Languishing in relative obscurity for years, this modest horror film from one of the cheapest of all production houses, PRC, was championed in the 60s and 70s by the Cahiers du Cinema crowd who pioneered the notion that there is immense value and artistic merit to be mined from the sea of obscure, daft, and sometimes otherwise awful films that comprise the bulk of our cinematic history. Strangler of the Swamp is hardly a bad film, but its position on the tail end of the horror cycle that began with Universal’s group of classics (and ended with Universal’s later cheap sequels to the aforementioned classics) coupled with the almost total lack of a budget meant that Strangler of the Swamp walked like its murderous ghost character more or less unnoticed across the landscape of film.
Which isn’t a complete and total travesty, but it is unfortunate, as Strangler of the Swamp makes up for its obvious budgetary shortcomings by layering on eerie atmosphere so thick that the film can hardly support its weight. Every scene is all soupy fog, gnarled trees, creeping vines, and warped old shacks out in the middle of the swamp. Drawing no doubt from the rich tradition of surrealism and expressionism that marked the early days of horror, and mixing it with the sensibilities of a producer like Val Lewton who knew the value of atmosphere above all else (but not necessarily at the expense of all else) in a horror film, writer-director Frank Wisbar takes a simple tale of a vengeful ghost and steeps it in eerie gloom that completely sucks you in. There’s an ominous sense of decay everywhere. Think Lucio Fulci at his best, but without the close-up shots of frying flesh and punctured eyeballs.
Deep in the swamps of somewhere or other, a man is convicted of and hanged for a crime despite dubious evidence and shifty testimony. Not too long after that, the people responsible for his wrongful conviction start dying in mysterious ways, and the remote little town is soon convinced that they are at the mercies of a ghost bent on revenge. The swamp town is remote and hopeless. And it seems to be foggy 24 hours a day. I’m a sucker for a lot of things, and well executed imagery of ghostly haunted swamps is among them. When city girl Maria returns to the town to visit a grandfather who is murdered just before she arrives, she begins unraveling the mystery of the ghost’s demise and the town’s only hope for lifting the curse.
Although restricted largely to small-time actors and only a couple sets, Strangler of the Swamp makes due with what it’s got. The film is short, so the plot rarely sags. Although the ending is somewhat too happy for the rest of the film, it’s still a satisfyingly above-average little movie. It’s not quite a classic, maybe not even a lost gem, but it’s definitely an overlooked film worth checking out. The ragged quality of even the best prints of this film only add, in my opinion, to its eerie appeal.