Mine’s A Spirit: The Channeler (1991)

Dave packs a rucksack and takes a hike through the mountainous backwoods of Colorado for this subtle but satisfying chiller.

Grant Waldman had a pretty meteoric rise in the film business under the tutelage of Fred Olen Ray. Starting out as the transportation coordinator on Cyclone (1987), he’d graduate to first A.D. for Warlords (1988), while a mere eighteen months after that his first movie in the director’s chair was about to roll before the cameras. 

Indeed, days before THE CHANNELER was set to start shooting in early November ‘89, Waldman was serving as associate producer on a rare misfire for Ray, the woefully unfunny Mob Boss (1990), so it was natural he’d snag a few cast members (Jay Richardson and porno queen Greta Carlson) as well as a handful of crew (stuntman Bob Bragg and colour timer Gilbert Carreras made the leap) in order to make his debut venture run smoothly. 

Perhaps the most surprising carry-over from the recently-wrapped mafia schtick was Ray himself. Taking the role of ‘Executive Consultant’, there are so many aspects to Waldman’s backwoods shocker that carry the hallmarks of the prolific auteur. From location frugality and a likable ensemble, to fondly welcomed homages to ‘50s monster movies — at times The Channeler feels like a Fred Olen Ray film in all but name. 

In terms of story, we have college tutor Pam (Robin Sims) taking her PhD-studying boyfriend (Richardson) and a sextet of students on a field trip to a remote Colorado (actually California) mine, under the ruse of an environmental quest. In reality, Pam is quenching her desire to explore the folklore of the area: a century and a half ago, a tragedy befell a group of miners and evil is said to have cursed the region ever since. 

Writing in Variety in October ’91, two months after the film’s U.S. home video release (via Magnum), Lawrence Cohen described The Channeler as “Grizzly Adams meets the monsters in a modest horror for the video market”. Faint praise it may be, but from the industry bible on a no-budget horror it counts as a good notice. The appearance of Dan Haggerty half-way through is what led Cohen to cite the fabled NBC show, with the impressively-bearded icon joined by exploitation legend Richard Harrison (getting top billing), who shows up as the Porsche-driving, local bar owner in the nick of time to save the day.

With the scythe-wielding demonic forces resembling a more covertly-cloaked skeleton than those from Amando de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972), make-up effects are relatively sparse. But, when necessary, such as in the end sequence creature reveal, the late Mark Williams (Psycho Cop Returns (1993)) is able to add a touch of class with a couple of practical flourishes that elicit a nod of admiration.

Despite the positives, you can’t help but feel that The Channeler sits in an awkward bracket: the hard sell of a nicely scripted, decently made, steadily-paced, effortlessly enjoyable horror movie that shuns the demand for blood, boobs and bad language. Granted, I’d be lying if that wasn’t a facet by which I was drawn, but as matinee fodder with a kick, it’s a charm.

USA ● 1991 ● Horror ● 90mins

Dan Haggerty, Jay Richardson, Robin Sims, Richard Harrison ● Dir. Grant Austin Waldman ● Wri. Jeff Falls, Peter Mead, Jeb Seibel, from a story by Grant Austin Waldman

Video art courtesy of VHSCollector.com

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