Written by: John K. Butler and Leigh Brackett
Directed by: Lesley Selander
Starring: John Abbott, Charles Gordon and Peggy Stewart
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“The path of time is curved upon itself like a circle… without beginning, without end. I must follow it forever. I cannot die! I cannot rest! I cannot rest!"
The Vampire’s Ghost doesn’t actually feature a ghost, which is slightly disappointing when you consider how neat the combination promised by the title would be. But is only a slight disappointment since this rarely-seen film from Republic Pictures does manage to feel like more than a half-hearted cash-in on Val Lewton and Universal classics of the age. Even though Republic had begun to shake off its Poverty Row roots by the mid-40s, it was still largely responsible for such derivative cheapies, and, at first blush, The Vampire’s Ghost feels like it’d be one, with its shoestring production budget and general creakiness. However, it also manages to do some interesting things with vampires, which was really no small feat even in 1945, as they’d pretty much already been done to death by then too.
It opens not in some vaguely European country or even Victorian England, but rather, then-modern Africa, where a small port city has been terrorized by a string of murders. Local plantation manager Roy Hendrick (Charles Gordon) is concerned by how it’s spooking the local workers and could disrupt his trade, so he goes poking about. His first stop is a logical one, as he investigates the local hive of scum and villainy run by Webb Fallon (John Abbott). The proprietor is all too happy to assist with discovering the truth behind the bizarre slayings that have left the victims completely drained of their blood.
For its first ten minutes, The Vampire’s Ghost looks like it could be a maddening affair since Fallon is so obviously the title character. Anyone trained in the art of vampire hunting (or anyone who has seen a half dozen of these things) will pick up on the signs quite easily: Fallon breaks up a skirmish simply by gazing into a man’s eyes, he has an aversion to mirrors, and he even happens to have a coffer from the year 1588 carrying his initials. Of course, Hendrick is a bit thick-headed and doesn’t catch onto this at all, so you’re left wondering if it’s going to take everyone an entire movie to pick up on the obvious. Thankfully, The Vampire’s Ghost is much smarter than that and takes some fun turns and plays with a lot of the expected vampire tropes (while also embracing some). Fallon’s vampirism is revealed rather quickly, and it’s this revelation that actually kicks the movie into gear when he actually makes Hendrick his servant.
He then proceeds to completely torment his new slave for the remainder of the film; this has to be among the few movies I’ve seen that features a hero that’s either bed-ridden or completely ineffectual for much of its run time. Surprisingly, it still works because there’s something completely smarmy, yet oddly tragic about Abbott’s vampire. He’s neither completely debonair or a rugged scoundrel as he’s sometimes presented as a dashing, above-it-all gentleman, decked out in garb that’s vaguely reminiscent of Bogart’s in Casablanca (which the film’s sweltering African setting further recalls); however, he’s also rather weary of his fate, having been forced to walk the earth for nearly 500 years without the reprieve of death (a lament he solemnly relays in some unexpectedly lyrical dialogue passages). One scene will see him cockily terrorizing Hendrick by handing him a book on vampire lore and even earmarking the pages that detail how to kill him, while another will present him as this tortured soul looking for love, all the while destroying innocent love in the process (this is his curse since he inadvertently killed a couple of lovers back in the 1500s). Of course, Hendrick would have a fiancée (Peggy Stewart) that his new vampire master would take a liking to.
Indeed, a lot of Fallon’s effectiveness relies on how natural he seems; unlike a lot of cinematic vampires, he actually glides in among normal people with ease, though it helps that the script alters some typical conventions. For example, he can apparently walk around in the daylight (but not without sunglasses!); the method of disposal here is also a bit different. Though he does have an aversion to crosses and silver, neither will completely slay him. In fact, he’s apparently able to heal himself by simply bathing in moonlight, which is an interesting turn, especially when he hypnotizes Hendrick into doing it for him. At its most basic level, The Vampire’s Ghost is about a guy being forced to aid a vampire that’s also trying to seduce his own girl; even worse, Abbott isn’t exactly the most stately and elegant form of bloodsucker, so it’d be kind of like seeing you lose the love of your life to a seedy looking car salesman while you helped him peddle his wares.
Lesley Selander has some modest sets at his disposal that are infused with a foreboding exoticism; one excursion into the jungles is especially effective in transcending its backlot and soundstage trappings. Most of the film’s horror imagery is cribbed from Lewton’s iconography, as Selander relies on shadows and contrasts to relay a handful of memorable shots, such as Fallon’s shadow swarming over and swallowing his victims. The African setting is also a nice, spooky change of pace; while there’s no ghost here, there are hints of voodoo, with the proceedings eerily accompanied by a tribal backbeat. Furthermore, the film’s treatment of the natives is refreshing, particularly if you’ve seen stuff like King of the Zombies, which reduces its black characters into minstrel roles, howling in a wide-eyed cartoon fashion. Here, though, the natives are presented with dignity and intelligence, and they’re actually the first to pick up on the fact that a vampire is responsible for the murders (a notion that is of course laughed off by their white counterparts).
Of note here is screenwriter Leigh Brackett’s debut; horror fans will recognize the name as having inspired the name for Charles Cyphers’s character in Halloween, but that was only because she’s also responsible for scripting the likes of The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and The Empire Strikes Back. Not to discredit co-screenwriter John K. Butler, but Brackett’s presence likely explains the effectiveness of a movie that’s much better than you’d expect, especially considering the Republic pedigree. Apparently, The Vampire’s Ghost was released onto a DVD-R by Sinister Cinema, but I can’t speak for its quality; I can, however, vouch for the Netflix presentation, which makes it obvious that whoever controls the film paid for some sort of restoration. It actually looks quite good and is likely on the same level as any official DVD presentation would be. A lot of these movies that have been cast off to Netflix deserve that fate, but I think The Vampire’s Ghost is something I would have added to my collection had it been released years ago, as it’d fit nicely alongside other minor Poverty Row “classics.” Buy it!
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