Tuesday, October 09, 2007


This Poverty Row horror flick begins with two men pulling the body of a young man who had gone swimming out of a swamp; he is dead with vines wrapped around his head like a noose. The townsfolk think he was the latest victim of a curse: the former ferry keeper (Charles Middleton) was lynched for a murder that he didn't commit and cursed all those responsible and their descendents until a voluntary sacrifice breaks the curse. That night, after three cranky old ladies deliver all the necessary exposition, the current ferryman (Frank Conlan) sees the ghost of the lynched man and winds up dead, also by a noose. Robert Barrat, a town leader who was involved in the lynching, thinks the curse is a lot of hooey and believes that Conlan hung himself in misguided guilt. Conlan's granddaughter (Rosemary LaPlanche) arrives and takes over the ferry operator position, against the advice of the townsfolk, and she hits it off with Barrat's son (a very young Blake Edwards). When LaPlanche realizes the Strangler is after Edwards, she decides to see if a voluntary sacrifice will save him.

This film from ultra-low budget studio PRC has been rehabilitated by current-day critics, with some even comparing it to one of Val Lewton's classic B-thrillers from RKO. I don't think it's quite up to that standard, but it's certainly worth seeing. As with many horror films, it's all about atmosphere. Much of the film has the feel of a play, taking place largely on one set, the swamp ferry crossing, with mist pumped in everywhere (or overlaid optically) to hide the sets' cheapness and to provide atmosphere in spades. Middleton (Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials) is a good villain; with his eyes circled in black and barely visible, and his image blurred, he's a genuinely creepy presence--think of the unearthly figures in CARNIVAL OF SOULS. Edwards is a bit lightweight in the acting department, so it's a good thing he went on to forge a career as a director (VICTOR/VICTORIA, the Pink Panther movies). The limited budget means we get almost no sense of the community, and given that the plot centers on a communal wrong from the past, that's a weakness. But the director, Frank Wisbar, turns this into a strong exercise in style--some of the early shots of the ferryman are reminiscent of shots from Dreyer's VAMPYR. The print on this Image DVD is not especially good, but it's probably in the best shape possible, and it's perfect viewing for an October night. [DVD]

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