THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST (1945) sounds like it ought to be terrible, to match its title — it’s a low-budget horror from Republic, it’s devoid of stars, it has Lesley Selander as director, who has little reputation that I’m aware of… But it’s quite diverting. The script is co-written by Leigh Brackett of THE BIG SLEEP and THE LONG GOODBYE fame, and one is tempted to assign most of its interesting qualities to her influence. Though not a horror author, her literary works included pulp noir and sci-fi, so she could turn her hand to a variety of genres.
The movie is set in a sound stage Africa and authenticity isn’t exactly a priority. Still, it’s probably less racist than most Tarzan type adventures. The worst moment, when a group of white characters complain that the recent spate of vampiric killings have so spooked the natives that they aren’t doing any work, could almost be a critical commentary of the colonial mindset, though perhaps I’m giving the film too much credit here. Still, there are a few black characters who actually ARE characters. A shame to see Theresa Harris (I *think* — she’s uncredited) wordlessly wasted in the opening scene, though she does make a seductive scream queen.
Not many horror movies are narrated by the vampire — this one is! And we begin with a subjective camera bloodsucking, so we’re preconditioned to take his point of view, and when he turns up, played by gaunt, gimlet-eyed John Abbott, he’s easily the most appealing character n the film. Even after he announces his intention to destroy the virtuous hero and heroine, hypnotizing her and plotting some kind of “destruction” for her — seemingly he wants her to REIGN THROUGH ETERNITY AS HIS BRIDE or something — we still kind of like him. Brackett has saddled him with the name Webb Fallon — a heavy burden to carry through the centuries — and made him a survivor from the first Elizabethan age — he carries the soil from his grave in a box gifted to him by the Queen. The noir-corny name and the historic backstory (had any vampire save Dracula boasted such a heritage at this point in the movies?) suggest to me that the writer had in mind a more handsome, Byronic type of vampire — plus he runs a gambling house in Africa so he should be a tough guy — but budgetary considerations evidently prevented Cary Grant from receiving the fateful call. A more on-the-nose casting choice — make him sepulchral, corpse-like — resulted in the bulb-headed Abbott being handed probably his best-ever role, a leading man role of sorts, something
Like Wesley Snipes, Fallon is a daywalker, though he needs sunglasses in the African glare. This kind of imaginative detail, simple in itself, just wasn’t being seen in Hollywood B-pictures. Even Val Lewton, who made films immeasurably superior to this one, didn’t explore his genre elements in this practical way, because he was more interested in using a mythic pretext to get to a thematic subtext. Good Hawksian that she was, Brackett was interested in what you might get up to as an immortal with superpowers. (But I doubt even she could tell you why there’s a statue of Kali, shorn of half her arms, in an African temple.)
Abbott/Fallon is persistently glum, seeming to take no pleasure in his role of corruptor. This makes the victory of the good guys — achieved through a combination of religious iconography and murderous violence — ring more hollow than usual, especially since Abbott has prophesied that those he has bitten will rise from their graves. The prospect of a sequel with a fanged Theresa H and lusty Adele Mara rampaging across the Gold Coast is positively mouth-watering, but it was not to be.