(6/10) Dwight Frye, Fay Wray, Lionel Atwill and Melvyn Douglas star in this 1933 Poverty Row schlockfest, which is a lot better than its Majestic Pictures origin would imply. Filmed on the sets of Universal’s horror movies, it looks and feels like a prestige film, but sadly still has the script of a slapdash chashgrabber.
The Vampire Bat. 1933, USA. Directed by Frank R. Strayer. Written by Edward T. Lowe, Jr. Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas, Dwight Frye, Maude Eburne. Produced by Phil Goldstone & Larry Darmour. IMDb rating: 5.7/10 Tomatometer: 60%. Metascore: N/A.
The Vampire Bat is one of the earliest Poverty Row knockoffs of the Universal horror films that made such an immense splash in the early days of the talkies. And, truth be told, it’s one of the best. The small production outfit Majestic Pictures was able to scramble together an impressive cast that belies the actual size of the studio, and through some shrewd business dealings was allowed to rent leftover sets from Universal’s previous films. With the addition of a reliable veteran director and a top-notch cinematographer, The Vampire Bat looks and feels like a considerably costlier production than what it actually is. I wouldn’t go as far as calling this “a lost masterpiece” or even “a minor gem”, but it simply has a lot more oomph and weight than the paper-thin monuments to staleness that were put out by Monogram and Republic a few years later, on similar budgets.
The movie is essentially a Frankenstein monster pieced together primarily from elements borrowed from Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931, review), but it also thieves heavily from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and adds touches of The Old Dark House (1932), White Zombie (1932), Svengali (1931) and Doctor X (1932, review). The only reason The Mummy (1932) is missing from the bingo sheet is that it hadn’t yet been released when filming of The Vampire Bat wrapped.
To put the film into context, Universal scored two humongous hits with their horror movies Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. Especially the magnificent international success of Frankenstein had all other Hollywood studios scrambling to their feet, looking around for any ghoulish material to put out in order to catch a ride on the monster wave. Paramount was quick to respond with two of the era’s most stylish and, in all honesty, best horror films, not only of the decade, but in history: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, review) and Island of Lost Souls (1932, review). But Warner was also quick to latch on, with Svengali (1931), The Mad Genius (1931) and Doctor X (1932), the latter two directed by future star director Michael Curtiz. Even Fox and MGM sort of got half a foot into the game. Horror films were not only hugely popular, they were also cheap to make, in an era (the Great Depression, plus the changeover to sound pictures) when a number of studios were in deep financial straits.
Warner’s two-strip Technicolor film Doctor X was a success, and the studio immediately went into production with a follow-up, the highly advertised The Mystery of the Wax Museum, featuring two of Doctor X’s breakout stars, mad doctor extraordinaire Lionel Atwill and scream queen Fay Wray. What with the lengthy process of colour film post-production, Majestic Pictures’ producer Phil Goldstone realised that in the period between The Wax Museum’s wrap and its release, he would manage to film, edit and release a horror movie and take advantage of all the big studio-build-up marketing, and unleash his own film upon the audience as a sort of appetiser for Warner’s colour spectacle. What more: he could do it by using the stars of Warner’s film: Atwill and Wray. Getting both actors to sign up for The Vampire Bat was quite a coup. But not as big coup as he managed to pull on Universal.
In the beginning of the thirties, Universal was on the brink of bankruptcy. According to critic Glenn Erickson, Phil Goldstone had made a fortune in the Hollywood real estate market, and was able to provide loans to other studios during the Depression’s squeeze on the banking system. As thanks for a big loan, Universal let Goldstone rent old sets when they weren’t in use. Most of The Vampire Bat was filmed in the interior sets from The Old Dark House and the so-called European Village sets first used in Frankenstein. The Vampire Bat was also one of the first films to make use of the abandoned quarry at the Bronson Canyon, a stone’s throw from he Hollywood sign.
Not only did Majestic Pictures film on Universal’s sets, they also snatched up some of the key players from Universal’s horror movies: Melvyn Douglas, Dwight Frye and Lionel Belmore. The script was hastily thrown together by veteran scenario writer Edward T. Lowe, Jr., a journeyman writer who was at the time probably best known for having co-written the 1923 smash hit The Hunchback of Notre Dame, again, for Universal. Lowe would go on to write two Charlie Chan films, three Bulldog Drummond movies, the arguably weakest of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, a forgettable Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan flick and — the final death rattles of the Universal monster franchise: The House of Frankenstein (1944, review) and The House of Dracula (1945).
The story birthed from the typewriter of this B-movie specialist is a rather odd affair. It’s difficult to write much about it without giving away the plot twists, but on the other hand, it’s the sort of film that semaphores its conclusions from miles away, so I’ll just hint at them to the same degree as the film does and hopefully that’ll at least leave some mystery for those of you who haven’t yet seen the film. On the other hand, the poster art and press images for the film pretty much gave away most of the mystery before the opening night, anyway.
The small Central European town on Kleinschloss is beset by an infestation of bats. As if that wasn’t enough, townsfolk keep being murdered, with the murderer leaving two small puncture marks on the victims’ necks. The superstitious simpletons of the town, with mayor Schoen (Belmore) in the vanguard, quickly draw the only logical conclusion: they’re being plagued by a vampire! And before you can say “Count Dracula”, a likely suspect is found: the town idiot Herman (Frye), a young, wide-eyed and clearly mentally impaired man, who happens to have a weird affection for bats, and keeps them as his pets.
Three persons stand out in stark contrast to the dim-witted townsfolk: the young chief of police Karl Brettschneider (Douglas), the local physician and (mad?) scientist Dr. Niemann (Atwill), as well as Nieman’s lovely young assistant Ruth Bertin (Wray), who also happens to be Karl’s girlfriend. Karl frets over the fact that he’s “up a tree, stumped” with regards to the odd killings — he doesn’t understand how they’re being done, nor does he have a single credible suspect: Despite the fact that the story tries to dangle Herman as a red herring, it’s clear to any modern viewer that the poor boy is naturally neither vampiric nor any other sort of murderer. Niemann agrees, despite pressure from the mayor and the townsfolk, that there must be some rational explanation to everything, but still urges Karl to keep an open mind, since the killings do in fact bear all the mythical hallmarks of vampiric legend. As a viewer you get a feeling that Niemann perhaps urges Karl to consider the vampire angle just a bit too eagerly, as if Niemann knows something that the rest of us don’t. It doesn’t help that the film opens with a shot of Niemann’s laboratory, which, in the wake of all mad scientist movies that the film knocks off, bears all the unmistakable hallmarks of a mad scientist. From the beginning it’s clear that Niemann is deeper into the mystery than he lets on. The question we ask ourselves is whether he’s a Victor Frankenstein or an Abraham van Helsing, and thankfully, the film manages to keep at least that mystery going for half of the film. Around the halfway mark the movie suddenly flipflops from vampire story to mad scientist yarn with a rather clumsy hypnotism spin (not that the rest of the script would be particularly un-clumsy). There’s a tie-in with both Frankenstein and Doctor X at the very end, but I’m not going to reveal any more, you’ll have to see it for yourself.
While the script is, as stated, a rather clumsy everything-but-the-kitchen-sink affair, it also doesn’t take itself very seriously. It knows what it is, and plays it a bit for laughs and a bit for burlesque, but still without becoming a spoof, like the infamous old dark house films where comedians jump at skeletons in closets and crack jokes. Director Frank Strayer clearly aims for a James Whale-style atmosphere of German expressionism, punctuated here and there with burlesque humour: the mood isn’t too far off from The Invisible Man (1933, review), even if this film never gets nearly as dark. However, there are serious moments with some hint of depths to them as when poor, innocent Herman meets his fate at the hands of a rabid torch-wielding mob as he flees through the Bronson Canyon (yes, of course the film had to have a torch-wielding mob chasing a “monster” through the mountains).
Most of the comedy is handled by the wonderful Maude Eburne, playing Aunt Gussie Schnappmann, and the name alone tells you the kind of character we’re dealing with. The script never explains who Aunt Gussie is or exactly why she is living in Dr. Niemann’s castle (yes, of course he lives in a castle). She does at one point bring him a and the young couple tea, but it’s unclear whether she’s a housekeeper, the landlady, a relative or simply someone renting a room. The running gag in the film is that Aunt Gussie, as Michael Reuben writes over at blue-ray.com: “assigns herself one mortal condition after another with the boundless energy of someone with an iron constitution who’s never been sick in her life”, and Niemann provides her with placebo remedies so she’ll shut up. The film’s final line is Gussie figuring out that Niemann has been providing her with a laxative the whole time, as she reads the label on the bottle, proclaiming “Magnisum sulfate … EPSOM SALT!” Yes, I’ll give you a minute to reassemble your sides. There’s also a wholly pointless gag involving Aunt Gussie and a dog, which is neither funny nor serves any purpose. In fact, the whole character is utterly pointless, and is stuck in the film simply to serve as a replacement Una O’Connor. This is not to take anything away from Maude Eburne, who is a gem, the comedy is just painfully unfunny.
Director Strayer is well aided by cinematographer Ira Morgan, a veteran of the silent era, who had started out as a news cameraman and was known for his efficient and reliable work. The interior scenes are mostly flat and static, but outdoors Morgan allows himself a few flourishes, such as the “curious camera”, coined by Michael Curtiz, when the camera acts as a person spying on some proceedings, moving about behind trees and bushes, as if it was “hiding”. Morgan primarily worked on B-movies — prior to The Vampire Bat he did work on some semi-prestigious films like Erich von Stroheim’s The Great Gabbo (1929) and Lionel Barrymore’s The Sea Bat. His greatest claim to fame is that he worked as co-cinematographer on Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), however, he spent most of the talkies doing B-movies and serials on Poverty Row, working with directors like Spencer Gordon Bennett, Edgar G. Ulmer, Sam Newfield and Bert I. Gordon. He returned to science fiction in the late forties and fifties, working on serials like the two Kirk Alyn Superman serials (1948 & 1950), Brick Bradford (1947), Bruce Gentry (1949) and Batman and Robin (1949), as well as the feature films Fury of the Congo (1951) with Johnny Weissmuller, as well as The Cyclops (1957).
Strayer’s direction is unremarkable, but functional, and his use of multiple locations and sets, as well as switching angles and doing multiple takes keeps it flowing nicely without ever becoming static and dull like some later low-budget features. There are few effects to be seen, but the lighting, makeup and wardrobe all signal a mid-budget film rather than the low-budget feature that it is. Its short running time of 60+ minutes helps, and even so, it does tread water occasionally, as very little actually happens on-screen in the movie. The murders are almost all done off-screen, and recounted after the fact. So most of the film is just people standing around talking. Wray’s character has little to do but look sweet, which Wray does with aplomb, until the very end, when she becomes a damsel in distress. Strayer did a couple of more, less remarkable horror films, but was primarily associated with low-budget comedies. He did much of his work at second-tier studio Columbia, where he filmed a string of eleven Blondie movies (1938-1948), based on the popular comic strip.
Melvyn Douglas is pure gold as the goody-two-shoes lead character. While only two years into his cinematic career, Broadway heart-throb Douglas was already a bona fide movie star. Before the release of The Vampire Bat, Douglas had already shared top billing with Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton in The Old Dark House (1932) and played the romantic lead opposite Greta Garbo in As You Desire Me (1932). Douglas knows exactly what kind of film he is in, and instead of phoning in his performance, he actually seems to enjoy the film’s pulp sensibilities, having a bit of fun with it, at times almost winking at the audience. He would go on to have a long and very successful career, first as a leading man and later as a fatherly character actor, a period which brought him two Oscar wins, for his work in Hud (1963) and Being There (1979). His only other brush with sci-fi came in a 1952 episode of the TV series Lights Out, in an episode based on a story by author and screenwriter Philip MacDonald called Private — Keep Out. Toward the end of his career he appeared in the horror films The Changeling (1980) and Ghost Story (1981), the latter in which he shared the screen with the unlikely cast of Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman and Patricia Neal.
Douglas has some nice chemistry with Fay Wray, who was fast becoming a horror movie staple, what with The Mystery of the Wax Museum and King Kong (review) coming out later the same year. Despite her scream queen reputation, Wray actually made only one more horror film after King Kong, called Black Moon (1934). She had a successful career in film and TV well into the sixties, but would still always be remembered as the blonde waif screaming in the clutches of the great ape. In fact, she was a natural brunette, as seen in The Vampire Bat, and was later somewhat miffed that her whole career would be defined by that one role. Wray was a better actress than I think a lot of people give her credit for, and had a natural, bubbling openness which made audiences immediately sympathise with her. It didn’t hurt that she was “beautiful and transparent in that that thirties china doll way”, as one reviewer describes her in The Vampire Bat.
At close to 50, British-born Lionel Atwill was getting too old for playing the suave leading men that he was renowned for on Broadway, and carved out a new career for himself in Hollywood, often playing sophisticated men of authority. Doctor X was his first foray into mad scientist territory, the genre which put his name in the history books. Atwill actually didn’t do any horror movies between 1933 and 1939, and his return to scifi/horror in 1939 with Son of Frankenstein (review) actually saw him playing the chief of police — one of his finest performances, with a wooden arm that would inspire Peter Seller’s titular role in Dr. Strangelove (1964). But when Atwill’s Hollywood star started fading in 1941 after being investigated for hosting a “sex orgy” at his home, Poverty Row studios saw their chance of exploiting his talents and fame for a nickle, seeing as he was no longer hired by the five major Hollywood studios.
What actually happened at a Christmas party at the lavish Atwill house in 1940 has never been firmly established. Depending on who you ask, it was either a gathering of friends watching smutty films, or a wild, naked sex party which included the rape of a 16-year old, pregnant girl. Atwill was never personally accused of rape, neither of taking part in any illegal sexual activity — other than showing porn films in the presence of a minor. The rape charge was, by most accounts, false, and part of a blackmail scheme — the jury even convicted a woman for blackmailing Atwill. Atwill was, however, convicted of perjury, as he initially denied owning any pornographic films, or ever screening such films for himself or his friends, and most certainly had not screened any such films on a Christmas party in 1940. He later admitted to owning such films, and that a screening of them might have taken place in his house on a Christmas party. However, he said he was at the time out playing tennis, so he hadn’t the faintest idea of which of his friends were actually present at the screening, not of anything else that might have happened. The jury concluded that he had in fact been present, and slammed him with five years probation for perjury. After having been unemployed for seven months, he pleaded guilty to the perjury charges, admitting having screened pornographic films with a minor present, but had “lied like a gentlemen” in order to protect the reputations of his friends. The judge overturned the rest of his sentence, seeing that seven months of unemployment was sufficient for what was arguably a minor felony.
Nonetheless, the damage was already done, as the press had created a major scandal out of Atwill’s alleged “depraved sex parties”, and he remained blacklisted by the “Big Five” major studios. However Universal, one of the “Little Three” continued hiring him, and he found steady work in Poverty Row films and serials. During the latter part of his career he appered in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1941, review), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review) and The House of Frankenstein (1944), Man Made Monster (1941, review), The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942 review), House of Dracula (1945) and many more genre films.
Dr. Niemann in The Vampire Bat is one of Atwill’s weaker performances. In later films, playing all-out mad doctors, he developed a certain character and a style of hammy scenery-chewing that is absent from his portrayal of Niemann. This may partly be because he hadn’t yet nailed the character, but I would say that it mostly stems from the fact that the movie — for most of its running time — is ambiguous about Atwill’s intentions and involvement in the proceedings. It simply wasn’t a role in which he could go full mad doctor, and therefore remains a tad bland. But even a tad bland Atwill is still Atwill, in other words: classy.
Dwight Frye, of course, was a horror icon in his own right by 1933, having appeared as Renfield in Dracula and as the sadistic hunchback Fritz in Frankenstein. Frye had been noted on Broadway for his versatility as an actor, shining especially in comedies and musicals, but due to his iconic roles in the early Universal horror film, Hollywood quickly typecast him in “a lackluster array of crazies, spies, red herrings, grasping heirs and bit parts”, according to his IMDb bio. And while he did occasionally return to the stage, his theatre career was likewise hurt by his reputation as a B-movie horror actor. Frye is, as usual, terrific in The Vampire Bat, even if his performance is hurt in hindsight by the fact that it is “yet another crazy Dwight Frye performance”. Still, it is a meaty role, and prominent, unlike the inconsequential bit-parts that he was later stuck with.
While one may lament the falling from grace of Lionel Atwill, at least Atwill was first-billed in many of the Z-movies he later appeared in, allowed to chew scenery through the entire movie. In contrast, Frye’s roles in the beginning of the forties were those of “second mug”, “desk clerk”, “radio operator”, “hoodlum” or “hostage”. In some cases his scenes were completely edited out of the movie. As the website Immortal Ephemera notes, his rapid fall from grace in Hollywood is staggering, especially considering he was once among the cream of the crop on Broadway, with critics noting him as the equal to stage legends like John Barrymore and Rudolph Schildkraut. Other noted stage actors who got stuck in genre B-movies also saw their careers on the slide, but for example horror staples John Carradine and George Zucco were still names that carried movies. Some of the films Carradine did were so cheap and bad that there are no letters left in the alphabet to represent them, but at least he was never cast as “desk clerk n:o three” in them.
Frye himself was as perplexed during his career as horror fans are today by studios’ unwillingness to give him any decent roles after the mid-thirties, and according to Cliff Aliperti at Ethereal Ephemera, who has read the definitive biography on Frye, during the last years of his life, he had resigned to the fact that his career had essentially amounted to nothing. That he was so neglected even by the horror movie industry that has made his such a legend that he is today is almost incomprehensible. But one must remember that the films weren’t produced by horror fans. After Dracula and Frankenstein, they started making horror films as money-grabs, and Frye simple wasn’t a marquee name. He was the redshirt: the expendable guy that was killed off in order to show the brutality of the monster. Dwight Frye died of a heart-attack in 1943, just 44 years old, and didn’t get to experience the horror movie revival of the sixties and seventies, when he was rightly recognised as one of the great horror legends of his era. His son Dwight D. “Buddy” Frye has preserved his legacy, and as Aliperti points out, enjoyed the fruits of his father late fame to an extent that his father was never able to.
Lionel Belmore huffs and puffs per his usual repertoire as the burgermaster of Kleinschoss. A British Broadway veteran, Belmore had been around the movies since the early days of Hollywood, but his theatrical background and British accent made him stand out with the coming of sound, making him a favourite for playing butlers, noblemen and burgermasters in period pieces and B-movies. He appeared in three Universal Frankenstein movies, as well as the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, supporting Charles Laughton.
George E. Stone plays the rabble-rouser who first accuses Herman of being a vampire. Stone was a staple heavy, and appeared in a prominent role in the odd sci-fi/jungle film Jungle Hell (1956) starring Sabu, as well as the fifties Superman TV series and the Twilight Zone episode Once Upon a Time (1961), starring Buster Keaton, written by sci-fi author Richard Matheson.
All in all, The Vampire Bat is “well acted and well directed, […] an enjoyable if inane old-school experience, and despite its rather needy script, the film remains painless to watch in spite of an almost total lack of background music”, according to the blog A Wasted Life. Hans J. Wollstein at AllMovie writes that the “compact little horror treatise is […] so well cast and produced with such élan as to consistently entertain.” Richard Scheib at Moria gives the film 3/5 stars, saying that “despite the ramshackle nature of the film’s conception, director Frank Strayer does a good job of making the atmosphere work”. Andrew Wickliffe at The Stop Button is impressed with the movie, despite himself. He calls it “an interesting debacle”, writing that “for a sixty-five minute film to be as meandering and as loosely constructed as this one, it’s impressive”. Stuart Galbraith IV at DVD Talk praises the acting, especially that of Douglas, and concludes that: “Though only 63 minutes, The Vampire Bat is undone by endless yacking in statically filmed interior scenes, which breaks up intermittently atmospheric bits. In this sense the picture resembles the later Poverty Row horrors made by Monogram and PRC in the 1940s, in which the audience is clued in pretty early on what’s happening, yet most of the film lethargically lumbers on with our heroes trying to figure out what’s happening long after the audience has already seen or guessed the rest.”
The film was shown on TV as early as 1948, and fell into the public domain relatively early. From 1986 onward there were several VHS and DVD releases made from a rather badly degraded print. But in 2015 the UCLA released a restored version through Film Detective, which has received much praise from fans. The DVD also gives a modern audience a first look at the hand-tinting available on some prints of the original film — primarily in the scenes of the mob chasing Herman through the mountains. The Vampire Bat has been released on home video and DVD with a number of different titles, including Blood Sucker and the bizarrely lurid misnomer Forced to Sin.
The Vampire Bat. 1933, USA. Directed by Frank R. Strayer. Written by Edward T. Lowe, Jr. Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas, Dwight Frye, Maude Eburne, Lionel Belmore, George E. Stone, Robert Frazer, Rita Carlyle, William V. Mong, Stella Adams, Harrison Greene. Cinematography: Ira H. Morgan. Editing: Otis Garrett. Art director: Charles D. Hall. Sound engineer: Dick Tyler, Sr. Produced by Phil Goldstone & Larry Darmour for Larry Darmour Productions and Majestic Pictures.