Thursday 26 October 2023

Horror Express:
The Vampire’s Ghost
(Lesley Selander, 1945)

I had a lot of fun with Lesley Selander’s The Catman of Paris earlier this month, so thought I’d make some time (only 58 minutes required) to check in on the other b-horror he directed for Republic Pictures in the mid ‘40s.

As with ‘Catman..’, the title is intriguingly silly, betraying an attempt to hang onto the coattails of Universal’s waning horror output (they’d released both ‘The Mummy’s Ghost’ and ‘The Ghost of Frankenstein’ in the proceeding years), but... mixed results here, I'd say.

From the outset, ‘The Vampire’s Ghost’ proves to be a rather inert and talky affair, set amid the confines of a pokey and generally uninspiring backlot version of darkest Africa, wherein a largely undistinguished cast of white colonial types trudge through their allotted paces with no great surfeit of enthusiasm.

On the plus side though, it sure has some interesting notions buried within it.

Though he’s certainly no ghost, our resident vampire here turns out to be a former member of Queen Elizabeth I’s court, who - perhaps uniquely in the annals of cinematic vampirism - now finds himself running a gin joint in a fictional central African state, fleecing sailors in dice games and ruing the weary burden of his immortal condition, like some cut-price, blood-drinking Rick Blaine.

An odd fit for the vampire role, John Abbott initially looks more like the kind of guy you’d cast as an accountant or an elevator operator. But, he has a deep, sonorous voice and Peter Lorre-worthy bug-eyes, and ultmately leans into his unusual characterisation very well.

There’s an absolutely sublime scene for instance where, after being wounded by a spear whilst out on ‘safari’, Abbott uses his powers of mental persuasion to command the film’s hero (Charles Gordon) to carry him to the summit of a nearby mountain, where he luxuriates in the healing light of the full moon, his head resting on the precious Elizabethan box containing the grave soil of his original resting place, presented to him by the Queen after the Armada. Great stuff.

At first, it seems as if the vampire is going to be characterised as a variation on the Wandering Jew/Wolfman archetype - condemned to walk the earth for all eternity whilst seeking an escape from his supernatural affliction, and trying to warn the other characters away from him, lest they fall victim to his curse.

Later on though, he seems to have lost this benevolent streak, and, having given fair warning, gets straight on with the business of dominating Gordon’s mind, reducing him to a brain-dead slave, whilst he claims the leading lady (Peggy Stewart) for himself, whisking her off to the remote, abandoned temple of a supposed “death cult”, where, inexplicably in view of the film’s geography, a four-armed Hindu idol awaits them. (I liked the way Abbott plays all this with  “another day, another dollar” resignation, as though he’s been through it all a hundred times before.)

Many of these interesting and unconventional story elements can presumably be traced back to legendary screenwriter and SF pioneer Leigh Brackett, who takes co-writer and original story credits here, the same year she worked for Howard Hawks on ‘The Big Sleep’. And, as I can’t locate any additional background on her involvement with this film... that’s about all I have to say about that.

Stylistically meanwhile, the movie seems to draw heavily from Val Lewton’s then-recent series of b-horror successes at RKO, even directly mimicking ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ (1943) during scenes in which the white folks sit nervously in their bamboo-shaded bungalows, muttering darkly about the jungle drums affecting the productivity of the natives down at the ol’ plantation and so on, whilst the presentation of the vampire’s killings seems to echo both ‘The Leopard Man’ (1943) and ‘Cat People’ (1942) in places.

Unfortunately though, Selander proves unable to muster even a fraction of the atmosphere Jacques Tourneur brought to those projects - largely through no fault of his own, I’m assuming, as a “first take, best take” policy clearly seems to have been in operation, whilst even the film’s best ‘horror’ moment (the vampire’s murder of the bar's sultry dancing girl Adele Mara, in a shadowed bedroom with the incessant pounding of the drums as a backdrop) is subjected to a disappointing early fade.

As ever with movies like this, I’m also obliged to note that events play out in what is very much the boilerplate “white man’s Africa” of the era’s pulp magazines and Jungle Jim serials. So, even if it can’t quite summon up the energy to be overtly racist about it, if you’re looking for sympathetic portrayals of indigenous African characters or veiled commentary on the vampiric nature of colonialism or somesuch, well, I’m afraid you won’t find it here, partner.

As usual with these things, the sight of African-American actors forced to play benign, half-witted tribespeople gabbling away in pidgin English also rather grates, especially in view of the film’s failure to conjure any of the gravitas or sense of place which Tourneur, or even Victor Halperin (‘White Zombie’), brought to their respective entries in the sub-genre. So, if you’re the sort of sensible viewer who doesn’t feel the need to tolerate this kind of crap when watching old movies - be forewarned.

Indeed, whilst dedicated scholars of pulp horror, vampire lore or off-beat poverty row programmers are sure to find enough intriguing content in ‘The Vampire’s Ghost’ to keep them occupied long after the credits have rolled, purely in terms of the film’s entertainment value, I’m going to have to close by suggesting that more general horror fans might want to think twice and/or keep their expectations in check when approaching this one.

No comments: