Heart of Darkness: The Vampire’s Ghost and Colonial Horror

Everything belonged to him—but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. That was the reflection that made you creepy all over. It was impossible—it was not good for one either—trying to imagine. He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land—I mean literally. 

                   — Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

The Vampire’s Ghost reeks of jungle rot, regrets, and that creeping evil that lives far beyond the gratification of its desires. Instead of the dark peacock virility of Lugosi’s Dracula, that lusty Deco reincarnation of European romanticism, this 1945 B-film offers up a bulbous-eyed, gaunt expat, Webb Fallon, as its parasitic antihero. Fallon is a vampire who is both moribund and mighty, weary yet insatiable. Ugly as gull, courtly as a prince, and efficient as a bureaucrat, he embodies the musty charm and banal wickedness of a decaying colonial empire.

In fact, running his shabby little casino and dive bar to keep afloat as he feeds on blood, Fallon (John Abbott) reminds me of what Conrad’s Mister Kurtz would have become if he had been doomed to eternal life. I suspect that Kurtz’ bravura would have mellowed into Fallon’s disillusionment if he had been forced to watch the downfall of his works and to observe for centuries “the horror, the horror” that he had only begun to conceive of on the brink of death.

Let’s take a look at how the movie, directed by Lesley Selander, begins. Rather like Casablanca, it begins with a map, the sound of drums, and an authoritative, cultured, newsreel-ish voice-over intoning, “Africa, the dark land where Voodoo drums beat in the night…”

In the context of 1940s cinema, we read this narrator not only as a nondiegetic element, but also as an element divorced from the story. In a way, the audience members think in the back of their minds, the movie hasn’t even started. This voice-over is here to situate the film with a few choice clichés, we assume. The camera focuses in on a specific town on the map as the voice continues to spout some vague scene-setting lines about “the mystic moon” and such. Now, dissolve to the village, the real thing, not a drawing, at night. The cluster of grass huts and a Christian mission squat bathed in moonlight as the camera pans ever so slowly around.

The drums beating constantly in the background may now be interpreted as diegetic, since they’re coming from the village. That subtle change forces us to readjust our assumptions as the narrator’s baritone keeps talking: “Africa… where men have not forgotten the evil they learnt in the dawn of time.” Okay, the narrator in Casablanca would never say that. Who the hell is this?

At this moment, the voice betrays itself. “I always come back to Africa… but even here there is no rest for me. The path of time is curved here like a sickle.” This mercurial shift from a relatively detached, conventional narrator to the narrator as an “I” hits home like a stealth attack. I felt as though the subjectivity of this character had been lying in wait, biding its time. Now the camera begins to really move in earnest, tracking towards a doorway and we understand that we’re in a point-of-view shot. Once again, we’ve been lulled into a false sense of a security and, in a way, what we see has suddenly been possessed by the intent of another. It’s quite a clever opening play and it only gets better.

This voice and this perspective stalk up to the door as the voice grows more emphatic, culminating in “I cannot die!” at the moment when a hand appears on a door handle, before trailing away with the hypnotic repetitions of “I cannot rest. I cannot rest. I cannot rest…”

Continuing from this perspective, there’s a cut to a little barking dog on the other side of the door. Cut to the hand opening the door. The dog cowers as the camera creeps towards a sleeping woman. She wakes. She looks terrified. The shadow falls over her. She screams. Fade to black.

We’re all used to the monster attack as an opener, a classic “curtain-raiser” in films, but here the unusual complicity with the vampire—a complicity that’s imposed upon us through a careful use of cinematic language and audience expectations—attracts me to this sequence. Not only do we experience the attack through the eyes of the predator, we also hear his plea for “rest” as he prepares to drain a human being of life. The viewer finds himself simultaneously drawn in and repelled.

The grave, sonorous voice of John Abbott certainly catalyzes this blend of fear and sympathy: he was a noted English actor of Shakespeare in the 1930s. My fondness for this film may be running away with me, but I’d say this opening speech recalls Richard III, who’s always trying evoke the pity and admiration of his audience—so that they become willing accomplices and victims. (This might be a good place to point out that the script was written in part by Ms. Leigh Brackett, based on her original story. You might know her from movies she went on to write for, including The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.)

Fallon is not your ordinary vampire. Graf Orlock from Nosteratu definitely doesn’t tug at our heartstrings and Lugosi’s Dracula might make a single off-hand remark about “far worse things than death” but he never seeks to form a true of bond with the audience, to rest his head on the shoulder of our conscience and beg for a modicum of understanding. Not the Count.

In The Vampire’s Ghost, by contrast, we start with the vampire’s side of the story. And he doesn’t seem like such a soulless creature. Which is why he’s so very dangerous.

The Outsider

In case you’ve not seen this rare gem (so rare you can watch it on Netflix Instant, if you have 55 free minutes), here’s a quick synopsis: the wicked, undead nightclub-owner Fallon goes for Roy (Charles Gordon) the Good Guy’s innocent girl Julie (Peggy Stewart) and gets killed with help of silver spear-wielding natives and a Catholic priest.

That plot, minus a few specifics, could summarize almost all of the 1930s and early 1940s horror films, but this entry into the vampire cannon intrigues me because it takes Fallon quite a long time to do anything evil after that opening night sequence. In fact, he saves Roy’s life from a native jungle trap! Honestly, not many vampires come across as such consummate gentlemen. Even Julie tells him that he’s the nicest man she’s ever met.

In other words, chivalry is not dead. It’s undead.

We don’t learn very much about Fallon, but we do know that he’s actually over 400 years old and received the box in which he keeps his sacred earth from Queen Elizabeth, which hints that he was probably one of the early European explorers to colonize and enslave Africa.

So, in the midst of the thick, machete-impenetrable jungle, Fallon remains a throwback to the heart and heyday of Western civilization in all of its sin and glory. He’s part of the hegemony, a son of the British Empire. And yet, the white community doesn’t fully accept him. When Roy and Julie invite Fallon over for dinner with the other whites, the priest immediately gets judgmental, asking why “a man of your intelligence” spends his time running a saloon.

I just adore this shot, with the priest looking all… well, priestly, while Fallon lights his cigarette with a little lick of flame that reminds us of where he truly belongs in the Church’s eyes: Hell. However, the usual good-bad, white-black color iconography is reversed: the vampire wears white and the priest, the holy father, wears black. Morality seems clear-cut in The Vampire’s Ghost, but if you look harder, another layer of complexity arises.

To get back to Fallon’s saloon, it comes across as a subversive, transitional space, with the lithe, brown-skinned Leeza (Adele Mara) swirling around as a native temptress for drooling white workers and sailors.

I suppose that my point is, Fallon represents an unholy thing because he can be at once the familiar and the Other. Although he is rational and civilized, his existence defies rationality and his appetites are indeed savage.

The Return of the Repressed

By rising from his grave, Fallon disinterred that part of colonial history which many people would rather forget. His hunger and his need for conquest parallel a larger pattern of callous global vampirism: colonization. Which brings us back to Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness.

Mister Kurtz, the unconscionably evil ivory trader from Conrad’s novella, has also projected himself into the field of the Other. He embodies the pinnacle of European talents and European cruelty—and uses these traits to set himself up as a tyrant god to the natives. The narrator of the novella, Marlowe, recoils from Kurtz’ atrocities and yet he cannot deny the personal magnetism of this human monster who brought the logical extension of “civilization” to fruition in pure savagery.

In a famous scene from the book, Kurtz, dying of a jungle sickness, tries to crawl away from camp rather than leave the heart of the Congo where he rules supreme:

“He rose, unsteady, long, pale, indistinct, like a vapour exhaled by the earth, and swayed slightly, misty and silent before me; while at my back the fires loomed between the trees, and the murmur of many voices issued from the forest…

‘I was on the threshold of great things,’ he pleaded, in a voice of longing, with a wistfulness of tone that made my blood run cold.

I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness—that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions.”

This passage has much of the visuality of horror about it and makes me think particularly of the scene in The Vampire’s Ghost where Fallon reveals his vampirism.

So, in Fallon’s tent, Roy realizes what his “friend” is and first stuns him with the image of the cross, then tries to kill him with a silver-tipped spear. However, Fallon fixes his staring eyes on Roy and the weak-willed juvenile leading man caves under their force.

The low-key chiaroscuro, the Christian iconography, and the dramatic poses, reminiscent of Renaissance paintings or of the tapestry in Fallon’s bedroom, enhance the feeling of a regression to an older time, as though Fallon has suddenly reached the point where his primal hunger and his refined European wickedness intersect.

For most of The Vampire’s Ghost, Fallon appears as a declining power, which makes his force seem all the more diabolical when he finally pushes aside all of his compunction and world-weariness. He unleashes the single-minded imperialist he once was, the conqueror who lives only by the law of might. He tells Roy point-blank that he’ll do as he pleases because he is beyond humanity. “You’re seeing a creature that doesn’t exist. You’re looking at a legend… You can’t fight me. I have walked the earth for 400 years. I’ve learned things that no human being can ever know.”

This speech rings frighteningly close to Kurtz’ delusions  of grandeur. Both of them, no doubt, recognize the pain they cause—as the priest points out, in his own sanctimonious way, they’re intelligent enough to be self-aware. Even so, both Kurtz and Fallon would rather kill to feed their appetites than die: a choice that makes them perfect imperialists and perfect animals, predators who belong in the jungle.

It’s fitting, then, that Fallon rejuvenates in the forest, where he makes Roy carry him, just as Kurtz knows that, once separated from the jungle, he’ll die. Fallon bathes in the moonlight, where he can truly dismiss all his pretenses, and thus provides the focus for one of the most lyrical moments of the film.

The Fallen Idol

Fallon’s uncanniness resides in the fact that we identify him with the Other while he also strikes us as human in so many ways. However, like Kurtz, he becomes truly godlike at the conclusion when he resolves to bestow eternal life (or eternal death—ah! I’m having a Mummy flashback from my last blog post here!) upon Julie.

Fallon leads the compliant maiden into the heart of the jungle to an old pagan temple. The scene begins with a shot of the “savage” large-breasted goddess statue, an image that melds the erotic with the exotic, then the camera pans pans to reveal Fallon locked in a reciprocal gaze with this statue.

Again, the lanky, pale Fallon visually comes across as the polar opposite of this sensual indigenous idol (and yes, it is a very ersatz Hindu-African hybrid idol, but let’s take it at face value). Yet, like Kurtz, who joins the pantheon of capricious, wrathful native deities, Fallon has much more in common with a morbid god than with the stiff cast of Europeans that dominate the plot. And, like a decaying culture or a dismembered empire (Were you ever bitten by a dead bee?), Fallon draws us in with his tragic need to expire—which will always be trumped by the consumption necessary to survive.

Ruthlessness, as Nietzsche (surely Kurtz’ favorite author!) tells us, requires a lot of strength and a surprising amount of self-control.  Fallon the tempter is himself tempted by death, but keeps killing to stay alive. Throughout the film we wonder why, and it boils down to an addiction. A behavior pattern of exploitation that perpetuates itself. Every “memory of gratification and monstrous passions” lures Fallon back to that same desire for power. He’s too strong to let himself die.

He’s not without a conscience, like Dracula seemingly is, but, having largely mastered his conscience, Fallon can stomach destroying a few lives to preserve his own intoxicating authority over others. We catch a glimpse of that side of Fallon when he sadistically gloats by Roy’s bedside, giving Julie his shoulder to cry on and then, when alone with the poor boy, gloating over his imminent victory.

The complexity of Fallon’s character as a sort of fallen idol imbues the film with added depth. He doesn’t put everyone in his thrall but once he does, as with Roy, he goes all-out, gleefully making them his slaves. He doesn’t like the fact that he hurts people, but he certainly enjoys doing it. We, as an audience, also enjoy it, I’d point out, since his most sinister scenes stand out as the best in the film.

But back to the grand finale. As he prepares to treat Julie to The Fate Worse Than Death, Fallon repeats his line from the opening monologue, “the path of time is curved like a sickle…” but this time he ends his speech by saying that a man need not walk that time alone and that he wants Julie to be his companion for all eternity. He seduced the audience with this line. Now he tries it on a new victim and it seems to be working. The repetition also reinforces the idea of vampirism as an addiction, as a compulsive behavior pattern which, like imperialism, once set into swing, cannot easily be halted.

That is, until Roy, the priest, and his native friend show up with crucifixes, silver-tipped spears, and torches, as we knew they would.

I can’t help but find it amusing that that the hardcore Catholic priest teams up with the much-maligned “superstitious” native leader, to roast the vampire. But, then again, the indigenous people understandably hate Fallon for exploiting them (literally sucking their blood) and hypocritical whites hate Fallon for giving away their much more subtle vampirism (Who’s tapping the rubber out of those trees?) as well as for “luring” away their pure young girl (You can’t make the whites into your slaves!). It’s only right that they should band together to forever destroy this blasphemous creature who’s neither us nor them.

Nevertheless, just as it’s difficult to forget our twisted admiration for Kurtz, who was, to his credit, honest about his barbaric methods, Fallon similarly invites the viewer to sympathize with him while he never hides what he does. He may be homely, corrupted, and poisonous, but his superhuman insight and his ability to cling onto life—even when part of him tragically craves death—these qualities hold us spellbound.

As Marlowe laments the loss of Kurtz’ originality in Heart of Darkness, “Ah! but it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares.”

Fallon acknowledged his own status as something better off dead, but we respect his fierce implacability in getting what he wants. Isn’t that the same ineffable motive that drives all of us to keep on living, even as other things—perhaps better things—die? Vampirism. Imperialism. Both warped versions of the same survival instinct. And both really human to the core.

Heaven knows what devils we might all aspire to be if plunged into the heart of darkness.

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One thought on “Heart of Darkness: The Vampire’s Ghost and Colonial Horror

  1. I haven't seen this film, which sounds fascinating; though I confess that, until I watched the clip you included, I found it hard to imagine John Abbott as a vampire (I always think of him as the mild-mannered little cellist being steamrollered by Bette Davis in 'Deception'). I enjoyed your perceptive analysis, particularly of the film's beginning and how the camera and narration 'seduce' you into the vampire's point of view. This film sounds like it's ripe for revival on DVD.

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