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Strangler of the Swamp
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by WilliamPrice

"A moth-eaten relic"
2 stars

Have you ever had the feeling of watching a strangely disquieting amateur play, deep in the basement of some long-forgotten church? Looking at the clock, you see cobwebs all over the hands, and gradually you realize that everyone in the production is loony. Now you head for the door… if only there was one! That's the only way I can describe the sensation of watching the unimaginably antiquated “Strangler of the Swamp”.

This tale of a forgotten village on the banks of a fog-shrouded swamp will insinuate itself into your living room like a suffocating cloud of toxic mold spores. It was made in 1946, but it seems so ancient, it feels like an ill-remembered dream. How can a movie be so freaked out?

Perhaps the story really begins in 1936, when German director Frank Wysbar created an atmospheric horror film called Fahrmann Maria (aka Ferry Woman Maria). Made just as the Nazis were stultifying the German film industry, it marked the tail end of the shadowy, artistic German horror boom that also produced such classics as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. A strange fable of a young woman who confronts the specter of Death, Fahrmann Maria was hailed as a major work, and remains Wysbar’s greatest film.

Shortly thereafter, Wysbar got the heck out of Germany, and ended up looking for work in America. Eventually, he got the green light from the notoriously impoverished PRC (Producer’s Releasing Corporation) to direct a loose remake of Farmann. Reportedly, he was given full artistic control (nice!), and $20,000 and one week to shoot the picture (ouch!). And so it was that Strangler of the Swamp shambled to life.

The title character is the ghost of Ferryman Douglas, who was wrongly hanged for murder. Now he’s out for vengeance, diabolically presiding over these mysterious choking accidents that claim the lives of his enemies. Nothing can halt his supernatural rampage except one who is willing to voluntarily sacrifice themselves to his fury. Wow, that’s heavy.

Most of the action takes place in a shadowy, fog-bound sound stage, excuse me, swamp, where the ageless rope-tow ferry crosses back and forth at every opportunity. Wysbar (now Wisbar) really goes for the atmosphere, giving us substantially more fog, more tangled vegetation and less light than any of the roughly similar Universal productions of the era. No doubt, given sufficient time to set the lights, we would have enjoyed “eerie, expressionistic lighting”. As it stands, it’s more accurate to describe the film as “poorly lit”. However, atmospheric it is.

The relentless, moody visuals are accompanied by a similarly relentless musical score. This clichéd, orchestral murk, composed and/or compiled by Alex Stienert, churns away like a big black cloud, as if attempting to rob the last vestiges of light from the screen. It’s blustery and indistinct, but not, perhaps, completely ineffective.

The acting is very sincere and equally atrocious. It has the exact feeling of an earnest community theater, each line being read aloud with self-conscious diction and false, exaggerated emotions. Adding to the strain, entire scenes are often presented in one long, talky take. It’s not easy to make a feature film in a week. But strangely, the fervent nature of the performances, coupled with the stern, Teutonic elements of the screenplay imbue the film with an uncanny, otherworldly quality that’s hard to shake.

The one high point in the acting department is Charles Middleton as the Strangler. Although his on-screen appearances are intentionally blurry and infrequent, his chilling voice-overs are great stuff.

Strangler of the Swamp is a slow film. Not dripping with suspense slow; not leisurely, not meditative. This is plain, old-fashioned, ass-dragging, waiting-for-grandma-to-find-her-mittens slow slow. Capice? If you put this on at a frat party you will be lynched.

Another thing. You might imagine that, featuring as it does a slaughter-crazed boogie man who can materialize at will, SOTS is a forerunner of the slasher film. Ok, I’ll buy that. But maybe ancestor is a better word. Ancient ancestor. Ancient, ailing, enfeebled ancestor. There.

Although rooted in the earlier Fahrmann and other creaky German sermonettes such as Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921), Strangler also belongs to that special brand of 40s horror best exemplified by Val Lewton’s 1942 Cat People. These films featured vague, often inconclusive suggestions of the supernatural, an abrupt departure from the all-out marauding monsterdom of the previous decade. Guilt or other forms of psychological stress were presented as the genesis of ill-defined phantoms which haunted the typically female protagonist.

The fantastic elements of Strangler are somewhat more concrete than usual for the formula. Nonetheless the implication that the Strangler is merely a hallucination is maintained for much of the film. Thankfully, the usual victimization of the “weaker sex” is avoided here. In fact, Maria (Rosemary La Planche) is a strong female character who ultimately saves the day. I expect this is more of a return to the goddess-female archetype of the previous century rather than any early stirrings of women’s lib. Still, it is refreshing in this context.

Despite its stylistic similarities to the revered Val Lewton canon of the times, SOTS remains a dated curiosity. It has little or no of the subtlety, cinematographic excellence, acting finesse or polish of those great films. On the other hand, Wisbar’s creative vision and refusal to be cowed by meager resources elevate the film far above the usual PRC drivel. For connoisseurs of the unusual, it’s a treat.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=13099&reviewer=407
originally posted: 09/13/05 00:25:11
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User Comments

12/08/06 geoff roddis i saw stragler of the swamp when i was about 12 years old and i had nightmares for months 4 stars
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  DVD: 14-Aug-2002



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