STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP. PRC, 1946. Rosemary La Planche, Robert Barrat, Blake Edwards, and Charles Middleton. Written & directed by Frank Wisbar

FÄHRMANN MARIA. Pallas Film, Germany, 1936. Title translates to “Ferryman Maria.” Sybille Schmitz, Aribert Mog, Peter Voß, and Carl de Vogt. Written & directed by Frank Wysbar.

   The last German expressionist film before the Nazis took over, remade as a fitfully memorable little ghost story from the cheapest studio in Hollywood.

   To start with the remake, Charles “Ming” Middleton plays the ghost of ferryman Douglas, who was hanged on perjured testimony sometime before the film started. This, along with most of the rest of the plot, is conveyed in dull but cost-saving dialogue by cast members sitting in a studio mockup of a ferryboat being pulled in front of an obvious backdrop by Douglas’ successor, who scoffs dramatically when they conveniently remind him of Douglas’ dying promise to return and kill his persecutors and their descendants.

   Having brought the audience up to speed (if that word can be applied to this film) the B-movie Greek Chorus departs leaving the new ferryman to be confronted by Charles Middleton in fuzzy double exposure and swiftly dispatched.

   The dead ferryman’s replacement is his daughter-just-back-from-school Maria (Rosemary La Planche) whom the village elders tactfully or prudently refrain from telling about the local onus. When she forms an attachment for a Nice Young Man also under the curse (young Blake Edwards, no less) Middleton starts rattling his chains and the fight is on as Rosemary tries to put the ghost to rest and save the man she loves.

   Strangler in the Swamp is never very good, but it is at least consistently interesting. The studio-built swamp has a fine Gothic look to it, and the simple plot works rather nicely against this primitive backdrop. There’s also a well-judged (and incredibly cheap) scene where Rosemary runs through the town hounded by the ghost, and as she approaches each house, doors close in her face and lights go out.

   But the origin of Strangler is no less interesting than the film itself; it’s a loose remake of Fährmann Maria (1936) which Wisbar made in Germany just before coming to America. And the differences between the two films drop some interesting clues as to why Wisbar had to leave the country.

   In Fährmann, it’s not a vengeful ghost, but Death himself who preys on the little country village and kills its ferryman. Maria (Sybil Schmitz, a sensuous actress who also starred in Dreyer’s Vampyre) is a woman — possibly of questionable background, my German isn’t that good — who wanders into town looking for work and is hired to replace the ferryman by the kindly local Burgermeister. She quickly falls for a handsome young local, who falls back, but it seems he has a prior commitment with Death. And, as in the remake, Maria has to save him by herself.

   Standard Death-and-the-Maiden stuff so far, albeit photographed quite nicely on real locations, as opposed to Strangler’s set-bound atmospherics. But the kicker comes in Wisbar’s canny personification of Death.

   Death first appears as an elderly, lantern-jawed man in a priest’s cassock. But as the film progresses, this outfit subtly changes from scene to scene: death now wears a tunic with a high collar; then we notice flat epaulets and nipped-in waist; finally, the pants look more like riding breeches with jack boots.

   Any resemblance between Death’s eventual look and the fashion statement espoused by certain political groups sweeping to popularity in Germany in 1935 is understated, but there to be seen, particularly as Death is assisted in one scene by identically dressed men on white chargers, accompanied by military music. There’s even a telling moment when Death comes to the Village to take Maria. The villagers start to rally in outrage at losing their ferryman, but are ultimately cowed into submission.

   Obviously, a film like this wasn’t going to score a lot of points with the Powers that Were in the Reich, so Wisbar found it prudent to head west, where he found gainful employment at El Cheapo (pardon me, PRC) Studios till war’s end. Others here have noted his eventual success in Television, but his bottom-scrapers at PRC always seemed to me to have a haunting beauty sadly overlooked by film historians. Strangler in the Swamp has been called “PRC’s finest hour” but it’s actually just the most obvious example of the care and artistry Wisbar brought with him as a refugee to these shores.