Vampire Bat (1933) was a staple of TV late-night movie programming
well into the 1980s. Too often the
running time of this maltreated film was irreverently trimmed or stretched to
accommodate commercial breaks or better fit into a predetermined time
slot. With black-and-white films almost
completely banished from the schedules of local television affiliates by 1987, TV Guide disrespectfully dismissed The Vampire Bat as a “Dated, slow-motion
chiller.” That’s an unfair appraisal. But with the MTV generation in the ascendant
and Fangoria gleefully splashing the lurid
and blood-red exploits of such slice-and-dice horror icons as Michael Meyers,
Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger on its covers, it’s somewhat understandable why
the other-worldly atmospherics of The
Vampire Bat were perceived as little more than a celluloid curio – an
antiquated footnote in the annals of classic horror.
Vampire Bat is hardly original. The film was, no doubt, conceived as an
exploitative hybrid of Universal’s Dracula
and Frankenstein twinblockbusters of 1931. (Though not a Universal production, several
scenes of The Vampire Bat were
purportedly shot on that studio’s back lot). Though this Pre-Code film starts as a mostly routine
mystery sprinkled with doses of suggested vampirism, there’s also a mad doctor who
secretly labors in mad devotion to “lift the veil” separating God from man. The doctor has artificially created living,
pulsating tissue requiring human blood for sustenance. Sadly, low rent Majestic Pictures wasn’t able
to engage the services of Universal’s Kenneth Strickfadden. So the mad doctor’s bare-bones laboratory features
none of the splendid electrical gimmickry or flashing circuits that monster
kids love so well.
Though director Frank R. Strayer might not have achieved auteur status, he was no mere
craftsman. He had been involved (most
often in a directorial capacity) in well over one hundred film projects dating
back to the silent era. His greatest
notoriety was likely being the principal helmsman of the wildly popular Blondie series for Columbia in the late
1930s/early 1940s. Though no gloomy
visionary as Universal’s James Whale, Strayer could nonetheless effectively conjure
similarly eerie, ethereal atmospheres to the low-budget mystery and horror film
productions he was assigned. The
scenario and screenplay for The Vampire
Bat was scribed by Edward T. Lowe. Lowe too was a true pioneer of the Hollywood film industry. He had also worked in the silents, hanging on
long enough to contribute scripts to such popular mystery franchises of the
1940s as the Bulldog Drummond, Charlie Chan, and Sherlock Holmes series.
For a modestly-budgeted production without major studio
backing, it must be said the cast of The
Vampire Bat is exceptional. For all
intent and purposes, this is essentially an “actor’s film,” as Strayer –
curiously - offers little on-screen moments of murderous mayhem. Our hero is the affable Melvyn Douglas, a future
two-time Academy winner whose career would endure for more than a half-century. In Ninotchka
(1939), Douglas would famously sway screen siren Greta Garbo from the
schemes of such Soviet puppet masters as Bela Lugosi. Leading lady Fay Wray, who would earn her
bona fides as the big screen’s preeminent “Scream Queen” of the 1930s with a
five film run in 1932-1933 (Doctor X,
The Most Dangerous Game, The Vampire Bat, Mystery of the Wax Museum and, of course, King Kong), finds herself again the target of a mad doctor’s evil
machinations. Sadly, the comely actress
isn’t given much to do in The Vampire Bat
except have a teasing flirtation with the dashing Douglas and await her
inevitable final reel rescue from the mad fiend.
Lionel Atwill, as always, turns in a memorable performance as village doctor Otto von Niemann. We first meet the kindly physician as he examines the wounds of an elderly victim of an alleged vampire bat attack. The doctor is a seemingly reasonable fellow, not one prone to the “peasant superstitions” of the townsfolk who talk fearfully of a giant murderous bat “with wings like an Eagle.” Though the good doctor is outwardly handsome, distinguished, intelligent, and nattily dressed… he’s also Lionel Atwill. Atwill, of course, is the sinister character actor every monster kid in America recognizes as the “maddest mad doctor” of them all. So we can be forgiven if we suspect early on that things might not be what they seem.
Dwight Frye, barely off his iconic turn as Bela Lugosi’s mad subjugate Renfield in Universal’s Dracula (1931), also plays a central role as the film’s primary red herring. Frye’s sixth-billed character is similarly pale, wild-eyed, and suspiciously ghoulish. He mostly lurks about, living in the shadows, frightening villagers with his nervous, insane blather and eccentricities. Given recent events, the villagers are understandably wary of Frye’s affinity for keeping bats as personal pets. He even climbs gloomy lampposts to collect such “friends” so he can nest them in his dreary garret.
The film’s supporting players offer some of the film’s most memorable moments. The beleaguered white-haired Burgomaster Gustave Schoen (Lionel Belmore) is certain that a vampire is loose in the village. He tells members of the council that the recent outbreak of neck punctures are nothing short of the “Devil’s signature.” He also reminds everyone without long memory that the village suffered a similar plague of vampirism in the year 1643. Belmore’s face, if not always his name, would certainly be familiar to anyone with an affinity for the Universal horror films of the 1930s and early 1940s. The film’s best moments of light-comedy come courtesy of actress Maude Eburne’s portrayal as Wray’s hypochondriac Aunt Gussie. Gussie’s many imaginary ailments provide us with the best exchange in the film. When Wray sighs that poor Gussie suffers “every ailment in the book,” Atwill offers in deadpan response, “… and a lot that aren’t, I’m afraid.”
This BD-R BDMV restoration of The Vampire Bat, a restorative collaboration of The Film Detective and UCLA’s Film and Television Archive, is a true labor-of-love. I suppose it’s also something of a gamble: I can’t imagine there will be great financial recompense for their impressive restoration effort. The Vampire Bat title has for so lingered in public domain status that it has appeared almost from the inception of home video on innumerable cut-rate budget labels: VHS to Laser Disc to DVD to streaming. There’s rarely a bargain priced 50 film horror or mystery film multi-pack box set that doesn’t feature this title sourced from a gauzy VHS image or direct from a scratchy 16mm collector’s print. Aside from the expected emulsion scratches and the odd blemish here and there, it’s doubtful that Film Detective’s lovingly restored edition of the film – reportedly sourced from new 35mm film elements - has projected this nicely since its original release in 1933.
Supplements include removable English subtitles, a useful and informative commentary track by film producer/writer Sam Sherman, and an intriguing segment featuring the recollections of Melvyn Douglas’s half-estranged son, now an elder himself, Gregory Hesselberg. The misty-eyed Hesselberg recounts, with a mingle of palpable pride and pain, the mixed blessings of being the son of a famous Hollywood star. Since Douglas had separated from Hesselberg’s mother shortly after his birth, the child rarely saw his father. The actor was, at best, a very occasional visitor in the boy’s early life. That would change in the summer of 1940, when Douglas sought custody of the boy and brought him to live in splendor at his home in Carmel. Though his standard of living had been raised considerably, he admits there remained an unbridgeable distance between father and son, and one senses his regret there were “only two or three times I was close to my father.” It’s a sobering, bravely honest appraisal of one of Hollywood’s finest leading men whose forte was, somewhat ironically, in light-comedy.
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