Lionel AtwillDwight FryeLionel BelmoreFay Wray
The Vampire Bat
Medium: film
Year: 1933
Director: Frank R. Strayer
Writer: Edward T. Lowe Jr.
Keywords: horror, vampires
Country: USA
Actor: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas, Maude Eburne, George E. Stone, Dwight Frye, Robert Frazer, Rita Carlyle, Lionel Belmore, William V. Mong, Stella Adams, Harrison Greene
Format: 64 minutes
Website category: Horror pre-1970
Review date: 30 March 2010
That was a bit boring, unfortunately. It's trying really hard to be a combination of the Universal Dracula and Frankenstein movies, but the story is forgettable. The heroes are a waste of space, to the extent that you'd improve the film by cutting them out. This wouldn't even require any real plot rejigging.
The Vampire Bat was a quickie from skid row studio Majestic Pictures, which was cashing in on the success of Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill in Doctor X the previous year for Warner Bros. Warner had already completed shooting on a follow-up film for the two of them, Mystery of the Wax Museum, whereupon Majestic hired Wray and Atwill, rushed The Vampire Bat into production and ended up getting that film into cinemas a few weeks before Mystery of the Wax Museum. They rented sets from old James Whale films: the German village from Frankenstein (1931) and interiors from The Old Dark House (1932), plus some location shooting at Bronson Caves. The film looks good, or at least it would do if the surviving print didn't need restoration.
The cast is also reminiscent of the better-known Universal classics, especially if you cheat by including the post-1933 films. Lionel Belmore plays the Burgomeister, having previously played the same role in Frankenstein (1931), and he'd later play nearly identical roles in Son and Ghost. Lionel Atwill of course would end up being in almost all the Universal Frankenstein films, albeit in a different (major) role each time. Finally there's the mighty Dwight Frye, who's the reason I'd sought out this film in the first place and has clearly been cast in a role that's meant to remind us of his Renfield.
Oddly enough though, I don't really like the cast. Frye is awesome and Atwill is solid, but the good guys did nothing for me. Belmore's not great and neither is Melvyn Douglas as the main romantic lead, despite the fact that he'd later go on to win two Oscars in an impressive fifty-year career. Fay Wray's okay, but she has nothing to do. She's a lab assistant for Atwill and Douglas keeps trying to kiss her. That's it. She doesn't even try to solve the murders and her sole contribution to the plot is to walk into a room. Most annoying though is Maude Eburne as Aunt Gussie Schnappmann, who seems to have been told to be the comic relief. The film would have been greatly improved by giving her a gruesome death, although I'll admit that I was amused by "you're shocked - so was she".
Atwill's always good, though. He's not hamming it up as he might have done, but he's clearly class. Frye though is magnificent, playing a village idiot who regards vampire bats as pets and talks about himself in the third person. He's a blast. He's both creepy and adorable. Look at his reaction to seeing blood, for instance.
The plot is of no interest, but it has some worthwhile themes. After the obligatory opening death, we're into an overlong scene in which Douglas and the village elders bore us at length on the subject of whether vampires exist. "No, they don't." "Yes, they do." "No, they don't." This scene needed an editor, but it does clearly indicate that the film's going to be about science vs. superstition. For once it's not quite as simple as "the sceptic is proved wrong". Will the vampire killings turn out to have a scientific explanation? The villagers not only believe their supernatural stories but act upon them, launching a witch hunt. What's interesting is that we're not even sure who's right. Maybe the loathsome old coots are correct and the obvious suspect is indeed a vampire? It's a live possibility.
That really is an almost structureless plot, though. Douglas does nothing. Fay Wray does nothing. Maude Eburne does less than nothing. The villain defeats himself by forgetting to lock his door. Later two baddies fall out and kill each other, which sounds okay except that when we last see them alive, one of them's holding the other at gunpoint. Two bangs later, they're both dead. Then you've got the telepathic powers with which [spoiler] is directing the activities of [spoiler], which the film never bothers explaining.
There's some slightly disconcerting science. They pronounce "jugular" as "joo-gular", although to my surprise this appears to be a legitimate alternative pronunciation. Also at one point Atwill starts talking about vampire bats in South America (okay so far) and how being bitten by one can turn you into a blood-drinking undead fiend (eh?).
This is not a good film. It might be of mild interest to 1930s horror buffs and Dwight Frye fans (e.g. me), but even at this short running time it feels too long. I was flagging in the second half, although you could probably improve it no end by doing a re-edit that cut out as much of Douglas and Eburne as possible. I'm sure they're much better in other films with more interesting material, but here, no. I suppose it's mildly amusing to compare it with modern slasher movies. The victims are elderly peasants rather than sexy pseudo-teens, while Eburne's character in a modern horror film would be so doomed. The deaths are bland and/or confusingly shot, too. It's not horrible and I quite like its themes of "science vs. superstition", but it's weak.