Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Vampire Bat

The Psychotronic Zone 

By Ed Garea 

The Vampire Bat (Majestic Pictures, 1933) – Director: Frank R. Strayer. Writer: Edward T. Lowe, Jr. Cast: Melvyn Douglas, Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Dwight Frye, Maude Eburne, George E. Stone, Lionel Belmore, Robert Frazer, Rita Carlyle, Harrison Greene, & William Humphrey. Black and White, 65 minutes.

Following the introduction of sound, it was expected that the number of movie studios would decrease due to the cost and demands of the new technology. Yet that wasn’t the case; quite a few minor studios survived the transition to the new technology and, while they didn’t exactly thrive, they managed to make enough to stay afloat. By the mid-‘30s, most of them had disappeared due to mergers and bankruptcy. Yet, while they lived, they made their mark on Hollywood, even if it was merely a pen scratch.

One of these “Poverty Row” studios was Majestic Pictures, founded in 1930 by producers Harry Sherman and Jack Trop. Besides The Vampire Bat, the studio is best known for The Sin of Nora Moran (1934). The studio folded in 1935 owing to a huge debt to Herbert Yates and his Consolidated Film Industries, which processed Majestic’s product. Yates consolidated Majestic with several other failed studios to create Republic Pictures.

The European village of Kleinschloss (“Small Castle”), probably somewhere in Germany, has just suffered another mysterious murder. Each victim has been drained of blood through two puncture wounds on the neck near the jugular. Added to the fact that several large bats were seen in the vicinity as of late, and many townsfolk feared an outbreak of vampirism.

A town hall meeting is convened. Led by Burgermeister Gustave Schoen (Belmore), the villagers are convinced it’s the return of a period of vampirism. They point to records from 1643 that tell of an epidemic of death that was accompanied by sightings of giant bats in their town. Only police inspector Karl Brettschneider (Douglas) is skeptical of such claims, believing there is a rational explanation of it all. Brettschneider’s youth and mannerisms are in direct contrast to the older and more set in their ways villagers. He is a new man of reason, as opposed to the superstitions his elders have lived by for years.

The meeting ends inconclusively, with the inspector versus the townsfolk. Afterward, Brettschneider walks over to see his girlfriend Ruth Bertin (Wray) who lives with her Aunt Gussie, the family hypochondriac. Ruth works as secretary to Doctor Otto von Niemann (Atwill), who also lives in the same house as the two women, maintaining a well-equipped laboratory in the basement.

Dr. von Niemann is out caring for another victim of the bat, kindly old Martha Mueller (Carlyle). Also visiting Martha is village idiot Herman Gleib (Frye), who tells her he likes bats, because they are soft, like cats, and nice. On his way home, von Niemann runs into Kringen (Stone), one of the villagers. Kringen claims to have been attacked by a vampire in the form of a bat, but has kept quiet about the incident as not to spread fear. Von Niemann encourages Kringen to tell the story. Kringen relates his suspicions about Gleib to the doctor, believing that Gleib may be the vampire due to his obsession with bats – he keeps them as pets and collects them off the street.

Later that night, Martha is murdered. Upon examination of her body, both Dr. von Niemann, and Dr. Haupt (Humphrey), come to the conclusion that Martha died in the same way as the other victims: exsanguination accompanied by two marks on the neck made by razor sharp teeth. Herman enters the examination room, and seeing Martha’s body, runs off screaming.

No matter, for suspicion quickly builds towards Herman. Several witnesses tell Brettschneider that Gleib was among the last to see Martha alive, and that he made a point of giving her a flower before he left. They believe Herman gave Martha the flower as a kind of homing device to mark her as the vampire’s next victim. Kringen, on the other hand, contends that Herman is the vampire. Brettschneider and Schoen manage to stop Kringen from putting together a lynch mob to go after Herman and drive a stake through his heart.

Things go from bad to worse the next morning when Kringen is found dead in his home. And Herman Gleib is missing. As the cry to hunt Gleib down gets louder, Brettschneider decides to give the vampire theory a thorough vetting. One of the reasons for this comes from von Niemann, who assures the inspector that a man might exhibit vampiristic tendencies for purely natural reasons. Brettschneider authorizes a search party to find Gleib and bring him back to stand trial. But the mob chases Gleib through the countryside and into a cave (the old ‘villagers with torches’ bit), where Herman falls to his death.

Then comes a break in the case. Georgiana (Adams), von Niemann’s housekeeper, brings the doctor a crucifix that belonged to Martha. She tells the doctor she found it in the servant Emil’s (Frazer) room. Von Niemann assures her that he will question Emil. Later that night, we see von Niemann giving Emil a telepathic command to fetch the sleeping Georgiana and bring her to the laboratory. Once in the lab, von Niemann and Emil drain her blood.

Aunt Gussie discovers Georgiana’s body lying in her bed the next day. Von Niemann and Brettschneider examine the body and find Martha’s crucifix. Von Niemann tells the inspector that he saw Gelib handling it on the night the doctor visited her, the night of her death. Brettschneider is becoming more and more convinced of the presence of vampires in the village, as no other evidence is found and no other plausible explanation is forthcoming.

However, upon learning of Herman’s death, Brettschneider changes his mind. Von Niemann tells the inspector that he is overwrought and that he needs to get a good night’s sleep. To this end, the doctor hands Karl some sleeping pills, but unbeknownst to him, von Niemann has handed him poison instead. The plan is for Emil to fetch the inspector and bring him back top the lab to be drained.

While von Niemann is in the midst of sending Emil telepathic orders, Ruth enters the laboratory and discovers what the doctor is up to. He ties Ruth up while telling her that he has created life, pointing to what looks like a large bath sponge in a glass tank. As it needs blood to survive, his job is to make sure the organism gets it.

Emil now enters with the inspector’s body on a trolley. As von Niemann walks over to begin the operation, he finds it is Emil on the trolley. Brettschneider doffs his disguise, pulls a gun on the doctor, and explains that he didn’t take the pills, as he suspected the doctor was up to something. As the inspector goes to untie Ruth, von Niemann makes his move. As the inspector and the doctor struggle, the gun is knocked to the floor, where the revived Emil picks it up. Unfortunately for von Niemann, though, Emil had heard the doctor trying to pin the blame for the murders on him. He shoots von Niemann and then turns the gun on himself after shooting and shattering the tank that holds the organism.

Thanks to the “magic” of public domain, The Vampire Bat has survived over the years, becoming a popular staple on late-night television as well as appearing on VHS from several companies. Made to cash in on the horror trend begun by Universal with Dracula and Frankenstein, and continued by other studios, the film manages to feel original; an entertaining mixture of mystery and horror, with a little science fiction thrown in. It also looks as if more were spent on its budget thanks to the fact that it was shot at night on the backlot of Universal. For instance, the village is the same as the village in Frankenstein, while von Niemann’s residence was previously used as Femm Manor in James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).

Adding to our enjoyment is the excellent visual direction from Strayer. He sets the mood right at the beginning with a series of quick shots that culminate in a blood-curdling scream. As both Strayer and his photographer, Ira H. Morgan, began their career in the silents, they know how to make these sorts of shots highly effective, ratcheting up the atmosphere with plenty of swoops of the camera through the dark village streets. However, the lack of budget begins to do them in with slipshod editing from Otis Garrett and the haphazard continuity that occurs when stock footage is used to extend the running time. There are several mismatched shots that occur when new scenes are intercut with stock footage from unnamed silent films. Fortunately, as most of the scenes are dark, the mismatches are not readily apparent, but they are still there.

Another problem hindering Strayer is that The Vampire Bat is a talking picture, and in extended talking sequences, the film tends to plod and look extremely stagy. However, give Strayer credit for trying to minimize the damage by keeping his camera ever on the move – panning and zooming around the set instead of merely remaining motionless, as was often the case with early talkies. It keeps the film from becoming unnecessarily talky and breaking down into simply a series of static scenes glued together. Strayer is also good at using dialogue, especially in a graphic examination of the puncture wounds on the necks of the dead: “And in every case, a blood clot – eight inches from the victim’s neck. The mark of the feast – the Devil’s signature.”

Also give Strayer credit for realizing that romantic and comedy relief scenes don’t have to weigh the film down, as so often happens in other pictures of the genre. The hypochondriac Aunt Gussie has a wonderfully amusing – and yet disturbing – scene with Herman in her garden. When Herman shows her his pet rat, she turns away and screams. He steals her food, and, as if to compensate her for the loss of the food, he gives her one of his bats, which causes her to faint. She is awakened not by Herman, but by her slobbering Great Dane, which causes Gussie to believe that a vampire can assume the form of a dog as well as a bat. Karl, in his romantic interludes with Ruth, uses her as a sounding board to confirm and dispel theories, moving the plot forward rather than taking a few minutes out for a little necking. It’s as if Strayer realizes the film cannot withstand any lengthy diversion from the main direction of the plot.

Lastly, The Vampire Bat is immensely helped by the quality of its cast. As with the sets, it seems the cast was also borrowed from Universal, with the presence of Douglas, Frye and Belmore. The film also reunites the team of Atwill and Wray, who starred in Warner Brothers’ Technicolor thrillers, Doctor X (1932), and Mystery of The Wax Museum (1933). In fact, Atwill and Wray were signed right after Mystery wrapped, allowing Majestic to beat Warners on the release by almost a month.

Melvyn Douglas acquits himself quite nicely in the lead role, moving back and forth between skepticism to a reluctant acceptance of the vampire theory, and back to his earlier skepticism. But Douglas knows exactly what he’s in, and delivers some of his crazier lines almost with a knowing wink. His scenes with Wray, though, are lacking, mainly because, I think, she is not given enough to do in order to make a major mark on the proceedings. She doesn’t even get to scream, as Atwill binds and gags her near the end.

The always-colorful Lionel Atwill adds to our fun as the mad doctor. Atwill was a solid supporting actor in “A” list films and a lead in the “B” variety. Not that it mattered that much, though, for he always gave an entertaining performance no matter what the film and his billing. As Otto von Niemann, Atwill is at his slippery best as a vampire expert a la Van Helsing, but one with a couple of aces up his sleeve. When he’s revealed to be the heel, it’s a nice twist, for he has just gotten the hero to admit the possibility of vampires, taking him completely off the scent. We can say that it doesn’t come as a shock, but that’s only possible because we’ve seen enough Atwill performances to know instinctively that he has to be the villain. The weak point in his performance was not his fault, but that of the writer in portraying the doctor as a master hypnotist capable of total control, for it simply comes to us right out of the blue, as if the writer couldn’t think of any other way to get the victims bled. It’s a stretch, and one that adds nothing to the film.

In the end, von Niemann turns out to be just a mad scientist bent on creating a new life form (shades of Frankenstein). But it solves our question as to how a rational scientist can support a theory relying on the existence of vampires: von Niemann was simply distracting attention away from himself. Brettschneider has rejected the villagers’ belief in vampires as superstitious. But now a respected scientist, a man of reason, comes forward to back that very supposition. And he does so brilliantly, quoting to Brettschneider from a book written in French, telling him that “according to accepted theory,” an ordinary man can exhibit vampiric tendencies given the right circumstances. The doctor is seen reading a large book in French, Dissertations sur les apparitions des anges, des démons et des esprits, et sur les revenants et vampires de Hongrie, de Bohême, de Moravie, et de Silésie (Essays About the Apparitions of Angels, Demons and Spirits and Ghosts and Vampires of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia) by Dom Augustin Calmet. It adds weight to his argument, and Atwill plays it beautifully. He almost makes us believe it. But once all is revealed, he’s then reduced to the role of the raving madman, tying up the pretty girl in the name of progress.

Atwill made the film while he was still feeling his way about in the business. Over the next few years he came to perfect his style in such films as Murders in the Zoo (Paramount, 1933), Captain Blood (WB, 1935), The Devil is a Woman (Paramount, 1935), To Be or Not to Be (UA, 1942), and Boom Town (MGM, 1940). Perhaps his best remembered role was that of one-armed Inspector Krogh in Universal’s Son of Frankenstein (1939).

But Dwight Frye is the real catch for the producers. If one is going to make a film that recalls the Universal horror hits, Frye is an absolute necessity. Herman Gleib is yet another bizarre character in a long list of such performances for Frye, and he is positioned in this film so as to remind viewers of his previous roles as Renfield in Dracula and Fritz in Frankenstein; for instance, his obsession with bats and blood. Though Frye’s horror performances may have especially endeared him to aficionados of early horror films, they ended up ruining any chance he may have had of a normal career, typecasting him mercilessly. The dialogue given to him in this film is terrible – he can’t deliver any of his muddled thoughts with any clarity or authenticity – and when an actor realizes the quality of his dialogue is that bad, the only thing left to do is to chew scenery. The result is that he comes off like a parody of Renfield or Fritz, and not as an authentic character in his own right. When I think of Frye’s performance as the torpedo monk in Doorway to Hell from Warner’s in 1930, and then think of him in the bit part of Karl in The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935, I can’t help but wince at what might have been.

As noted earlier, Fay Wray’s performance suffers from not being given enough to do. Her Ruth is Karl Brettschneider’s girlfriend, but there’s not nearly enough interaction between the two to sustain a believable romance. It seems that Wray was signed for her marquee value alone, and not for any possible contribution to the film.

As for the others, horror fans already knew Lionel Belmore as the Burgomeister in Frankenstein, and Maude Eburne as Aunt Gussie straddles the thin line of the comic relief between being interesting or merely annoying. She pulled off her role well, keeping viewers interested.

The final verdict on The Vampire Bat is that, despite its intention to cash in on the Universal horror films, it comes off better than some of them, thanks to an imaginative approach from director Frank Strayer, who made the best of the cards he was dealt. (Compare what he did in this film with Robert Florey’s direction of Universal’s 1932 Murders in the Rue Morgue.) The battle between reason and the supernatural would appear in several later films, such as MGM’s Mark of the Vampire (1935), Fox’s 1939 Hound of the Baskervilles (and its unofficial 1944 remake, Universal’s The Scarlet Claw), and the Hammer Dracula and Frankenstein films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, where the formula was reversed, and the hero had to accept the influence of the supernatural in order to defeat the forces of evil. (The best example of this is Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, 1968, where the atheist hero must accept religion in order to defeat Dracula.)

Where the film fails is in its tepid and stagnant dialogue and situations that threaten to derail the film, leading the audience to wonder what they’re talking about. Given a more involved script containing more realistic dialogue, The Vampire Bat may not have fallen into the obscurity it did.


Director Frank Strayer’s career began in 1925 with An Enemy of Men for Columbia and ended in 1951 with The Valparaiso Story, aka Venture of Faith, for the Lutheran Layman’s League. He was best known for directing many of the films in Columbia’s Blondie series, starring Penny Singleton as cartoonist Chic Young’s heroine.

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