July 13, 2011

An English Vampire in Africa

The Vampire's Ghost (1945)

Africa-- the dark land where voodoo drums beat in the night, where the jungles are deep and full of secrets, and the moon that lights them is still a mystic moon.
Thus intones the narrator at the beginning of The Vampire's Ghost as we see an outline map of the continent, the camera zooming in on the map's one detail-- Bakunda, the village in central Africa that is the story's setting. We quickly find out that this is no mere narrator, but rather a principal and intriguing player in the drama. Against the background of beating drums, he continues:
Africa-- where men have not forgotten the evil they learned 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 upon itself like a circle… without beginning, without end. I must follow it forever. I cannot die! I cannot rest! I cannot rest! I cannot rest…
A hand, presumably the narrator's, with a very unusual ring on its middle finger, slowly opens a creaking door in the middle of the night. A dog barks, and a native girl is startled from her sleep. She screams as a shadow envelops her.

"Dark land" indeed! Except in the case of this very unusual B picture from Republic Studios, the darkness is imported in the form of a world traveling, world weary English vampire who's lived too long and seen too much. More unusual still, the native African characters, rather than being portrayed in typical '40s fashion as hapless, comic relief foils, are instead strong and knowledgeable, quickly catching on to the evil in their midst (and trying to do something about it), while the white Americans and Europeans are mostly portrayed as vulgar, or clueless, or both.

Bakunda is apparently something of a thriving trade center in central Africa, having attracted 1.) the title character, Webb Fallon (John Abbott), the world-weary traveller, owner of a local entertainment club, and resident fallen angel (Fallon-Fallen, get it?); 2.) Roy Hendrick (Charles Gordon), the manager of the local rubber plantation; 3.) Julie Vance (Peggy Stewart), Roy's fiance; 4.) Father Gilchrist (Grant Withers), the moral voice of the expatriate community; and 5.) various businessmen, adventurers, cutthroats, and thieves.

A spectre is haunting central Africa, draining the blood from unlucky, random victims. But while the native Africans are fervently beating their drums and calling the community into action, the supposed bearers of progress and civilization fight among themselves, drink, gamble, chase after loose women, and, in the more elevated environs of the expatriate community, unwittingly invite the very cause of the evil to tea!

They can be somewhat forgiven, in that the Vampire's "ghost" hides in plain sight. Webb Fallon (Abbott) is about the unlikeliest, least formidable monster in all of vampire cinema (with the exception of the pasty-faced, morose tween-idols of the deplorable Twilight series). Fallon looks more like a long-faced, bug-eyed accountant than a blood-thirsty creature of the night. But then, the centuries have not been all that kind to him, as we find out later.

In spite of his Huckleberry Hound looks, Fallon is a sharp dresser, spending most of the film in a crisp white suit and tie -- a nice inversion of the "bad guys wear black" convention that Republic helped establish in their formula westerns. In the scenes at Fallon's gin joint / casino, he looks like a poor man's version of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca. (Abbott, whose acting career spanned five decades, specialized in "sinister, eccentric" supporting roles. Ghost seems to have been his only film role as an out-and-out monster.)

Lisa (Adele Mara) is the exotic
entertainment at Fallon's place.
While looks can be deceiving, Fallon acts so suspiciously weird through the first 15 minutes of the film that you just want to reach through the TV and slap the other characters silly. The clues mount up:
  • The thin, middle-aged man grabs the arm of a burly sailor who's just pulled a knife, then stares him down to the point where he sheepishly walks away.
  • A big winner at Fallon's craps table suddenly dies of a heart attack minutes after he leaves the casino.
  • There are no mirrors in his apartment.
  • He can scarcely stand the daylight, and has to wear thick sunglasses when he ventures out.
  • The mere touch of Father Gilchrist's hand makes him wobbly to the point of fainting.
  • He owns an ornate box engraved with his name and the year 1558 (he tells Roy it was owned by an ancestor of the same name).
  • At an expatriate gathering, the house servant is stunned to see that Fallon's suit and the teacup are reflected in a nearby mirror, but not Fallon himself (inexplicably, the other members of the group are too involved in conversation or tea to notice this horror).
  • On a safari to investigate a "witchcraft cult" in a neighboring village, the group is ambushed by hostile natives. An ambusher fires at him at point blank range, but the bullet seems to pass right through him, wounding the man behind him.

Ok, ok, we get it! Now what's the matter with all those other chuckleheads?!  Since the expatriates are too dumb or self-absorbed to be roused by all the evidence, it's left to the "lowly" house servant Simon Peter (Martin Wilkins) to figure it all out and take action. When the expedition beds down for the night, Simon Peter steals into Fallon's tent, finds the bullet hole from the ambush in his jacket, but sees no wounds on the sleeping man. He decides enough's enough. He fashions a silver-tipped spear, and then, during a second ambush, takes advantage of the confusion to skewer the vampire masquerading as a gin joint owner.

Roy (Charles Gordon) tries in vain to break
free from the vampire's malevolent influence.
Nice try, but no cigar. It might have worked in a Universal horror movie, but since this is a Republic picture, there's a different set of rules: 1.) A vampire can only be truly destroyed by fire and having his ashes scattered to the four winds; 2.) vampires can walk around in the daylight, but they need heavy shades; 3.) silver-tipped spears can hurt like heck, but a good vampire can be resuscitated by lying under the full moon with dirt from his grave propping up his head (huh?!!?)

When the naive Roy pulls the spear from his friend's gut and finds no blood on it, he finally gets the picture, but too late to prevent being hypnotized and turned into Fallon's patsy. "You're looking at a creature that doesn't exist," Fallon says mockingly to Roy. "The natives knew as soon as they saw the first body of the first victim…" (see the clip below). In thrall to the vampire, Roy helps him take his restorative moonlight bath.

Back in Bakunda, we learn that long, long ago in the 16th century, Fallon had tragically caused the deaths of two lovers (no details), and had been cursed --  doomed to walk the earth endlessly, causing trouble over and over again for successive generations of innocent lovers. The last half of Ghost gets a little Twilight-ish, with the lovesick Fallon trying once again to steal a damsel away from her true love-- in this case, Roy's fiance Julie.  He can hardly do otherwise-- after all, it's what the curse demands: endless lovers, endless longing, endless tragedy.

While Roy is bedridden with a mysterious fever, Fallon goes about his eternal business of wooing the hapless Julie. Things are wrapped up a little too neatly when Roy is freed from Fallon's spell with just the power of Father Gilchrist's prayers, and he leads a posse to track down the vampire and rescue his fiance (adding a little bit of a western flavor to this genre mash-up).

Fallon (John Abbott) gets "crossed up" in
his designs on Roy's beautiful fiance Julie.
The Vampire's Ghost is a strange, otherworldly little film, especially coming from a studio that specialized in the most formulaic westerns and serials. It's a sort of Casablanca meets Tarzan meets Twilight for old people. In some ways, it looks like something hastily put together by producers wanting to cheaply leverage existing sets and props-- "quick, let's get in and shoot on that jungle sound stage before the next unit arrives…" On the other hand, it's got a lot of imagination, some interesting new takes on vampire lore, and rich, dramatic lines, e.g., "Fate sometimes leads a man down strange pathways…"  And there are number of nicely done, chilling scenes. In one particularly well-done scene, a man who thinks he's gotten away with cheating Fallon at cards is accosted in a dark street by a shadow that seems to have a corporeal presence all its own.

I suspect that science fiction writer Leigh Brackett is largely responsible for Ghost's more unusual and distinctive qualities (she's credited with the story and as a co-writer). Leigh is best known for her moody, reflective space romances. As a screenwriter, she contributed to some pretty darn good films: The Big Sleep (1946), Rio Bravo (1959), The Long Goodbye (1973) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980).  Whoever's responsible, The Vampire's Ghost is a modest, low-budget gem that's been hidden for too long in a long line of mediocre Republic programmers.

The Vampire's Ghost is available on DVD-R from Sinister Cinema.

Naive plantation owner Roy Hendrick (Charles Gordon) finally wakes up to the fact that his friend Webb Fallon (John Abbott) is a centuries-old vampire:

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