Another impressive horror restoration! Majestic Pictures pulls together a great cast, including Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill, for a smart gothic horror outing complete with squeaky bats, a flipped-out village idiot (Dwight Frye!), a crazed mad scientist (the worst kind) and a lynch mob with torches that have been hand-tinted in color. Melvyn Douglas is the debonair flatfoot assigned to solve a series of vampire killings.
The Vampire Bat
The Film Detective
1933 / B&W with part-tinted scene / 1:37 Academy / 83 min. / Street Date April 25, 2017 / 19.99
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas, Maude Eburne, George E. Stone, Dwight Frye, Robert Frazer, Rita Carlyle, Lionel Belmore, William V. Mong, Stella Adams, Harrison Greene.
Cinematography: Ira H. Morgan
Film Editor: Otis Garrett
Written by Edward T. Lowe Jr.
Produced by Phil Goldstone
Directed by Frank Strayer
Hollywood horror was a hot trend in 1932: with the arrival of Frankenstein and Dracula the horror field boomed. Big studios and independents alike flooded screens with fiendish entertainments — supernatural, scientific and everything in between. In the three years before the Production Code kicked in to discourage kinky horrors, films that combined sex and death, taboo ideas and extreme sadism, had a field day. The investment was deemed so good that a few independents generated pictures with production value equal to the majors.
Hitting screens in early 1933, The Vampire Bat is what one would call a canny commercial confection. It lacks a real monster, but offers plenty of spooky murders, that weird guy’ from Frankenstein and a torch-lit chase in an eerie landscape. Fans would know what they’re getting because the top players are the beautiful Fay Wray from The Most Dangerous Game and, with obvious villain Lionel Atwill, Doctor X. The screenplay by Edward T. Lowe Jr. isn’t exactly hardcore horror, as there’s plenty of innocuous comedy. The scene is a ‘spooky’ German hamlet, but the attractive leads would not be out of place on Park Avenue. The theme of vampirism and bats is given a workout in dialogue, only to wind up in something of a blind alley. Yet the direction by Frank Strayer is reasonably adept and the actors are excellent. When delivered by the likes of this cast, a ‘C+’ script becomes a ‘B+.’
More important to fantasy film fans is the news that the Vampire Bat on this disc is not the expected Public Domain copy, but a recent UCLA Film and TV Archive restoration.
Dark doings in the Bavarian burg of Kleines Schloss: police chief Karl Brettschneider has a bunch of bizarre murders on his hands. The victims are found drained of blood, with punctures in their throats that could have been made by an animal. The town doctor can’t figure it out, and neither can the eminent Dr. Niemann (Lionel Atwill), who with his assistants Emil and Ruth (Robert Frazer & Fay Wray) is conducting important experiments in the basement of his house. To Karl’s displeasure, Niemann suggests that something supernatural could indeed be the cause Cluttering up Karl’s efforts is Ruth’s Aunt Gussie (Maude Eburne), a silly hypochondriac who tests everyone’s patience. Prejudiced suspicion falls on the hapless Herman Gleib (Dwight Frye), a vagrant simpleton. Herman tends to creep people out with his chatter about the local bats he keeps as pets, and even carries in his coat: “Do you want to touch him? He’s as soft as a cat!” Karl and Burgomeister Shoen (Lionel Belmore) try to dial down the local panic, but ignorance wins out and the hapless Herman is hunted down by torchlight. More victims disappear, until Brettschneider uses his wits to unmask the fiend responsible.
The Vampire Bat has its soporific scenes in which herren-volk sit at a table and discuss the relative merits of vampires and werewolves, and poor Karl can’t get anybody to listen to reason. Then there are the scenes of Aunt Gussie barging into everyone’s business with her heart palpitations and other ailments. A giant image of a hairy bat sulks behind the main title card, yet is nothing but a red herring. I guess some 1933 audiences might not suspect kindly Dr. Niemann, but we certainly know better. As played by Lionel Atwill, Niemann is kind and considerate. He’s patient beyond reason with Aunt Gussie, and even has a sense of humor … but, no spoiler intended, we know he’s the bad guy from the get-go. Nieman always seems eager to get back to the Old Mad lab.
As it turns out, Niemann is a proto-Frankenstein and has discovered ‘the secret of life itself.’ He exsanguinates villagers left and right to feed a mass of pulsing flesh in an aquarium, an artificially created living thing. We also learn that Niemann has perfected the ability to direct his assistant Emil by telepathic remote control. This rather amazing talent is treated as a minor detail. Niemann must be a total fool — his special ‘astral projection’ ability could enable him to become the most influential person on the planet. The profits from evil dictators would enable him to pay victims to drain their blood for him. We really need special funding to help mad scientists sort out their research priorities.
Niemann makes Emil kidnap people, carry them to his lab and then carry them back to their beds, essentially doing all the work. As Emil is a helpless zombie under Niemann’s control, we understand why he’s so willing to cover all the labor-intensive research duties. But shapely lab assistant Ruth Bertin isn’t hypnotized and would seemingly be right in the middle of Niemann’s activities. Ruth keeps things tidy and pours all the liquids yet has no clue about Niemann nefarious activities — she’s as surprised as anyone to see that Neimann’s blood-draining apparatus uses a chrome-steel neck clamp to simulate the fangs of a giant bat. Niemann also arranges for clues to be left near every body to cast suspicion on yet another villager. And his lame excuse for all this anti-social carnage?: “What are a few lives, compared to such an important scientific breakthrough?” Yes, knee-jerk anti-science bias was always with us.
Why is The Vampire Bat more fun than other also-ran horrors of this vintage? Melvyn Douglas, Fay Wray, Lionel Atwill and Dwight Frye perform admirably, keeping the creaky script on its legs. Ms. Wray is lovely; her poise, bright attitude and sweet voice are uncomplicated, ever-pleasing. Even Maude Eburne is a class act as the bothersome Aunt. The cast plays the scenes as if they were performing Dinner at Eight. The dialogue delivery is far smoother than, say, White Zombie, which admittedly aims for a different brand of ‘stasis-horror.’ Director Strayer finds nice compositions in the interesting sets, especially Dr. Niemann’s lab. One scene of the ‘midnight bat’ creeping up on a sleeping victim is handled in a depth shot reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Even though we know no monster is involved, it works quite well.
Another shot in Niemann’s lab pulls back on a depth arrangement, looking through a glass tank with the sponge-like ‘new life,’ to see a victim splayed out beyond, her blood ready to be stolen. We have to keep in mind that at this time any screen representation of blood was considered strong gore; just the sight of it draining through tubing was macabre, and perhaps in questionable taste (large top image ↑ ).
Director Frank Strayer has a few more genre credits to his name, but no big pictures. He helmed many of the early entries in Columbia’s Blondie series, the comic strip adaptation. If the IMDB is to be trusted, Strayer spent the late 1940s directing feature-length inspirationally themed movies.
We’re told that Vampire Bat was filmed on Universal’s ‘European town’ sets from the Lugosi and Karloff movies, which keeps the show from looking cheap. As with the independently produced Deluge from the same year, a chase scene is filmed in the odd quarry just off Hollywood Blvd, Bronson Caverns. We can see two of the excavation’s three exits at one end of the tunnel, which proves that they had been dug out at this time. In this dusk-for night scene of Dwight Frye being hunted down by the ‘mob of angry villagers’ the torches have been tinted in color, bright red and yellow. The startling, vivid effect is unmotivated by anything in the plot – the torches aren’t ‘magic’ or anything. It’s apparently an unrelated experiment, justified as an attempt to give the publicity and sales flacks another talking point.
The Film Detective’s Blu-ray of The Vampire Bat is a good encoding of the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s restoration. Overall the show is in excellent shape. There are occasional missing frames and a few scratches here and there. The picture looks fine; the only thing that might have improved it would be some digital stabilization. Cut points ‘ride’ over splices now and then, and a shot or two move a bit, as if the film perforations weren’t in the best of shape. Looking at the content side of the Blu-ray, it appears to be not a pressed disc, but a BD-R.
A title up front says that the torchlight effect was originally accomplished with hand tinting, and that it was recreated digitally.
Correspondent Gary Teetzel saw UCLA’s screening of The Vampire Bat just a few weeks ago, on the 6th of March. His report on its quality was positive as well:
“I attended the Hammer / Billy Wilder Theater screening of the restored The Vampire Bat last night. Scott McQueen introduced it. According to McQueen, the basis for the restoration is a fine grain struck from the original negative back in 1965; the neg was junked afterward. Image quality is generally very good, although there is some printed-in dirt and white speckles, and I noticed some missing frames in an early shot. McQueen says The Film Detective is performing some additional digital clean up for their DCP and BD-R. McQueen did not say how they recreated Gustav Brock’s hand tinting of torches in one sequence; I imagine it was done digitally. McQueen says they don’t know how many prints had the tints. Apparently every release print of The Death Kiss had the hand tinting, but for The Vampire Bat he suspects that a small number of tinted prints — maybe just one — were made.”
I looked up the un-credited Gustav Brock, who I have to admit is definitely news to me. A fine artist, Brock was apparently the go-to guy for special color tinting effects. Early silent pictures of course often used elaborate tinting techniques, but I’d assume that by 1933 the selective tinting tricks were mostly a lost art, used only on very special occasions.
UCLA’s text blurb for the screening has the right attitude: ‘Everybody loves Dr. von Niemann (Lionel Atwill), clueless that he is using a cover story of medieval vampirism to murder the proletariat of Kleines Schloss and gleefully feed their blood to the artificial being he has created (it looks suspiciously like a loofa sponge oxygenating in an aquarium).’
The Film Detective offers two extras. A new video featurette gives Melvyn Douglas’s son a showcase to talk about his relationship with his father. Gregory Hesselberg lived with his mother for a number of years before being brought under the Douglas roof; his mostly fond memories tell us how he learned to respect his father only after he saw him performing on stage. It’s illustrated with dozens of stills illustrating Douglas’s career.
The audio commentary is from Sam Sherman, who I assume is the filmic Sam Sherman of Al Adamson and ‘Independent International’ fame. Sherman rambles a bit and his non-pro speaking voice is a welcome change from polished academics, but the commentary is rocky at best. Sherman excuses himself from talking much about the movie. He merely reacts to what’s happening on screen with the reasoning that he doesn’t want to spoil the movie experience – which would seem a basic misunderstanding of how the ‘commentary experience’ plays to listeners.
Mr. Sherman then redeems himself with some interesting detail about how The Vampire Bat came to be. A long ramble about the producer Phil Goldstone eventually explains that the fortune Goldstone made in Hollywood real estate gave him sufficient capital to loan to the studios, just as some were teetering on insolvency due to the double whammy of the changeover to sound and the Depression’s squeeze on the banking system. In return for his largesse, Universal gave him special help with his independent productions, which is how all those pricey Universal sets show up in a ‘Majestic Picture.’ It’s possible that Goldstone got a major discount on rented production facilities. Toward the end of his commentary Mr. Sherman’s discussion gets stuck on the basic fact that it was not unusual for early talkies to dispense with orchestral soundtracks. He stumbles around the subject without saying much for at least five minutes, until the movie runs out. Just the same, Mr. Sherman does come off as a bona fide devotee of The Vampire Bat.
Was the Halperin Bros. independent White Zombie produced in the same fashion, as a trade-off with Universal for major investment loans? It was also reportedly filmed on the Universal lot, and it also features Robert Frazer in its cast. I’d say Savant needs to do more reading in this department.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Vampire Bat Blu-ray rates:
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by Sam Sherman; interview with Gregory Hesselberg on Melvyn Douglas
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 31, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson