Sunday, October 14, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST (1945)

Streaming services like Netflix Instant make a lot of obscure classic movies available for the first time in years, but often one watches them only to confirm the reasons they fell into obscurity in the first place. Director Lesley Selander’s 1945 film, The Vampire’s Ghost, comes as a pleasant surprise, then, as an example of an obscure, low-budget picture that actually tells an interesting and entertaining tale. Its unique setting and muted tone, along with an original story by Leigh Brackett, help it to age better than many of its peers, and The Vampire’s Ghost also offers one of cinema’s most remarkably underplayed vampiric characters in John Abbott’s immortal Elizabethan, a very different vampire from any of his more famous bloodsucking kin.

The story focuses on an African community of natives and English transplants, where numerous odd murders have the jungle drums talking. Roy (Charles Gordon) and his fiancée Julie (Peggy Stewart) find the events unsettling, but only Roy learns their true cause. Webb Fallon (John Abbott), a mysterious bar owner who has recently arrived in the area, is really a centuries old vampire, cursed to live forever on the blood of his victims. Roy falls under Fallon’s control even as Julie becomes the lonely vampire’s new obsession. With the natives in turmoil, Roy must break free of the creature’s power in time to save Julie from joining the ranks of the undead.

Webb Fallon is a curiously quotidian monster, who uses his own unremarkable appearance as a tiger uses its stripes. He is very English, short, and rather frail, wearing sunglasses during the day and complaining of a “touch of malaria.” He wears no cape, and he definitely does not sparkle. The actor John Abbott might seem like the last man on earth to play a credible vampire until we see his mesmerizing eyes. There his power reveals itself, as he bends first Roy and then Julie to his will.

You’ll probably wish that more screen time were devoted to the captivating Adele Mara, who plays the dancer, Lisa. Fallon speaks of her vampiric resurrection, but it would have been better to see it for ourselves. Mara would have made a fabulous vampire seductress with her dark tresses and intense, exotic beauty. Her dance number, however, remains a highlight of the picture. The ending lacks panache and might have made a better use of its villain’s inevitable demise, although the death cult temple makes a provocative setting. Despite such shortcomings, the story packs plenty of entertainment into a very compact 59 minutes of running time.

Lesley Selander directed mostly B Westerns, although writer Leigh Brackett helped shape real classics like The Big Sleep (1946), Rio Bravo (1959), and even The Empire Strikes Back (1980). You might recognize John Abbott’s refined English accent as the voice of Father Wolf in Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967), but he also appears in Mrs. Miniver (1942), Humoresque (1946), and Gigi (1958). Charles Gordon made few other films, but Peggy Stewart, still alive and well in 2012, has appeared in dozens of Westerns and television programs, including The Office. See more of the gorgeous Adele Mara in You Were Never Lovelier (1942), The Inner Circle (1946), Wake of the Red Witch (1948), and Sands of Iwo Jima (1949).

Thanks to my friend, horror expert Jonathan Lampley, for recommending The Vampire's Ghost as another classic horror movie worth watching! Check it out for yourself on Netflix Instant, where I hope it will remain available at least through the end of the Halloween season.

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