If you were looking for independent cinema during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the closest remnant was an occasional “B” feature from a low-rent studio — notably Monogram Pictures or Producers Releasing Corporation (affectionately known as PRC).
Once in a while, a filmmaker of remarkable talent languished briefly on Hollywood’s Poverty Row and made the most of a meager budget. Perhaps the best-known “independent” directors from that period were Joseph H. Lewis and Edgar G. Ulmer, who transformed their ultra-cheap productions into cult classics such as Invisible Ghost (1941) and Detour (1945).
Largely overlooked was the contribution of German writer-director Frank Wisbar, the individual responsible for the finest low-budget horror film of the 1940s, Strangler of the Swamp. Produced by PRC, this little-known “B” movie was a 58-minute remake of Wisbar’s 1936 classic Fahrmann Maria. Amazingly, Wisbar duplicated the dark, misty atmosphere of his earlier film with a paltry $20,000 and a one-week shooting schedule.
Though ignored upon its 1946 release, Strangler of the Swamp managed to rise from the cinematic dead — thanks to a detailed chapter in historian William K. Everson’s 1974 book, Classics of the Horror Film. Since then, Wisbar’s thriller has maintained a loyal following and is available on DVD through Image Entertainment.
Rather than create a traditional horror movie, Wisbar emphasized mood and expressionistic style in this gothic tale. The plot centered on a ghostly ferryman (played by Charles Middleton, best known as Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials) who swore his vengeance upon the swampland villagers responsible for his wrongful hanging — including their descendants, one of whom must sacrifice their life to end the shadowy curse. This becomes a problem for young lovers Rosemary LaPlanche (the 1941 Miss America) and Blake Edwards (in one of his few screen roles before he switched to directing) as they confront the deadly legacy of the strangler’s wrath.
PRC’s shoddy production values work to Wisbar’s advantage. Except for a few brief exterior shots, Strangler of the Swamp exists in a claustrophobic, studio-bound world. The visuals remain appropriately eerie thanks to Wisbar’s inventive use of the primary set, which encompasses a deserted ferry and the murky swampland. “The twisted trees, the lack of sunlight or moonlight, the constant ground mist, all contrive to hide the boundaries of what must have been a very small set indeed,” Everson wrote in Classics of the Horror Film. “It is an example of how genuine feeling and style can be extracted from even the cheapest film if the director cares.” Little did PRC realize that Strangler of the Swamp would prove to be one of the studio’s finest hours.
The performances are surprisingly restrained, with Middleton making the most of his limited spectral presence. Though romantic leads appear to be a necessary evil in horror films, the portrayals of LaPlanche and Edwards have a darker, more humanistic quality than the traditional Hollywood product. Unfortunately, the romantic subplot is overlong and dissipates some of the tension that Wisbar built in the first half. However, the director regains his footing with an effective climax that incorporates some unexpected religious overtones.
Along with Strangler of the Swamp, Wisbar helmed another low-budget chiller during his brief stay at PRC: the less-successful Devil Bat’s Daughter (1946), a belated sequel to Bela Lugosi’s The Devil Bat (1941) which didn’t even feature the bloodsucking horror icon. He later formed his own production company and entered the realm of television before returning to his native Germany in 1956. Wisbar died in 1967 at age 68, his work mostly forgotten except for rare appraisals from cinema historians.
Strangler of the Swamp is not the rediscovered masterpiece some have claimed, yet it remains a textbook example of Poverty Row filmmaking. In terms of mood and atmosphere, Wisbar’s imaginative vision evokes the subtle terror of RKO producer Val Lewton, who revolutionized the horror genre with “B” classics such as Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943). The fact that Strangler of the Swamp was produced at a small fraction of Lewton’s $150,000 budget makes Wisbar’s accomplishment all the more remarkable.
Regrettably, the pictorial quality of Wisbar’s film has deteriorated since its initial release. With the negative presumably lost, Image has done its best to restore Strangler of the Swamp for DVD, but the overall print lacks the sharpness of a 35mm master. Still, horror buffs should be grateful that the movie exists after decades of obscurity.