(From now until Halloween, the Canadian Cinephile will be taken over by pure, unadulterated FEAR. No, I’m not commencing an Adam Sandler marathon. I will be reviewing some of the most spine-chilling, bloodcurdling horror movies, with this year’s trip covering those freaky films released prior to 1970. There will be a special focus on Universal’s classic monster pictures, so bring your hot cocoa. It’s going to be a dark and scary ride. Sort of.)
If nothing else, at least Frank R. Strayer’s The Vampire Bat looks the part. This 1933 film was meant as a “quickie” based on the advance press of Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, with the two stars rushed into production. Majestic Pictures was able to lease many of Universal’s finer sets, like the one from 1931’s Frankenstein.
The Vampire Bat makes great use of “European” villages and eerie laboratories, too, with cinematographer Ira H. Morgan coming up with some compelling angles. There are some scenes inside a cave complete with a torch-bearing mob that work out really well, plus the use of beakers and lab equipment as focal points is fun. But there are a whole lot of diagonal wipes. A lot.
The picture opens in the village of Kleinschloss with villagers dying off. Some suspect a resurgence of vampirism, while inspector Karl Breettschneider (Melvyn Douglas) isn’t so sure. Dr. Otto von Niemann (Atwill) checks out Martha (Rita Carlisle) and meets Herman (Dwight Frye), the town crazy who wants to make sure nobody blames the pretty bats for the deaths.
Soon, Herman is suspected of being a vampire because of his bat obsession. Breettschneider, meanwhile, hangs with his girlfriend Ruth (Wray) and her uncanny aunt Gussie (Maude Eburne). As the townspeople harass Herman because of their beliefs in his vampirism, Dr. von Niemann continues his work in the laboratory and can telepathically control poor Emil Borst (Robert Frazer).
The Vampire Bat is part vampire film and part mad scientist yarn, but it doesn’t quite pay off either story strand. The plot meanders around without much bearing and shoves through a few twists that don’t resonate well. Edward T. Lowe Jr.’s script lacks intrinsic rhythm and there’s a lot going on over a relatively short period of time.
For one thing, nobody really knows what Atwill’s Dr. von Niemann is up to. He fiddles around in the laboratory an awful lot, looking professional around beakers and flasks, but there’s no central element to his scientific work apart from mentally controlling Borst.
Edburne is tasked with providing comic relief as a hypochondriac looking for a cure for everything. She downs potions and delivers dense medical phrases like she’s been browsing WebMD, but she doesn’t have much to do with the plot – such as it is. Luckily, Eburne’s Gussie does provide some personality and that’s a good thing.
Frye is again his reliable self as a sort of nut, while Wray and Atwill bring their big-name pedigree to the picture. There’s nothing outstanding in their portrayals, although Atwill does manage some sturdy glares and tiptoes across the fringes of madness.
The best scenes in The Vampire Bat involve the demented crowd trying to solve the problems of Kleinschloss with torches and anger. They track dear Herman down and drive him to his certain fate in a cave, illustrating the raw power and fury of a heated mob and their central incapacity to actually think problems through.
Clocking in at 63 minutes, The Vampire Bat is far from indispensable horror viewing. It’s not a poor movie by any extent and it does make nice with the set design and cinematography. That said, the plot is nearly incoherent and there’s not a lot to say for the overall cadence of the picture. Strayer’s movie is rather transient in the end, remaining a rather forgettable entry in the annals of 1930s-era horror.