In modern Hollywood, swamps have emerged as effective go-to settings for horror movies. Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing is easily the most recognizable example, but the locale was also featured in Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive. Even more recently, the revisionist slasher Hatchet trilogy explored the trend, as did the throwback monster movie disaster Creature. The use of swamps as a backdrop for terror is hardly new, however, as the aptly titled Strangler Of The Swamp illustrated as far back as 1946.
The titular Strangler in Strangler of the Swamp is a ferryman named Douglas who was unjustly hanged for a murder which he did not commit. The legend around the area is that he still haunts the swamp, a claim that seems to be backed up by the strange, “accidental” deaths of Douglas’ accusers and their descendants. The new ferryman, an old rustic fellow named Joseph Hart (The Devil & Daniel Webster’s Frank Conlan), is spooked by the rumors, mostly since he testified against Douglas so that he could get his ferryman job. Sure enough, Joseph meets the spirit of Douglas (Charles Middleton, who played Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe) and ends up dead. His beautiful granddaughter, Maria (Rosemary La Planche, who was Miss America 1941), comes to the swamp to take over her grandfather’s job as ferryman. Her first customer is the charming Chris Sanders (Blake Edwards, better known as the director of Breakfast and Tiffany’s and the Pink Panther movies), a young man who is visiting his father in the swamp. When Maria learns of the curse, she is unfazed…that is, until she actually sees the terrifying spirit of Douglas in the swamp. Knowing a bit about the legend, and being smitten with Maria, Chris decides to help her try to break the curse…but who will help Chris?
A product of the Poverty Row studio system of low-budget filmmaking that appeared during the great depression and thrived throughout World War II, Strangler of the Swamp was made by director Frank Wisbar (Wet Asphalt), and is a loose retelling of a German film of his from ten years earlier called Fährmann Maria (Ferryman Maria). The script, written by Wisbar and Leo J. McCarthy (Assassin of Youth), is little more than a campfire ghost story. The simplicity and economy of the screenplay leaves it up to Wisbar’s direction to lead the film, and he uses the micro-budget and limited resources afforded him to turn Strangler of the Swamp into a highly creepy, atmospheric picture.
The approach that Frank Wisbar takes with Strangler of the Swamp is that of a theatrical production; there are only a handful of locations and minimal special effects in the film, and the actors are given plenty of leeway with which to work. The film is blocked like a play, with the sets actually resembling stages. Furthermore, the production makes liberal use of classic stage play tricks and techniques such as dry ice and spotlighting. The ferry itself even appears to have come right off of a stage set, being little more than a platform with wheels that the actors move from side to side. The theatrical way in which the film is made looks cheap and quick, but it adds to the overall charm of the movie. Strangler of the Swamp makes the most of what is available without looking campy or corny.
In addition to being staged like a play, Strangle of the Swamp is shot like one, too; cinematographer James S. Brown (The Scarlet Letter, The Counterfeiters) uses his camera to capture the action rather than to try and create it, and at times the viewer feels like a fly on the wall. During scenes where the action takes place on the ferry, with the actors pulls the raft along, the camera dollies along beside it, smoothly following the actors without being too obvious about it. When the scenes are set in the actual swamp, Brown uses the dry ice fog and low camera angles to hide the flaws in the set. Strangler of the Swamp embraces its budgetary constraints, and the photography doesn’t try to do anything special; it just tells the story.
For as simple as he is presented in Strangler of the Swamp, Ferryman Douglas is a pretty cool villain. Once again, the production’s limitations become an advantage as the ghost is visualized as little as possible. His killings are hardly shown at all, with the viewer only being given the aftermath. When Douglas does appear on camera, the imposing figure of actor Charles Middleton is obscured, out of focus and ominous, and surrounded by mystery. The ambiguity of the villain allows his legend to become the antagonist, and the lack of a physical presence lets the viewer’s imagination fill in the gaps. His body count may not be on par with a Jason or a Freddy, but the ghost of Ferryman Douglas is still the terror of his swamp.
When audiences think about films in the swamp, the modern films will continue to come to mind first. However, if one wants a quick and dirty little blast from the past, Strangler of the Swamp is worth its short running time in gold.