Frank Wisbar’s Strangler of the Swamp is a surprisingly good little ghost story. I don’t use the term “little” pejoratively, but as a term of affection, and in recognition of the film’s modest budget and one-hour running time. What Strangler of the Swamp lacks in lavish sets and big stars it makes up for with atmosphere, story, and pacing. Plenty of movies distributed by the Poverty Row studio P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation) ranged from forgettable to completely stinko, but some were genuinely well-made films, and this is one of them.
Director Wisbar was born in 1899 in Tilsit, East Prussia, Germany (now part of Russia). After making nine films in Germany between 1932 to 1938, Wisbar emigrated to England, where he directed a television adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Telltale Heart” for the BBC in 1939, when TV was still in its infancy. In 1945, he directed his first American feature, the P.R.C. potboiler Secrets of a Sorority Girl. Strangler of the Swamp was his second film for P.R.C., and was a remake of one of his earlier films, Fährmann Maria (Ferryman Maria), from 1936.
Strangler of the Swamp takes place in a bayou, presumably somewhere in the American South, but, like a lot of horror movies from the ’40s, regional accents are nowhere in evidence, and geographical authenticity is an afterthought.
Old ferryman Joseph Hart (Frank Conlan) lives in a rude shack by a crossing, and ferries the townsfolk back and forth across a narrow strip of water by hauling his little craft hand over hand along a rope stretched between two trees. His passengers speak in hushed tones of the men they know who have recently died by strangulation. The denizens of the swamp believe that the previous ferryman, Douglas, was hanged for a crime he didn’t commit. They believe that his ghost haunts the swamp, strangling all the male descendants of the men responsible for putting him to death.
Ferryman Joseph does finds an actual noose hanging from a branch as a spectral warning, but most of the strangling in the film occurs in that neat ghost-story fashion in which it could just be a series of freak accidents. The spirit of ferryman Douglas (Charles Middleton) appears to ferryman Joseph with his head wreathed in clouds of dry ice, but Joseph meets his end when he panics and gets tangled up in some branches. The title of this film is the most gruesome thing about it.
After the death of ferryman Joseph, his granddaughter, Maria Hart (Rosemary La Planche), arrives in the swamp to claim her birthright. Fed up with urban isolation and happy to have a place to call her own, she takes up residence in Joseph’s shack and takes over his job shuttling people back and forth. Even though all the billowing clouds of dry ice cover up the set’s limitations, after the fifth or sixth ferry ride, even the least astute viewers will probably notice that there’s no water under the barge.
Blond, fresh-faced, and lithe, La Planche makes an appealing heroine. Her love interest, Chris Sanders, is played by the handsome but wooden actor Blake Edwards, who would end up being much more famous for his work as a director, writer, and producer (of, among other things, The Days of Wine and Roses, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, numerous Pink Panther films, and the Peter Gunn TV series).
Prior to appearing in this film, California native La Planche had lots of bit parts and uncredited roles. She was six years old when she made her first appearance on film (in the Louise Fazenda comedy short The Bearded Lady in 1930), but she never became a child star. Once in her teens, she appeared in a flurry of tiny roles and as a dance extra in many films, and was even crowned Miss America in 1941. (She was Miss California in both 1940 and 1941. The pageant rules later changed to only allow contestants to compete at the national level once.) As Miss America, she traveled extensively with the USO, and once helped sell $50,000 in war bonds in a single day. When Wisbar cast her in Strangler of the Swamp, it was her first starring role.
Wisbar brings a dreamy, European sensibility to the proceedings that sets Strangler of the Swamp apart from most of its B-movie brethren. The conclusion, in particular, didn’t fall into the ’40s cliché that anything supernatural had to eventually be explained away.