Friday, June 24, 2011

The Vampire's Ghost

NetFlix 2.6/5
IMDB 6/10
My Rating: 6/10

Casablanca meets Dracula by way of Mayberry RFD.  A tiny African port town becomes increasingly unsettled due to vampire attacks.  Could the world-weary owner of the local bar be responsible?  

Like The Catman of Paris, this was another Republic Pictures horror flick of the 1940's that attempted to grab some of the box office of the Universal creature features.  Republic at the time seemed to be like Amicus to Hammer, that smaller studio that had less to work with, yet kept nipping at the heels of the more popular kid on campus.  Vampire's Ghost, like Catman of Paris, is largely forgotten today and didn't achieve the notoriety of any of Universal's vampire movies, yet it's surprisingly entertaining and even trendsetting...  But we'll get to that in a moment.

This is a very tidy little picture, running a brief 55 minutes yet packing in a lot of story.  The main characters are our hero, Lump Brickwood, his wife-to-be, Damsel O'Helpless, the obviously evil bartender/vampire Fallon, and Fearsome Priest.  Toss in a bunch of stereotype black natives played by US southern-accented black actors and you've got a movie.  Our tiny African port town is slowly coming unhinged.  Native drums pound ceaselessly, conveying all sorts of messages of doom that some of the cast occasionally translate for us (Some of these messages are strikingly specific, like, "Vampire sighted entering forbidden temple via left entrance, latitude and longitude coordinates to follow").  It seems there are scattered attacks around the area which involve neck wounds, victims drained of blood, and superstitious natives going batshit.  Our heroes laugh most of this off, except for Fearsome Priest, because main man Lump is in town to marry his sweetie and after all, so far the only victims are natives and who cares about them?

Alas, things go tits up when a white person is finally attacked and panic sets in.  Obviously, no one suspects any of the main cast because, again, they're all white and therefore above suspicion, despite the fact that town bar owner Fallon has superhuman strength, can't be injured with guns, and doesn't reflect in mirrors.  And speaking of our vampire, let's smack head-on into the movie's biggest problem...

Fallon is a great character.  He's cool, suave, methodical, extremely evil yet oddly sympathetic, and he looks like Barney Fife.  The actor John Abbott does all he can to make his vampire believable but his goofy eyes and Bloom County-like head shape and very Don Knotts-ian appearance knock a hole in the fear factor.  Every time he goes all Sinister Fangpants you're torn between tension and snortles.  And still...  It works.  For me, at least.  Your mileage may vary, but I found his whole unlikeliness as a master vampire to be enjoyable.  He doesn't play it for comedy, certainly - When he tells someone he's going to kill them and make their bride his immortal love slave, he does it with cold malice.  It's like Barney Fife suddenly yanking Otis into an alley and calmly pulling out a 9mm and putting 3 slugs in his drunken forehead.

Also, he's a massive foreshadow of vampires to come.  In 1945, cinematic vampires came in one form - Fucking scary.  Whether they were suave bloodsuckers like Dracula or crazy mutants like Max Schreck, they were not sympathetic.  Yet Fallon is.  In fact, he's a virtual walking progenitor of the white suit-clad, laconic and languid vampires of Anne Rice.  He's matter of fact about his condition, and conveys a great deal of sadness - He's over 400 years old, lonely, doomed to wander the earth eating the locals and sowing tragedy, and you're very tempted to feel sorry for him.  There are no capes or fangs in sight - Instead, this is just a bored and sad vampire who's tried to settle in an obscure port town and can't escape his nature, which is to make McSnacks of all that is juicy.  And he racks up a heck of a body count, too - There are random villagers, a fistfight with a ship captain who later becomes vampalicious, a dancer hottie, and (sort of) our hero Lump.

This is another movie that you'd never get a modern tween to sit through.  Even at just 55 minutes, it's mostly walking around and talking, interspersed with the occasional bar fight and spear through the chest.  It follows the basic monster movie model - Evil Thing sets sights on Damsel, sidelines Lump, and all action careens toward the climax of protecting Damsel's virtue from the bad guy.  In this case, Fallon brain-smacks Lump with his Glare of Hollowed-Eyed Vampiric-ness +5 and leaves Lump in a fever for half the movie while vampire smooches on his lady love and Fearsome Priest slowly realizes that he's going to have to do some Fearsome Soul-Saving and Priestly Ass-Kicking.  This leads us to a cracking climax and one of the film's best visuals, as the shadow of Fearsome's cross falls across the temptingly-bared neck of Damsel just before Fallon can chow down:

And keep telling yourself, "No, he doesn't look like Barney Fife."  All in all, this is a good flick.  While it doesn't have the memorable monster makeup of Catman of Paris, I thought it was actually a better movie - Certainly more cohesive in story.  It was never gonna be a contenda', but it's a serviceably good vampire story from the golden era of monster flicks and it sets itself apart from the pack by its unusually modern and unassuming villain.  Fallon is not the count in the castle or the thing in the crypt; he's the guy down the street.  The really goofy looking guy down the street.

Worth seeing!

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