B&W, 1945, 59 mins.

Directed by Frank Wisbar

Starring Rosemary La Planche, Robert Barrat, Charles Middleton, Blake Edwards, Effie Parnell, Nolan Leary / Produced by Raoul Pagel / Cinematography by James S. Brown, Sr.

Format: DVD - Image (MSRP $19.95)

A perfect example of how a few critics can alter the fate of a film, Strangler of the Swamp languished in complete obscurity until the rise of formal film criticsm in the '70s. Along with a handful of other films like Mad Love, Strangler was acknowledged as an example of auteurism flourishing in the world of zero budget schlock moviemaking. In particular, William K. Everson's championing of the film led to repeated TV screenings and mentions in countless other horror books. Though hardly a classic on the level of some of the Universal monster films, Strangler does etch itself into one's memory and benefits greatly from the assured direction of Frank Wisbar, adapting his 1936 German fantasy Fährmann Maria (Ferryman Maria) into the U.S. horror milieu. Because the film was made for PRC, the most notorious cut rate studio of its era, Wisbar had to make do with a heavily confined amount of shooting space on the set and virtually no budget. However, thanks to clever photography and editing, he managed to create a palpable sense of atmosphere to boost this subtle supernatural tale.

After the mob lynching of Ferryman Douglas (Charles Middleton, best known as Flash Gordon's Ming the Merciless) for a murder he didn't commit, townspeople are terrified of a wraith haunting the swamp surrounding their humble little hamlet. Even suggestions of draining the swamp provoke little response ("That isn't gonna stop him!"), but no one seems to have a solution. When the real murderer and a several of the lynchers turn up choked from some swamp vines, the heroine, Maria (Rosemary La Plance), becomes convinced that, as a descendant of the bloodline which Douglas is avenging, she is the only person who can stop him. Her beau, Christian (Blake Edwards -- yes, that Blake Edwards), expresses a noticeable lack of enthusiasm over her Nosferatu-like plan for self-sacrifice, but he cannot prevent Maria and the ferryman from meeting their fates out in the desolate mists of the swamp.

Like most smart horror directors, Wisbar leaves many terrifying aspects of the film completely to the viewers' imaginations. Middleton barely appears on camera, and even then he's mostly a distant, smoky apparition drifting in and out of shadows. Similar to the Val Lewton efforts of the day, or perhaps Curtis Harrington's Night Tide, this film relies primarily upon atmosphere and a gradually escalating sense of doom (relieved by an unlikely happy ending). Clocking in at less than an hour, the plot moves quickly and displays an admirable economy of plotting and editing. As with all PRC films, the impoverished production values resulted in a less than slick final product, and the ravages of time have resulted in unwatchable, blurry, scratchy prints with muddy sound. Relatively speaking, Image's DVD is as good as it's going to get; though still ragged in spots, the contrast has been greatly improved, with some nice background detail now visible for the first time. The opening credits in particular are the worse for wear, but overall, the elements are cleaner and more sonically intelligible than those awful public domain tapes and late night TV screenings. The visual problems are obviously inherent to the original source, as scenes range from sharp and clear (most of the "daylight" footage) to relatively blurry. Anyone looking for a black and white demo piece is going to be sorely disappointed when comparing this to some of the elaborate digital restorations in recent years; instead, horror afficianados should simply seize the opportunity to finally have a watchable print of this intriguing little gem.

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