THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST (Republic, June 1945) B&W 59 minutes (OLIVE FILMS Blu-Ray https://olivefilms.com/product/the-vampires-ghost/ $24.95. Also available on DVD $19.95)
Back in 2013, SCARLET THE FILM MAGAZINE ‘s print edition had an in-depth review of the Republic horror films (SCARLET #9, Feb. 2013). In that over view, one of the film’s covered was the neglected gem, THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST.
Republic saw the success of the RKO horrors, and decided to get into lucrative monster market. Their films were always entertaining (THE LADY & THE MONSTER, Republic ,1944, is probably best known, due to it starring Erich Von Stroheim) but never received the respect and love that RKO or Universal’s horrors have gotten.
Luckily, Olive Films is hoping to remedy that with their release of various Republic titles. They have already released a magnificent THE QUIET MAN (Republic ,1952 https://scarletthefilmmagazine.wordpress.com/2016/10/25/the-quiet-man-olive-films-signature-blu-ray/ ) and MACBETH ( Republic 1948/1950 https://scarletthefilmmagazine.wordpress.com/2016/11/17/orson-welles-macbetholive-films-blu-ray/ ),and are also releasing their overlooked features like SABOTAGE (Republic ,1939 https://scarletthefilmmagazine.wordpress.com/2017/01/18/sabotage-1939/ ) and now THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST .
Set somewhere in Africa in a fictional village of Bakunda, a voice over narrator intones: “Africa, the dark land where Voodoo drums beat in the night…Africa… where men have not forgotten the evil they learnt in the dawn of time… I always come back to Africa… but even here there is no rest for me. The path of time is curved here like a sickle…I cannot die…I cannot rest. I cannot rest. I cannot rest…”
Right away, you can see the influence of Val Lewton films like “I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (RKO,1943), that also open with a voiceover.
The narrator is Webb Fallon (played with a weary sadness by actor John Abbott, the English character actor, who worked with the likes of Olivier on stage, and is perhaps best known as Ayelborne in the Star Trek episode “Errand Of Mercy “(Paramount, season one episode 26, March 1967).
As his story above unfolds, we see a map of Africa, then a drawing of the village that fades into the “actual city” of Bakunda (what looks like a cleverly disguised Spanish village set from countless Republic westerns). The camera prowls through the streets, until we come upon a door, wherein a hand enters the frame and opens the door.
There we see a sleeping native woman, who awakes in horror. Fade to black.
The town of Bakunda is the latest village to suffer a mysterious death, with each victim having been partially drained of their blood. Father Gilchrist (Grant Withers, who often played villains or police officers for Republic, Monogram or PRC) suspects that another village has reverted to voodoo, and may be responsible for the killings.
Roy (Charles Gordon,for whom it seems this was his largest role of his ten-year career), greets his fiancé Julie Vance (Peggy Stewart, born in 1923, is still working, having appeared in THAT’S MY BOY (Columbia ,2012) as Grandma Delores) who has just returned from Johannesburg, South Africa. Thomas Vance (Emmett Vogan, who appeared in over 500 films and television shows in his career, including appearing as the Coroner in THE MUMMY’S GHOST, Universal ,1944) invites them all to his home.
They discuss how the murders are affecting the natives, who are fearful, and abandoning the fields (so, not so concerned about their safety as how they affect production??). Roy decides to visit Webb Fallon, who owns the local dive bar. Fallon has a knowledge of the rituals and superstitions that often surpasses those of the natives themselves.
We jump to the club and witness a sensual dance by Lisa (Adele Mara, a former dancer/singer for Xavier Cugat who in 1946 appeared in Republic’s horror film THE CATMAN OF PARIS). Fallon is winning at the crap tables in the club, which angers gruff Captain Jim Barrett (Roy Barcroft, whom Leonard Maltin once described accurately as “Republic’s number one bad guy”). Roy shows up to invite Fallon over to Vance’s to discuss the murders, but Barrett and his crew accuse Fallon of cheating, and a fight breaks out. Roy is knocked down quickly, but Fallon does a lot of damage himself with single punches. When Barrett is about to stab the unconscious Roy, Fallon grabs the Captain’s wrist and stares intently at him, at which point the Captain drops his weapon.
Roy and Fallon go to Fallon’s room to clean up, and Fallon shouts at Roy when he touches a small wooden box. Upon it, we read “E.R. WEBB FALLON 1588”. Fallon says it was a gift given to his ancestor after whom he was named by a grateful Queen Elizabeth.
Fallon and Roy go to Vance’s and are chatting after a meal. Father Gilchrist at one point puts his hand upon Fallon’s shoulder, and Fallon collapses into a chair claiming it to be a bout of malaria. They decide though to go out to visit the village which may be causing the trouble. Simon Peter (Martin Wilkins, who appeared in RKO’s 1943 classic I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE), Vance’s servant, notices that when serving Fallon some coffee, that Fallon has no reflection in the mirror, notices too, and the mirror shatters. When the others question what could have caused that, Simon Peter declares Evil.
Has any other vampire smoked so much ?
They set out at dawn to explore the area near the village they suspect the trouble is coming from. Roy sets off a gun trap, which seems to miss Roy and Fallon, but hits one of the bearers, Tara, in the arm (Zack Williams). When they encamp for the evening, Taba tells Simon Peter that he was behind Fallon and wonders how Fallon did not get shot. Simon Peter checks out Fallon’s tent, and sees that the bullet did indeed pass through him, but left no blood.
“Vampire!”, intones Taba. Simon Peter says the one way to stop the vampire is a spear dipped in molten silver ,which they quickly make (where did they get all that silver? Is the cutlery gone ?).They are attacked by the evil villagers (with bones through their noses.at least one of whom appears to be a white actor in dark makeup!) ,and Simon Peter is hit . He, however, hurls the spear into Fallon, who is impaled in the chest as he turns. Roy brings Fallon to his tent, and removes the spear. There is no blood on the tip of the weapon, and Roy realizes the truth. Fallon tells Roy how he was cursed 400 years ago for causing the death of a young woman, which cursed him as one of the undead.
(white actor in dark makeup ? )
He hypnotizes Roy, and keeps him from being able to tell what he knows. Fallon wishes Julie to join him in his undead eternity. Will Roy be able to break the curse and save Julie?
The film is a remarkably subtle one from Republic (the bar fight is short, and battle scenes are kept to a minimum). Mood is key to the film, and director Lesley Selander does a superb job with ensuring that. A fine example is when later in the film Fallon stalks and kills Captain Barrett, his shadow falls upon the stunned sailor, the shadowy hands reaching for the victim’s neck. Selander was mostly a director of westerns but rose to the occasion when the story required. He also directed Republic’s THE CATMAN OF PARIS, and handled sensitive stories like RETURN FROM THE SEA (A.A.,1954), as well as 54 episodes of the long running television series LASSIE (Lassie Television/Columbia 1955-1974).
He was blessed with a strong screenplay by Leigh Brackett (based upon her story) and John K Butler. Butler spent most of his career writing westerns for films and later for television, with an occasional foray into mystery (THE PHANTOM SPEAKS, Republic,1945). His work was efficient but nothing memorable. Most of the credit must therefore go to Brackett.
Brackett began as a science fiction writer (‘Martin Quest”, Feb 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction) and indeed was the first woman nominated for a Hugo Award (started in 1953, Brackett was nominated in 1956, though she didn’t win).
She also wrote crime fiction, starting with “No Good for A Corpse” (Coward McCann, Hardcover,1944) as well as western novels. Her “No Good for A Corpse” brought her to the attention of Howard Hawks, who wanted “this guy Brackett” to work with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman for THE BIG SLEEP (W.B. 1946). She later wrote other screenplays for Hawks, like RIO BRAVO (W.B.,1959, again with Furthman). She is best known for having submitted the original draft for the STAR WARS sequel, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (Fox ,1980) before she passed away from cancer in March ,1978.
THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST was her first credited screenplay, and I wonder if Butler was assigned to work with her to show her how to write an efficient (and budget conscious screenplay). If so, the pair succeeded superbly.
Rather than following the rules of most vampire films of the era, they had a few of their own (the silver tipped spear). Some feel that John William Polidori’s 1819 story “The Vampyre” (The New Monthly Magazine, April 1,1819) was the inspiration. Polidori wrote his tale that same summer at Lake Geneva, wherein a telling of ghost tales led to this story and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (Lackington Hughes, 1818). The original story featured Lord Ruthven and was set in England and Greece. It also had a vampire able to walk about in daylight, and moonlight could heal Ruthven.
The cast, for the most part, does a superb job. Outstanding, of course, is John Abbott. He brings a wonderful world weariness to his role. When he wins at the dice table, he looks at the wad of money that he has won, and tosses it to a drunken sailor. The only thing that seems to move him is the idea of Julie joining him as an eternal companion.
Personally, I would have gone with Lisa. Mara bring a vitality and energy to her role, and indeed a sensuality. By her looks and body language, you feel that she is in love with Fallon.
Barcroft, Withers, and Vogan are all solid performers who make their characters interesting. Speaking of interesting, Zack Williams, and especially Martin Wilkins, despite being a native porter and servant respectively, play their roles strongly and without playing the commonplace quivering stereotypes that were the norm of the period. Indeed, they are the first to question Fallon and discover his secret and try to destroy him. At the end, the character of Simon Peter does indeed do that (with the aid of the priest and a cross).
The two romantic leads are good looking but to be honest not much beyond that. Poor Roy as portrayed by Charles Gordon, is sort of the Jonathan Harker of the tale. The titular romantic lead who does get the girl at the end, but is knocked down immediately in the bar fight, is as even he acknowledges saved twice by the vampire and spends most of the film under Fallon’s control. Peggy Stewart’s Julie is -the girlfriend. Perhaps due to the short running time, her character development was sacrificed for pacing.
(Anyone remember which other film used this statue? I cannot recall)
When the film came out, it was dismissed by the critics of the time (see Variety Wednesday June 6,1945- “script, setting and camerawork just so-so.” On the same page, co -screenwriter’s John K. Butler’s THE PHANTOM SPEAKS, also from Republic, is much more favorably reviewed.). This is more than likely because of the common feeling that horror films weren’t worth serious study. https://archive.org/stream/variety158-1945-06#page/n11/mode/1up
Olive Films has done a superlative job of restoring this neglected gem to a lustrous presentation. A 1080p transfer 1:33:1 aspect ratio shows the images in extremely sharp black and white, with varying levels of gray. The audio is a DTS-HD Master 2.0 channel track. No effects have been added to move sound around speakers, but it is crisp and clear with dialogue, music, and effects track coming across clearly.
The optional English subtitles are white and are easy to read, following the dialogue and describing audio cues clearly.
No other extras are added, but again, that such a rarity has gotten such a superlative transfer makes this a must have for collectors of classic horror that they need to add to their collections.
-Kevin G Shinnick
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