should understand.” Also attuned to this spiritual disturbance is local medicine man Ocacio (Frank Salsedo, the old Indian chief from CREEPSHOW 2 [1987]).  He sends a little girl he hangs out with (!?) to the University to get a piece of Nahalla’s corpse so he can dispose of him the old school way. They are a bit too late though as that evening Kay’s secretary and a local newspaper photographer (their relationship is set up earlier when the secretary says he is stopping by and said she was cute) are having sex in a stagecoach exhibit.  Have you no respect?  Our boy Nahalla shows up and dispatches of them both in graphic fashion – she is impaled on a spear and he is thrown through a glass display and then has a shard pushed through his stomach.  This causes Tom Eagle to wake up in a panic.  Now either he is spiritually plugged into what is going on, or that dude had the world’s loudest scream.

Oddly, Kay and her associate Paul (James Andronica) don’t seem too bothered by these two deaths.  To paraphrase ROBOCOP: “Too bad about the secretary, huh?” “That’s life in the big city.”  Of course, Kay has way more trouble on her hands.  Nahalla seems to be stalking her as she sees him popping up outside of houses and on the roadside.  She even goes to the cops to report him.  He also gets her attention by whispering “Melissa” throughout the exhibit hall, which is odd since her name is Kay.  This mystery is solved by the determined Paul, who uncovers that Nahalla was an Indian rebel who started his own dark religion in 1894 and, like any good renegade, kidnapped a white woman named Melissa and made her his wife; ten dollars to the first person who can shout out who is a dead ringer for Melissa.  As you can guess, Tom Eagle must soon deal with both Nahalla and the possessed Kay and this can only be solved in one way – sitting around a fire in a cave and chanting!

While not 100% successful, THE GHOST DANCE is certainly one of the better Native American themed horror films. There are a couple of dull stretches, but it is an interesting combination of ideas. What really interests me is how quickly these filmmakers got onto the slasher bandwagon.  Sure, HALLOWEEN (1978) had hit a few years earlier, but the gore factor in slasher films didn’t amp up until FRIDAY THE 13th (1980).  That they managed to get this out in the same year is pretty impressive.  Sure, the effects aren’t on the level of Savini, but the murders are surprisingly bloody.  Co-writer-director Peter F. Buffa also manages to have a few creepy scenes thanks to some Indian chants on the soundtrack. Interestingly, he was one and done with features when it came to this film.  It appears he moved into politics in California and became the Mayor of Costa Mesa (no doubt pandering to the GHOST DANCE demographic).  Shot mostly in Arizona, the film benefits from some great desert locations. The cinematography by Fred Murphy, who is still working today, is impressive, especially one serendipitous scene that has Nahalla on a mountain with a huge real storm lighting up the skies behind him.  Sadly, the film has only been released on VHS here in the States and the transfer is very dark during the nighttime scenes.  So if you are looking for a Native American horror flick for your next powwow, give THE GHOST DANCE a smoke in your peace pipe.

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