When it comes to vampires and classic horror motifs, about the last place you would have looked for same during the Golden Age of Hollywood would have been Republic Pictures, that industrious little studio that gave the world Roy Rogers and the Masked Marvel. But Republic did veer into the horror genre every blue moon and when it decided to try its hand at a vampire film, it tossed the Universal Studio playbook into the round file and created instead...
By DON MANKOWSKI
Many of us have viewed quite a few vampire-themed films, I’d imagine. There is, I think, a primordial fascination with eternal life at a terrible price. What can compare to bats and wolves, capes and castles, dungeons and caskets, and hints of cannibalism and necrophilia?
Truth is, they mostly merge in my memory. Which of them stand out? Why, the ones that I’d call the offbeat vampires, films with a novel setting. For example, The Vampire’s Ghost.
Does anyone out there remember the early UHF converters? These were circuit boxes with loopy antennae that sat atop your television set and had to be screwed to the back terminals in order to bring in the mysterious channels lurking in the "ultra high frequency" spectrum beyond Channel 13--like our WCIU with its outrageous number 26. Standard television sets didn’t yet have them built in.
The tuner was analogue, without the comforting click-stops of the familiar 2-13 VHF dial. You had to be an experienced safecracker to locate one of these channels properly on one of those tuners. There was always lots of static and signal dropout. The antenna worked just fine when you were standing behind the set and holding it, but just try and put it down and walk around so that you can see the screen: it’d always turn to snow. Only rarely was it worth the effort, but when you’d grown up with just five channels available, a sixth, even a poor one, was a big deal.
I caught The Vampire’s Ghost long ago, must have been 1964, on Chicago’s very first UHF station in its early months. Hungry for inexpensive programming, this station showed amateurish talk and variety programs with local people in mostly empty studios, reruns of old shows deemed thoroughly played out, and some movies: very obscure films that the networks and local VHF stations had passed over.
This one came out of Republic Pictures, a studio usually associated with serials and westerns, in 1945. They produced a few horror films about this time, such as Catman Of Paris and Valley Of The Zombies. On the respectable side, Orson Welles used the studio for his noble but impecunious classic Macbeth in 1948.
Double features had been a movie house standard for about ten years. Republic was one of the most prolific "B" studios, and Ghost is the very model of a "second" feature, intended from the start for the lower half of a double bill. Thus, we shouldn’t expect too much from it.
You just can’t beat a Second City broadcast of a second-tier feature on a second-class station viewed with second-rate electronics. It’s entirely possible that I wore my Cubs cap and swilled Pepsi-Cola while watching.
The setting is Bakunda village, in equatorial Africa, probably the Sudan. (It’s supposed to be British colonial, though it comes off as heavily American.) A somber voice intones:
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. 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 . . .
An African woman receives a night visitor who calmly enters her hut and casts a menacing shadow across her. She awakens in time to scream her last.
The next day Roy Kendrick (Charles Gordon), who manages a local rubber plantation, is reunited with fiancée Julie (Peggy Stewart), a nurse. Together with Julie’s father Tom Vance (Emmett Vogan) and missionary Father Gilchrist (Grant Withers), they discuss the latest murder, the fourth of a series. All victims were drained of blood via peculiar throat wounds. The natives, as they say, are getting restless, and the family business is imperiled. Father Gilchrist dismisses the notion of vampires, but warns of "the very real power of Evil."
Roy will consult with a man who seems knowledgeable about the natives: Webb Fallon, who manages a café by the waterfront. It’s a dive frequented, naturally, by all the sailors, gamblers, outcasts and ne’er-do-wells. As Roy arrives, bar girl Lisa (Adele Mara) performs a moderately exotic dance. It’s rather a sleazy "B" version of Casablanca.
The white-suited Fallon (John Abbott) is a cultured man with a quietly commanding presence. Once we’ve heard his distinctive voice and spotted the snaky-looking ring on his right middle finger, we realize that he was the narrator of the opening sequence as well as the stranger at the door.
With unnatural luck, Fallon defeats Barrett, a rowdy sailor (played by tough serial vet Roy Barcroft) at a dice game, after which he gives away the spoils. A brawl ensues in which Roy is roughed up. Fallon forces one of Barrett’s thugs to drop his knife by just locking eyes with him!
Tom has noted that Fallon’s name is Gaelic for "the stranger--one who walks in the darkness beyond the campfire." (Really, all that?) We will swiftly learn that Fallon has no mirrors in his quarters and that he must wear darkened glasses to venture out into the sun. The man is very protective about a small box that Roy discovers. The engraved inscription reveals that the case was given to one Webb Fallon – why, obviously an ancestral namesake--in 1588 by Queen Elizabeth, for his help in defeating the Spanish Armada.
Fallon is persuaded to join a group discussing the recent unpleasantness at the Vance home, where he is introduced to Father Gilchrist. The priest is obviously hard at work converting the populace to Christianity, and encourages Fallon to seek spiritual relief. Fallon carefully avoids contact while he can, but when the cleric lays a comforting hand on his shoulder, the guest becomes positively ill! He explains it as a touch of malaria.
A native servant, Simon Peter (Martin Wilkins) catches sight of a mirror and notes that the guest has no reflection. Said mirror shatters when Fallon looks at it!
Fallon can read the native drums that thunder in the background. Gilchrist explains that the Mulonga village is host to a witchcraft cult. Trouble is brewing, and an expedition is planned to investigate any link with the so-called vampire killings.
Bound for Mulonga, the party walks into a trap wherein a wire trips off a concealed gun. One of the native bearers standing directly behind Fallon is wounded. At camp that night, Simon Peter sneaks into a tent and examines Fallon and his effects, only to find that the man was indeed shot, but unharmed. "Vampire!" exclaims the wounded fellow. "He must be destroyed," concludes Simon Peter. As even a bullet is clearly ineffective, "a spear, dipped in molten silver" is required, and the men prepare such a weapon.
Then, the Mulonga attack the camp. In the resulting shootout, Simon Peter is wounded. Determined to carry out his mission, he summons his waning strength and spears Fallon, who was not expecting an attack from within his own ranks.
Fallon has a burning wound, but does not bleed. "You’re seeing a creature that doesn’t exist," he confesses to Roy. "You’re looking at a legend. The natives knew." Fallon is the vampire. It seems that four hundred years ago, he caused the death of a young woman and a curse was visited upon him.
As he will never die and know peace, he lives to destroy peace and happiness in others. Roy moves to impale him anew, but Fallon’s stare stalls him. "Your mind belongs to me, from now until the day you die," suggests Fallon to Roy, much as Dracula to Renfield.
"Underneath my head is the box containing the earth from my grave, the box Queen Elizabeth gave me after the Armada," explains Fallon. "Carry my body to the mountain top, lay my head on the box and leave me where the rising moon will bathe me with her light. Let nothing stop you."
Roy terminates the expedition and then complies, carrying the apparently dead Fallon upon his back and arranging him in the lunar twilight. After he leaves, the vampire rises with the moon, invigorated, gazing almost prayerfully at his lunar goddess. By the time that Roy and company arrive home, Fallon is already there with Julie.
Roy suffers a two-week delirium and is nursed by Julie. Fallon, who has obviously induced the man’s feverish symptoms, hangs around. The woman notes that Roy has been reading a book, The Vampire Legend. She considers this a manifestation of his fevered mind, and reads from the book a passage relating how the Vampire can appear to be entirely human. Fallon chooses this time to bestow a rare necklace upon Julie, his intentions clear.
Fallon torments Roy, citing chapter and verse where the book details the destruction of a vampire. First, the cross, then a consuming fire and the ashes scattered. Roy begs Fallon to leave, but is powerless against the vampire’s designs upon Julie.
The vampire’s show of power continues. Lisa, jealous toward Julie, conspires with Barrett to cheat Fallon at cards. A bad idea this! The vampire slays the sailor and the girl that very night.
By now, the incessant drums thunder out threat. The natives blame Fallon for the murders, and will soon take matters into their own hands. Meanwhile, Gilchrist manages to draw the truth out of Roy, and inspires the man to rediscover his free will in a session at the chapel.
Tom Vance visits Fallon on a night of unnatural winds, barred doors, and the drums. He suggests that Fallon leave the village, at least for the time being, although Julie sees Fallon as an innocent victim. Somewhat surprisingly, Fallon agrees and prepares to leave, but not as Vance had hoped.
Julie has disappeared, drawn away by Fallon’s long-distance commands! Vance is about to wire for help, when evidence indicates that Fallon must be headed straight into the backcountry, taking Julie with him.
"We can’t telegraph into the jungle!" bemoans Roy. Then he brightens. "Wait a second! We can! Simon Peter: the drums."
As the helpful natives use their ancient network of percussion to relay information regarding Fallon’s position, Roy, Gilchrist and Simon Peter plunge into the backcountry in pursuit of the vampire.
Fallon and Julie reach a jungle ghost town, "a temple village sacred to the death god of a forbidden cult." Though the cult was destroyed, native taboo has left the temple untouched. Indeed, there’s one of those goddesses with too many arms, and several skulls on long poles. Fallon awaits the rise of the moon, reciting hypnotically:
"The path of time is curved upon itself like a circle, without beginning, without end. A man may follow that path forever if he chooses, but he need not walk alone. We could walk that path together, Julie we could visit worlds that no human eye has ever seen. Will you come with me, Julie?" he asks. "Sleep, Julie, sleep. When the moon is risen you will be beyond death." Fallon prepares a ritual with the earth from his grave, "not a sign of death, but of power in another world."
Fallon is about to bestow upon Julie the bite that will permit them to "walk through the dark shadows of eternity," when another shadow – that of Father Gilchrist’s cross – interrupts him. Roy hurls the silvered spear into the fiend’s heart, at which point Simon Peter puts a torch to the temple.
Julie revives in the light of the cleansing fire. "Like a terrible dream," she mutters.
"It’s all over," assures Roy.
Lots of reasonably memorable dialogue, and they end with that exchange? For their sake, I hope that the rubber business recovered, or rather, bounced back.
The screenplay is by John K. Butler and Leigh Brackett, from a story by the latter. Ms. Brackett (1915-1978) was a popular science fiction and fantasy writer for the pulp magazines of the 1940s. She also wrote some scripts for Howard Hawks, including Rio Bravo (1959), perhaps the finest Western ever. Brackett had a hand in the early screenplay for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) as one of her last efforts.
Pulp science fiction was supposed to be a man’s business, but Brackett’s androgynous handle permitted her to sign her name. (Some women writers, like "Andre Norton," had to adopt masculine noms des plumes.) For the record, the film’s director, Lesley Selander was a man, and frequently directed Westerns.
Africa, a land of dark mystery, with its remote wharfs, lodges and dives isn’t a bad place to drop a vampire. The isolation increases the peril: you certainly can’t call in the troops easily.
While one might assume Fallon to be derived from Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, his roots actually go back quite a bit earlier! Brackett credits John Polidori’s 1819 short story "The Vampyre" as her inspiration. Polidori modeled his antagonist upon his mentor, Lord Byron, and wrote his story while the houseguest of Percy Bysse Shelley and Mary Wolstonecraft in 1816. The soon-to-be Mary Shelley produced a somewhat better remembered work of fiction that vacation, little thing called Frankenstein.
Polidori’s story was first published, erroneously, under Byron’s by-line. The vampire, Lord Ruthven is dashing and bold, but cursed and despairing . . . in a word, Byronic.
In addition to being suave and world-weary, Byron was notorious for bisexuality. Some critics have pointed out that Fallon is effete and sensitive, and addresses Roy in the same caressing tones that he uses with Julie.
So, you scoff at the notion that a screenwriter and director putting together a "B" feature would employ devices well over the heads of its intended audience? Well, scoff away. Have some scoff drops. So did I once, but have since come to realize that the best writers would of course stir primitive fears and doubts to evoke an uneasy feeling in the viewers, even if subconsciously. However, I think it’s made clear that Julie is his choice for the ages.
To be honest, there isn’t much of "The Vampyre" in The Vampire’s Ghost, except for (and only obliquely) the scene wherein Webb Fallon is revived by the moonlight. I suppose that the moonlit resurrection justifies the film’s otherwise throwaway title. But then, a vampire is a ghost of a sort right from the start. Never mind; it’s a good scene.
Rising early in the morning, he was about to
enter the hovel in which he had left the corse, when a robber met him, and informed him
that it was no longer there, having been conveyed by himself and comrades, upon his
retiring, to the pinnacle of a neighbouring mount, according to a promise they had given
his lordship, that it should be exposed to the first cold ray of the moon that rose after
his death. Aubrey astonished, and taking several of the men, determined to go and bury it
upon the spot where it lay. But, when he had mounted to the summit he found no trace of
either the corse or the clothes, though the robbers swore they pointed out the identical
rock: on which they had laid the body.
Excuse the archaic spellings. A corse is a corpse, of course? Of course. Imagine how Aubrey feels when Lord Ruthven comes back and attacks his sister.
As Fallon, John Abbott carries the film. He brings to it wide, piercing eyes and a hawk like visage. At times (as in the scene just before his moonlight resurrection) he almost does manage to look hundreds of years old without much makeup, although he was in his mid-thirties. He delivers nicely some portentous sounding but mostly nonsensical dialogue.
Well, some Monday mornings I know exactly what he means by "The path of time is curved upon itself like a circle, without beginning, without end." Fallon presents an implacable front, but there’s smoldering fire beneath the surface in this performance. Abbott (1905-1996) was a dependable character actor in better-financed films, and he did a lot of television and voice work in his later years. The rest of the cast is replaceable.
Grant Withers’ Father Gilchrist, in black cassock and white pith helmet won’t make you forget Bing Crosby, Pat O’Brien or Spencer Tracy. Hell, he isn’t even Charles Bickford, but he does come through with inspirational aid when it’s needed.
The film features racially insensitive stuff that was par for the course in cheaper productions of the 1940s, with its superstitious and obsequious natives. Then again, this probably accurately reflects British colonial attitudes. One might argue that superstition makes good sense when the threat is a supernatural one.
"Bless me father," begs each of the locals. "Bless you my son," replies the crusading padre to each, "go on your way and have no fear," even though the good Father knows there’s plenty to fear. Talk of condescension: they’re carrying away a corpse as the scene plays out! I suppose it’s mildly interesting that Fallon’s blood lust knows no racial barriers.
Still, Simon Peter (who is, after all, named for the leader of Gilchrist’s Church) is the first to catch on, the first to take action. The poor fellow almost pays with his life and has to slay the fiend a second time due to the weakness of the white men! (The briefly seen Mulonga are a wild tribe with bones through their noses, quite a contrast to the civilized blacks we’ve already met in the film.)
In a departure from what had already become standard vampire practice, Fallon can function in the daytime, although the sun is painful to his eyes and he requires sunglasses.
I couldn’t find silver mentioned in anything but a peripheral manner in the cornerstone vampire works like Polidori’s, Stoker’s or LeFanu’s, so its use here probably is a result of merging in the trappings of werewolf legend. In the mythical sense, it ought to be iron that dispels the demon, but then again your everyday spearhead is likely to be iron anyway, so where’s the magic in that?
The use of the drum relay is the sort of thing that adds life to a formula film. It’s not just a story that happens to take place in the jungle, but the plot is actually impacted by the setting. The fleeing Fallon is thus located. He is done in not by native lore or magic, but rather native "smarts."
Special effects are credited to Republic aces Howard and Theodore Lydecker. The only noteworthy effect is the mirror view of an empty suit holding a cup of tea, a scene that tipped us off to Fallon’s vampiric nature. It’s brief but effective.
One of the natives was played by Jim Thorpe. Who’s that? Why, the greatest male athlete of the half- century, that’s who. Thorpe, the Native American track and field star, the discredited pentathlon/decathlon champion from the 1912 Olympics had since helped found the National Football League, but now earned a living as a bit player, extra and stunt man. I haven’t yet been able to spot Big Jim in my foggy VHS copy of the film, so it must have been a brief role indeed.
It’s difficult to find fault with a 59-minute film with all of this in it. Within a quarter hour, the situation is set and things are already careening towards the resolution, and it’s over before you know it.
This film hasn’t been officially released to VHS or DVD as of yet. Do see it if you have the opportunity–but on your "B" television set!
(Don Mankowski watched a lot of the Chicago Cubs and the Three Stooges on WGN in those thrilling days of yesteryear, and frankly, there wasn’t much difference. Check his modest Web page.)
Thanks, Don. The Vampire's Ghost, often dismissed as an oddity from Western-and- serial specialist Republic Studios, may well be an underappreciated horror gem. It moves the vampire stalking grounds to Africa, it concerns a somewhat Byronic vampire, it reworks some aspects of the Hollywood vampire mythos, and it boasts B-movie villain great Roy Barcroft. Of course, any substantial re-appraisal of this film will have to wait for a proper DVD release...an event we can only hope will occur soon.
Article copyright © Don Mankowski