STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP (1946) – Halloween Month rolls along here at Balladeer’s Blog with this appealing cult film from 1946. Strangler of the Swamp seems destined to be forever overpraised or overpanned. Personally, I find it an ideal Halloween movie for those people who don’t like blood, gore and graphic violence in their horror films.
NOTE: I review movies from the most blood-soaked to the most mild, so be wary and don’t assume all horror films reviewed at Balladeer’s Blog are comparatively mild.
I’ll throw out some quick trivia to hopefully make this neglected work more appealing to people who normally scorn black & white and/or bloodless horror flicks:
*** THE Blake Edwards, prominent director famed for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Pink Panther, 10 and many other films, plays the male lead.
*** Charles Middleton, who played Ming the Merciless in early Flash Gordon serials, portrays the ghostly ferryman of the title.
*** Rosemary LaPlanche, Miss America of 1941, stars as the female lead.
Strangler of the Swamp was directed and co-written by German-American director Frank Wisbar. He was adapting his 1936 German film Fahrmann Maria to an American setting and amping up the horror angle.
In the 1936 movie the figure of Death personified was the main menace. For Strangler of the Swamp, Wisbar changed nearly the entire story and made a murderous ghost the villain. Wisbar masterfully converted the European flavor to Southern Gothic.
In life the title strangler had been Ferryman Douglas (Charles Middleton), who provided the vital service of ferryman for the swamp communities in part of the Deep South. These were communities surrounded by swampland, with scattered spots of solid land supporting lone buildings or very small towns.
Douglas, a card sharp and heavy drinker, piloted his ferry via pull-ropes based at each solid bank, and lived in the modest Ferry Hut that he worked out of. Years earlier, the ferryman had been executed for the murder of a farmer and as he faced his death by hanging he still protested his innocence. He cursed all of the people involved in his fate and swore to return from beyond the grave to kill all of them, their kin and their descendants.
Joseph Hart (Frank Conlan) had provided the vital testimony against Douglas and then took over the man’s crucial ferry business. Since then, Ferryman Douglas’ ghost had been sighted in the swamps and some of the locals involved in his execution had met their end, supposedly at the hands of that phantom they called the Strangler of the Swamp.
One victim was found after being choked to death by the reins of his horse, another was found hanging from a pulley rope leading up to his hayloft and a third had been strangled by his own fishing net.
To try scaring away the ghost, the superstitious locals took the rope that had been used in hanging Mr. Douglas and hung that noose from a tree in the eerie swamp. This solution did not work, and a fourth person involved in the late ferryman’s death has just been found in the murky bayou, strangled to death by vines.
We viewers meet Joseph Hart, Douglas’ replacement at piloting the ferry, local civic leader Christian Sanders (Robert Barratt) and poverty-stricken Pete Jeffers (Nolan Leary). Before long, three townswomen (played by Virginia Farmer, Theresa Lyon and Effie Parnell) have Ferryman Hart transport them to the hanging tree where the execution noose had been hung to try scaring off the Strangler of the Swamp.
The depiction of the eerie, mist-laden (more like mist-CHOKED) swamp was very effective despite the entire movie having been filmed on interior sets. The pulley ropes that moved the ferry along cleverly let director Wisbar avoid having to make his thespians fake rowing the vessel and also added immensely to the surreal feel of the creepy swamp. (The “ferry” was really on wheels, a fact obscured by the heavy mist.)
In all seriousness, if Wisbar had directed this movie for a high-end studio like Universal he might have had the budget to make this film remembered as a classic on a level with the original Dracula, Frankenstein and others. Instead, he was working for the VERY low-budget P.R.C. – Producer’s Releasing Corporation, often sarcastically called Poverty Row Corporation.
Getting back to the story, the three ladies that Ferryman Hart has transported to the hanging tree take the noose, throw it away and have him ferry them back to solid land. The trio try to talk Hart into offering himself as a willing victim to the ghostly Strangler, since legend holds that if one of the people responsible for Douglas’ death by hanging performs such a selfless act then the curse will be lifted and no more people will die at the hands of the ghost.
Hart refuses, and later that same night he is surprised to hear the clanging of a bell on a distant patch of land, indicating a passenger is waiting. The man uses the pulley ropes to pull himself over to that bar, but no one is there.
The Strangler of the Swamp materializes, scaring Hart into an attempt at escape, frantically pulling the ferry back toward the ferry hut as fast as he can. This is useless, of course, and Douglas’ ghost hangs him with the noose that the three ladies had taken down earlier.
Days later, Hart’s feisty granddaughter Maria shows up in town to collect the dead man’s personal effects, and takes up her grandfather’s post piloting the ferry. “Civic leader” Sanders and his sidekick Jeffers tricked her into it by lying and claiming her grandfather killed himself rather than mention the ongoing reign of supernatural terror.
Sanders has been unable to find a replacement ferryman among the locals since the job would involve living in the isolated hut in the ghostly strangler’s murky domain. Those locals are either just plain scared or are one of the people responsible for Douglas’ hanging or are related to them, therefore marking them as targets for the vengeful ghost.
(Sanders’ deception is doubly disgusting considering that Maria – as Hart’s descendant – is also living under the curse.)
While living at the ferry hut, Maria discovers her grandfather’s journal and reads that he framed Ferryman Douglas for killing the farmer and helped rally the town against him. Douglas was innocent. Hart wanted him dead so he could claim the ferry job for himself.
Meanwhile, Christian Sanders, Jr (Blake Edwards), the son of the smarmy, deceitful “civic leader” (and therefore another target for the Strangler of the Swamp), has arrived in town to visit his father and has fallen in love with Maria.
As another piece of the story, Chris Junior’s mother (played by Effie Parnell) has taken the recovered noose that the ghost used to kill Hart and hung it in the bell tower of a ruined and crumbling old mission chapel on one of the patches of land deep in the swamp. She feels that the ghost will be unable to enter holy ground and therefore won’t be able to use the noose to kill anyone else.
Okay, that’s a fairly pointless gesture since the Strangler of the Swamp had already killed four other victims BEFORE he got hold of the noose. At any rate, Christian Sanders Junior and Maria Hart decide to get married despite his sleazy father’s objections.
As the story heads toward its end, Chris is nearly strangled to death by the ghost using a rope from a deer trap. Maria saves him but he is near death, so Maria tries to ferry him to a doctor in the town.
Our feisty heroine is able to transport herself and the dying Chris to dry land despite interference from the Strangler of the Swamp. She recruits Chris’ father, and the sleazy civic leader redeems himself by trying to help the young lady save his son.
The ghost prevents Maria and Chris Senior from getting medical help or any other kind from the other locals, so the pair flee with Chris Junior (still clinging to life) to the chapel ruins in the swamp. They barely make it there just ahead of the pursuing Strangler.
The ghost is not able to enter the sanctified ruins but besieges the trio inside. With her beloved fiance still near death, Maria nobly decides to offer herself as a willing victim to the lurking Strangler, since the locals have claimed all along that such an act would lift the curse from the remaining targets of the ghost’s vengeance.
Maria steps across the sacred threshold of the chapel and informs the Strangler of her willingness to sacrifice herself. She also upbraids him for his reign of terror in very religious terms and the undead Douglas, chastened by her offer AND her stern lecture, drops to his knees to pray for forgiveness from God.
Whether he is forgiven or not is unknown, but a heavier mist than usual engulfs the kneeling figure and when it dissipates the ghost is gone forever. Chris Junior is immediately cured and his father removes any objections to a marriage between him and Maria.
Strangler of the Swamp was practically begging for a higher budgeted remake all these decades. Dan Curtis of Dark Shadows fame would have been the ideal man to adapt the story for television during the 1960s. The adequate special effects for the ghost could have been improved, too.
Barring that, the basic story should be better known. It’s simple enough for even high schools to adapt it for the stage. And speaking of stage adaptations, a musical could certainly be made from the story’s framework, too.
A few adjustments here and there for pacing, plus better dialogue and Strangler of the Swamp could have become a Halloween staple.
FOR MY REVIEW OF THE 1965 MOVIE NEST OF THE CUCKOO BIRDS, A HORROR FILM SET IN SIMILAR SWAMP TERRITORY IN THE AMERICAN SOUTH AND SPORTING A NAKED FEMALE SLASHER AMONG OTHER MENACES, CLICK HERE.
FOR MY REVIEW OF THE GALLOWS MAN, A HANGING RELATED HORROR STORY DATING BACK TO THE EARLY 1700s CLICK HERE.
12 responses to “STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP (1946): HALLOWEEN GHOST FILM”
Reblogged this on El Noticiero de Alvarez Galloso.
Thank you very much, sir!
Just from the stills it looks like it might have had some nice cinematography. Nothing says fun like good looking dames, murder and a swamp. One of my absolute favorite movies as a kid was Creature From the Black Lagoon. Even if a lagoon is not technically a swamp. When I was a teenager a really bad swamp movie came out called The Legend of Bogey Creek.
Exactly! And I remember The Legend of Boggy Creek, especially the song “Hey Travis Crabtree” and the guy on the toilet getting attacked by the creature.
Made me laugh! That’s not a way to die.
You find the best films! This actually feels like a pretty isolated movie that adds to tension. It definitely has Blair Witch vibes. This could make it onto my Halloween viewing. Great review, as always.
Thank you very much for the kind words! If you watch it, I hope you enjoy it!
I’ve been on a hunt for a cozy horror movie. If this is for those who don’t like blood, gore and graphic violence in horror films, I may have found it!
I hope you like it! If you prefer color I reviewed 5 other non-gory and non-graphic horror films at this link (not trying to nag you, just offering because I know a lot of people who want horror flicks that don’t pile on the blood and sex) – https://glitternight.com/2020/10/26/five-scary-but-not-gory-horror-films/