1945 was a banner year for classic horror fans: Universal Studios released THE HOUSE OF DRACULA starring Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine and Glenn Strange as the Wolf Man, Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster. RKO Pictures release ISLE OF THE DEAD with Boris Karloff as well as THE BODY SNATCHER with Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Horror fans of all ages where squirming in their seats as they prepared to be scared by some of the greatest names in horror. Even the legendary Rondo Hatton had a movie out, JUNGLE CAPTIVE. It was a high time for horror fans, as all of these movies are now considered classics of the genre with actors who have their name whispered in reverence.
It was bound that a gem or two would slip between the cracks.
One of those gems was THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST, released by Republic Pictures in 1945 on a double bill with THE PHANTOM SPEAKS. Although now known primarily for matinee serials and westerns, Republic released a number of “horror” based films and this is one of the great, if forgotten, ones.
THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST is set in the small African village of Bakunda where a rash of murders has caused the native drums to beat continually in warning. Bodies have been found nearly drained of blood with two small puncture wounds to their necks. The workers of the Liberty Rubber Company’s M’Ktuba Plantation have been refusing to work, causing plantation owner Roy Hendrick (Charles Gordon) no small amount of concern. We are introduced to Roy and his fiancée, Julie Vance (Peggy Stewart) shortly after she returns from aid work in a nearby hospital. Quickly rounding out the troupe are Julie’s father, Tom Vance (Emmett Vogan) and Father Gilchrist (Grant Withers.) After some discussion on the fact that the natives believe the murders are the work of a vampire, Roy decides that it may be a good idea to speak with a local bar owner named Webb Fallon (John Abbott.) Despite Fallon’s short time in the area he has learned much of the local underworld, and Roy believes he may have some knowledge of the situation among the natives. With that, we are set off on an adventure which rivals the classic Universal Monster movies: vampirism, curses, voodoo and religion are showcased as the stars try to vanquish the vampire and restore order to the region.
THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST was directed by Lesley Selander, who was better known for his plethora of westerns than for his few horror and science fiction movies. In fact, out of one hundred and twenty-seven films, one hundred and seven of them were westerns.
Selander’s western roots are easily visible in THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST. Like many westerns of the day, there is gambling at the local watering hole, accusations of cheating, a bar fight, a jealous dancing girl, and even a trek to the neighboring Indian reservation, sorry, native village, which ends up in an ambush. Once you are aware of Selander’s body of work, seeing the re-occurring themes and obligatory plot points which define classic westerns stand out all the more. However, rather than harming the film, those beats make the foreign setting more familiar.
One of the major positive points that Selander had to work with was a script by John K. Butler and Leigh Brackett.
John K. Butler had gotten his start in the early twenties as a script reader at Universal Studios during Carl Laemmle’s tenure at that famous studio. He eventually became known as a writer for a multitude of westerns and contributed many scripts to the pulp magazines of the day, including Detective Fiction Weekly, Dime Detective, Black Mask and Double Detective. His career stretched past the silver screen and into America’s living rooms as a television writer for series such as The Gene Autry Show, Casey Jones, 77 Sunset Strip and many others.
His collaborator on THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST was a novelist and pulp writer by the name of Leigh Brackett. Brackett had started making a name for herself as a writer of fantastic science fiction and solid detective stories when she worked with Butler to adapt her original story, THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST, to the screen. It was far from her last time writing for the screen, as she later was hired to work on William Faulkner’s script for THE BIG SLEEP, which lead to writing scripts for several major John Wayne films, including RIO BRAVO, EL DORADO, and HATARI. During the seventies, Leigh Brackett was approached by a young George Lucas, fresh off the success of STAR WARS, to write the script for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Sadly, she died of cancer shortly after turning in the script and today Brackett’s contribution to Empire has been questioned. Some say that Lucas hated the direction she was going in and hired Lawrence Kasdan to rewrite the whole thing. Others say that the descriptions of The Force and the scenes involving Yoda are classic Brackett, and contributed to the success of the sequel. Either way, she received a writing credit beside Kasdan. Brackett’s original script has never been officially released, and it is said that the only place it can be read is at the Lucasfilm Archives and at Eastern New Mexico University. It is not available for check out or copying.
The actors involved in THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST are a mixed bag. Charles Gordon, who plays the “hero” Roy Hendrick, seems to be overwhelmed much of the time, coming off somewhere between a spoiled frat boy and a spineless coward. His leading lady, Peggy Stewart, is portrayed with more compassion and fire as Julie Vance. In fact it is just over halfway through the movie that Julie finally has a break out moment as she unknowingly stands up for the villain before quickly succumbing to him. Roy, on the other hand, never seems to progress past a plot tool. Even his realization that the vampire does not have as much a hold over him as he thought was done off screen, and that struggle and realization is something that we are sadly deprived of seeing. Equally, Emmett Vogan, with his long and varied career, is completely forgettable as Tom Vance, and seems to only serve the purpose of playing host for dinner parties and as an ineffectual chaperone to his daughter, Julia.
At first viewing Father Gilchrist seems to have been intended to be the essential “Van Helsing” of the film, however, it is a role he does not quiet fill. He is not as knowledgeable as others in the film in regards to vampirism, but states that he does know evil. He is the one character that seems to give our vampire pause and seems to uncover a chink in his immortal armor. Sadly, his only real contribution is giving Roy’s character that vital boost that makes him almost rise to hero status. I say almost, because he seems to be helpless even after he breaks the vampire’s hold and his fiancée is kidnapped. He requires the assistance of Father Gilchrist, Tom Vance, and Simon Peter.
Simon Peter is native on the side of the angels in our movie. Played by African-American actor Martin Wilkins, Simon Peter seems at first to be rather stiff. Sadly, in that day, no one expected the minority actors to be a major part of the movie. THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST, intentionally or not, bucks that trend. Yes, the stilted speech is there as is the muted emotion, but Simon Peter rises beyond the expectations of 1945 audiences. While I stated earlier that Father Gilchrist may have been intended to fulfill the “Van Helsing” role, Simon Peter is the one who actually succeeds in the role. It is Simon Peter who, after the vampire causes a mirror to shatter in the Vance home, to plainly state that evil was the cause. He and his fellow native determine the identity of the vampire with a deduction that escapes the “hero” despite the incident happening right beside him. And it is Simon Peter who, relying on ancient lore, takes the first steps and actually strikes the vampire down. Unfortunately, the witless Roy undoes all of his work and falls under the vampire’s thrall moments later. Later in the film, Simon Peter comes back to hold the hands of the colonials and take the major actions to save the day. Martin Wilkins had parts in over around forty different films and television series from the 1930s to the 1960s. He is probably best known for his roles in several Bomba the Jungle Boy films, but was uncredited in many works, including AFRICA SCREAMS with Abbott and Costello and several Tarzan movies.
With such a sparsely inspiring heroic cast, you may be asking why to take the time to watch this film and why I start off referring to it as a forgotten gem. The answer is simple: Adela Mara and John Abbott.
Adela Mara was an actress and entertainer who started in show business at the age of fifteen with the Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra as a singer and dancer. She was eventually spotted by talent scouts and signed on to make movies. Her role in THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST is not a big one, but it is memorable. As Lisa, the dancer in the vampire’s bar, she performs what at the time would have been considered a highly erotic dance. The producers wisely use her dancing skills and exotic beauty to enhance the foreign aspect of the movie. You get a strong sense that she has some plans on the vampire owner of the bar, but it quickly becomes clear that she is looking out for herself when she teams with a vengeful ship’s captain, played by Roy Barcroft. Her death at the hands of the vampire is practically a given after such a betrayal.
Now we come to the vampire, Webb Fallon, played by John Abbot. He was not exactly the dashing figure that we think of now when we think vampire and he was more along the lines of Rick from CASABLANCA than Dracula. He possessed the foreign accent and the dapper clothing, but his relationship to the Dracula vein of vampires is remote. He ends a barroom brawl in his establishment by mesmerizing the previously mentioned ship’s captain, but due to unfortunate camera angles, the result is slightly comical. Other than that, Webb Fallon is a more fully developed character than nearly any other vampire up to that point, save Countess Marya Zeleska of DRACULA’S DAUGHTER.
Webb Fallon also has something which was usually lacking in vampire stories at that time, an origin story. Nothing is explicitly stated, but you are given the following framework: Originally a ship’s captain in service to Queen Elizabeth, he fights the Spanish Armada and is rewarded. At some point, presumably in Africa, it is implied he causes the death of a young woman and is “doomed to roam the earth due to a great evil committed in life, forced to live off the blood of the living.” His current mission in his accursed afterlife is to break up the romance and love of Roy and Julia.
John Abbot manages to convey a duality to Webb Fallon that at first is a little odd. On one hand, you have the bar owner who seems world weary and jaded, and on the other, you have the vampire who is determined to survive and indulge in his own base desires. This duality is part of the reason you can almost forgive the majority of the characters from not realizing he is evil. You find yourself feeling for Webb Fallon, even as you realize that he is plotting to kill everyone.
Overall the film is head and shoulders above other b-movies of the time. It walks a fine line with its mishmash of genres, but the directing of Selander combined with the script by Butler and Brackett, as well as the acting of Abbott, create a memorable movie which you will enjoy right up to the blazing end.
There is so much attention paid to the Universal Monster movies that it is often easy to forget that other studios were out there making horror movies. If you take a little time, and give a little chance, you would be surprised at what you could find. THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST is such a find, and I would highly recommend it.