Dark Continent

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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.

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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

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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.

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6 Responses to “Dark Continent”

  1. A survivor from the Elizabethan age? Sounds like John Hurt’s Christopher Marlowe in Only Lovers Left Alive

  2. Or Orlando! Tilda should be lurking in the undergrowith no matter which.

  3. I’m a huge Leigh Brackett fan, so I watched this because she wrote it. I thought it was a decent, literate B-horror, with traces of Val Lewton’s influence, but with very little of the visual elegance of his films. I thought it should have been called Voodoo Vs. Vampires. The Africans understand what’s going on before the white guys do, and they take their own initiative in trying to solve the problem. I agree that Brackett (or her co-writer) does a good job of working through some of the implications of vampiric superpowers.

  4. From my experience of being rewritten on various occasions, I suspect that the various loose ends in the plot are not her fault, but who knows. Still, even in a slightly incoherent finished state, the movie is evocative. As I indicate above, the Lewton comparison is interesting as much as for where the film differs — and Selander is no Tourneur. Where Lewton used supernatural stories as a pathway to other themes, Brackett seems genuinely interested in the fantasy elements for their own sake.

  5. That makes sense, since Brackett wrote for the science fiction pulp magazines as well. Along with the Lewtonian aspects, I thought this one shared some ground with Siodmak’s Son of Dracula, both in the unorthodox setting for a vampire story and in the focus on immortality.

  6. Yes — if only Brackett had a Siodmak behind the camera, or if Siodmak had a Brackett at the typewriter, we could have an exceptional film rather than just an unexpectedly interesting one.

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