The Vampire’s Ghost is a vintage horror movie from Republic Pictures that, like most horror movies from Republic Pictures, has slipped through the cracks of public consciousness, overshadowed by Universal’s classic monsters. That doesn’t mean they aren’t quality films, though. Take The Vampire’s Ghost, for instance. Not only is it well made (granted, its relatively low budget is evident), but its portrayal of black characters is noticeably superior to most fright flicks of this era. (It should be noted that Universal’s portrayal of black characters was pretty much non-existent — minor roles in The Mummy, Son of Dracula and The Mummy’s Curse excepted.)
It’s an atypical vampire movie that’s lacking in fangs, bats, capes, coffins and the standard European Gothic castle setting. Instead, it takes place in rural Africa — the fictitious village of Bakunda — its opening voiceover setting the scene by evoking the typical cinematic portrayal of the continent as a dangerous, mystical land: “Africa: the dark land where voodoo drums beat in the night, where the jungles are deep and full of secrets and the moon that lights them is still a mystic moon. Africa: where men have not forgotten the evil they learned in the dawn of time.” As clichéd as this introduction sounds, though, it’s noteworthy that it refers to Africans as “men” rather than the usual monikers of the time, like “savages,” “primitives” or “brutes.” Hey, small victories.
The opening scene features a shadowy figure attacking and killing a nameless African woman. It’s an early example of what would become a well-worn horror movie trope: the monster/killer offing someone in the first scene, establishing the danger that lingers throughout the film. It’s also an example of the “black guy/gal dying first” trope that’s more legend than reality (a more accurate cliché would be “the black guy/gal dies eventually”), and while this character serves as just a means to an end, in this era of horror movies, it’s frankly refreshing to see ANY scene revolving around a black person. Again, small victories.
As the story progresses, the portrayal of the black characters really begins to stand out. The Africans are perpetually one step ahead of the white characters when it comes to stopping the fiend that’s killing the locals. (The white protagonists, of course, care less about the welfare of the villagers as people than they do about their value as plantation workers.) The Africans know a vampire is to blame, but the heroes scoff at such “superstition.”
The featured local, servant Simon Peter (Martin Wilkins), is the only person perceptive enough to notice that Webb Fallon (John Abbott, whose saucer eyes make him look like the love child of Robert Mitchum and Peter Lorre) isn’t casting a reflection in a mirror, and thus he identifies him as the prime suspect. Rather than skedaddle like a typical comic relief spook, however, Simon Peter consults with another villager, Taba (Zack Williams, who played the beast in Son of Ingagi).
The two men examine bullet angles, CSI-style (!), from another incident in which Fallon was almost shot and deduce that the bullet had to have traveled through him. Simon Peter sneaks into his tent and, sure enough, he finds a bullet hole in Fallon’s old shirt. Having gathered the proof they need, the two Africans don’t bother relying on white people to save the day; they immediately dip a spear in molten silver and go after Fallon. Smart, decisive and unafraid — forget Bakunda; this is some straight-up Wakanda shit here!
Unfortunately for Simon Peter and Taba, their plan to kill the vampire is thwarted, but the former ultimately plays a key role in Fallon’s demise. When Fallon hypnotizes and kidnaps leading lady Julie (Peggy Stewart), Simon Peter uses his drum to communicate with faraway tribes, asking them to help triangulate Fallon and Julie’s location as they traipse through the jungle. The drumming network assists our heroes in tracking down the vampire, who for some reason reveals that his one weakness is fire…and then proceeds to stand by an open flame.
Even when there are a couple of “bad” natives earlier in the film who attack our heroes, all they’re really trying to do is get to the vampire, so it’s understandable that they might unleash their furor indiscriminately. After all, aren’t all colonizers vampires? *WOKE BURN*