Old legends – strange tales – never die in the lonely swamp land. Villages and hamlets lie remote and almost forgotten. Small ferryboats glide between the shores, and the ferryman is a very important person. Day and night he is at the command of his passengers. On his little barge ride the good and the evil; the friendly and the hostile; the superstitious and the enlightened; the living and – sometimes – the dead.
Directed by Frank Wisbar from his own story, also co-written for the screen by Leo J. McCarthy. Make-up by Bud Westmore. Also co-starring Effie Laird as Martina Sanders, Nolan Leary as Pete Jeffers, Frank Conlan as Joseph Hart, Therese Lyon and Virginia Farmer.
This is a hauntingly beautiful re-make of director Frank Wisbar’s own 1936 German film Faehrmann Maria a retelling of the legend of Death and The Maiden. Which started Sybille Schmitz, the memorable victim of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931).
It’s an effectively creepy story from the Poverty Row Film Company PRC who brought us The Devil Bat and The Flying Serpent. While this is a low budget B movie, it is quite effective to watch as the ghost of Douglas seems to dissolve in and out of the darkness.
There is an essence of the slow and dreamlike stylization that is similar to Dreyer’s work, at work here in Strangler of The Swamp. The setting is a lonely backwoods swamplands where the villagers live under a terrible curse left by a wrongly accused man hung for a crime he did not commit.
Three women from the village including Martina Sanders glide down the bayou on the ferryboat with Joseph Hart, evoking a mythical quality as if used as augury like that of The Furies designating Joseph’s ill fated path for his sins of false witness and murder.
In Greek mythology the Erinyes (Ἐρινύες, pl. of Ἐρινύς, Erinys; literally “the avengers”) from Greek ἐρίνειν ” pursue, persecute”–sometimes referred to as “infernal goddesses” (Greek χθόνιαι θεαί)– were female chthonic deities of vengeance. A formulaic oath in the Iliad invokes them as “those who beneath the earth punish whosoever has sworn a false oath”. Burkert suggests they are “an embodiment of the act of self-cursing contained in the oath”.
Martina Sanders: Joseph, we’re going to take that down. (The noose used to hang Ferryman Douglas)
Joseph Hart: No! It stays there. Since that’s been there, there hasn’t been any more trouble.
Martina Sanders: There’s been more trouble than ever since it hangs there! Have you forgotten Bill Jenkins who was thrown from his horse and was choked by the reins?
Anna Jeffers: And Shelton, strangled by the pulley rope as he fell from his hayloft?
Dark-haired Woman: And Henry Craig, throttled by his fishnet?
Martina Sanders: And tonight his son, Bill, choked to death by the weeds.
Joseph Hart: What’s Bill Craig got to do with it? He wasn’t even at the hanging?
Martina Sanders: Have you forgotten Douglas’ vow that he’ll return to strangle all the hangmen and their descendants for generations to come?
is accused of a murder he did not commit and is eventually publicly hanged by a mob for the crime.
Douglas’ ghost begins to walk the marshlands waiting to exact revenge on those who wrongfully accused him.
The film opens with Bill Craig’s body found in the swamp with a noose around his neck, the villagers blame his death on “The Strangler” the legendary name given to the vengeful ghost of Ferryman Douglas.
Martina Sanders: The noose!
Christian Sanders: Oh quiet, quiet, I say. Can’t you see there, you fools, there are only a few vines and roots around his neck? Nothing else.
Martina Sanders: It’s a perfect noose for anyone who can see. It’s the strangler again!
Douglas had been convicted of murdering farmer Berkeley , solely on the testimony of Joseph Hart, who really wanted the Ferryman’s job for himself. Although Douglas swore his innocence right up until the day they hanged him. He vowed at his execution that he would wreak immortal vengeance upon the men responsible for his wrongful death, as well as their descendants.
Martina Sanders: [narrating] That evil noose was made when they found farmer Berkeley murdered in his field. They accused ferryman Douglas of the crime and hanged him. He swore that he was innocent, but that didn’t stop them. It was then he spoke his curse.
After Douglas curses the villagers, several of them die by various means of strangulation. The imagery of trailing creeper vines add fluidity to the rustic Gothic landscape of the desolate nowhere land of the swamp.
In an eerie atmospheric scene gliding down the smokey, murky waters, are three women from the village framed symbolically as The Furies or not unlike Macbeth’s 3 witches,shrouded in the cloak of fog and the unseen terror lurking behind the vines , water weeds, pervasive ground mist and the mournful ringing of the ferry bell.
The current Ferryman Joseph Hart is asked by the local women to sacrifice himself to break the curse, as it is only when someone voluntarily offers themselves up to the strangler, that the deaths will stop at the hands of The Strangler.
Anna Jeffers: It was a sign from heaven – a sign for you to make the sacrifice.
Dark-haired Woman: And lift the curse and save the others. Yes, Joseph, heed it. Give yourself willingly into the hands of the strangler and the curse will be broken forever.
Joseph refuses, and later on pulls out a piece of paper hidden away in a book, and starts to burn it, when he is suddenly called to the ferry from someone on the other end of the shoreline. Summoned by the great and solemn ringing of the ferry bell.
Joseph Hart: Douglas! Douglas! Have you risen from the dead? What are you trying to do, frighten me? I know it’s just a trick of my imagination, but how is it I can see you? Where did you come from?
Ferryman Douglas: From my grave in the swamp. Whenever the heart and soul of a cursed one are filled with anguish to the brim, I appear. Tonight, it’s your soul that calls me.
Ferryman Douglas: Your guilty conscience is. The rope you hanged me with is real.
The gaunt and hazy ghost of Ferryman Douglas awaits the ill-fated Joseph,who has wrongly accused him of murder!
Joseph’s beautiful granddaughter Maria Hart (Rosemary LaPlanche Devil Bat’s Daughter 1946) returns to the village where she once lived as a young girl to take over her grandfather’s job as ferry captain.
She begins to feel threatened by the eerie, misty glowing ghost, the gaunt and vaporous Ferryman.
Meanwhile, Maria and Christian Sanders Jr. played by Blake Edwards (who went on to direct The Pink Panther 1963) fall in love and plan on marrying. Christian Sanders Sr. (Robert Barrat) was one of the jurors who had sent Douglas to his hanging. Sanders and the elder men of the village meet and in secret discuss how Joseph had confessed to killing farmer Berkeley during a quarrel. It was his confession that Joseph started to burn the night he was summoned to his death at the hands of The Strangler.
Pete Jeffers: Christian, that means we hanged an innocent man!
Christian Sanders: We are guilty of acting too hastily, but what’s done is done and all our regrets won’t bring a hanged man back to life.
Pete Jeffers: But he is back! He walks among us and kills us one by one!
While the rest of the village is besieged with fear, Sanders, being a pragmatic man still believes that the curious strangulation deaths of the villagers are merely accidents and that the legend of The Strangler is pure superstition.
Christian Sanders: Oh, this swamp breeds more rumors than mosquitoes.
Mr. Sanders also refuses to allow his son to marry Maria, because Maria’s grandfather Joseph was a murderer. This angers Chris who feels that his father is just as guilty for hanging an innocent man.
Maria is warned by The Strangler that Chris is doomed to die, but she vows, giving a moralistic verbal lashing to Ferryman Douglas, that she will never let him touch her love!
Maria Hart: [to Douglas] Your cruel hands will not touch him anymore. I give myself willingly into your hands. Take me!
Cheers from the foggy dreams of fate-MonsterGirl!