Directed By: Frank R. Strayer
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas
Tag line: "These are the TALONS of The Vampire Bat"
Trivia: Filmed at night on Universal's European village set
A 1933 horror movie starring Lionel Atwill (Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum), Fay Wray (King Kong), Melvyn Douglas (The Old Dark House, Ghost Story) and Dwight Frye (Dracula, Frankenstein)? How in the hell have I not seen this before?!?
Directed by Frank R. Strayer, The Vampire Bat is set in the fictional village of Kleinschloss, where a string of mysterious deaths has the entire populace on edge. In each instance, the bodies of the deceased have been drained of their blood, leading some to the conclusion that a vampire is responsible for the carnage. Yet, despite the public outcry, police Inspector Karl Breettschneider (Douglas) is convinced the killer is very mortal, and with the help of Dr. Otto von Niemann (Atwill) and his lovely assistant, Ruth (Wray), he hopes to prove this to the town’s elders. Still, the good people of Kleinschloss aren’t swayed so easily, and believe that one of their own, a simpleton named Herman (Frye), who keeps bats as pets and lurks in the streets at night, is the vampire they seek. But is Herman truly the killer, or is he being set up to take the fall?
Made on the cheap and rushed into theaters by Majestic Pictures (which, in later years, would team with other Poverty Row studios to form Republic Pictures), The Vampire Bat nevertheless has a similar look and feel as the movies that the larger production studios were turning out at the same time, and with a phenomenal cast to boot. Atwill plays to his strengths as the enigmatic Doctor Niemann, who obviously knows more than he’s letting on, while Douglas and Wray make a fine romantic pairing (Douglas also takes the lead as the hero of the story). But for my money, it’s Dwight Frye who walks away with the movie, playing Herman as a cross between his Renfield in Dracula (every now and then, he lets loose that sinister laugh) and Frankenstein’s Fritz (clearly uneducated, Herman never talks in complete sentences). My favorite scene has Herman, out and about late at night but being watched by a handful of villagers, picking a bat from out of a tree. After petting the creature, he puts it in the breast pocket of his coat, then, while strolling past the crowd, lets out a laugh, which sends many of the stunned onlookers scurrying for cover. Frye may have never played the lead in these old-time horror films, but thanks to scenes like this one, he definitely left his mark on the genre.
Utilizing leftover sets from James Whale’s Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, as well as a brief sequence shot in Bronson’s Canyon, the creative minds behind The Vampire Bat took full advantage of everything at their disposal, and in so doing turned out a terrific motion picture that, from this point forward, is sure to become part of my regular rotation.