Friday, April 17, 2009

The Vampire Bat (USA, 1933)

The Vampire Bat (USA, 1933) is an early and minor but nonetheless entertaining entry from The Golden Age of Horror which, while far from a masterpiece, has a pleasing cast and flies by quickly enough at roughly 69 minutes. Partially filmed on the Universal European village lot, The Vampire Bat shares some stylistic similarities to the far better Universal productions of the genre, but it unmistakably remains a far more obvious low-budget and slapdash Poverty Row affair than the true masterpieces of the Golden Age. For all the film’s obviously ignoble roots, however, director Frank R. Strayer – who started in the Silents and died in 1964 – shows a nice grasp of how to use the camera and, as a result, the film occasionally has the atmosphere and feel of German expressionist cinema. In regards to the use of framing, shadows, depth and tracking shots, The Vampire Bat is miles above and beyond what one finds in the b-films of today. (But then, who needs aesthetic direction when you have CGI and tits?)
The story, on the other hand, written by the prolific Edward T. Lowe Jr., is more-or-less exactly what one might expect from the man who also wrote the scripts to House of Dracula (1945), House of Frankenstein (1944) and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943), all three of which are amongst the least artistically successful entries in their respective franchises. For The Vampire Bat, Lowe purloined narrative aspects from two far more popular, successful and important films of that decade, namely Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), and came up with a rather odd-mixture: A “vampire” film that flip-flops midway into a mad doctor movie. The mixture, hampered by more than one pothole and insufficiently explained twist, doesn't really work all that convincingly, but Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas and Dwight Frye (and some other familiar but unknown background faces) give it their best shot, which helps the proceedings greatly.
As if a plague of large bats wasn’t already enough, the European village of Kleinschloss (which translates into “Little Castle”) is also being terrorized by a series of unexplainable murders in which the victims always found drained of blood and with two puncture marks on their neck. The Burgermeister (which translates into “mayor”) and townsfolk are convinced a vampire is at work, and suspicion quickly falls upon Herman (Dwight Frye) the overacting, beady-eyed town simpleton. Karl Brettschneider (Melvyn Douglas) laughs off the whole concept of a vampire and wants Herman brought in for questioning, but the torch-bearing mob chasing Herman scares him into jumping to his death. Bad news that an obvious clue pointing to Herman is found at the murder site of the next victim, who was murdered after Herman had died (and had also been beheaded and staked just for good measure by the good villagers). Now Karl knows that it is not a vampire at work – as do the viewers. No, the good Dr. Otto von Niemann (Lionel Atwill) has long-distance mental control over his servant Emil Borst (Robert Frazer), who murders at the good doctor’s will so that he can gather the precious blood he so needs to continue his experiments in creating life. Unluckily, Karl’s gal Ruth Bertin (Fay Wray) discovers the truth just as Dr. Niemann sends Emil out to bring him Karl…
Well acted and well directed, The Vampire Bat is 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.

The Vampire Bat is available free of charge here at the Internet Archives.

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