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Movie of the Week: The Vampire Bat (1933)

The set-up for The Vampire Bat (1933) couldn't be any simpler and it's established in the film's opening moments. Bats fill the sky on a dark night as the tower clock chimes, a mysterious figure leaps across the rooftops, and a woman screams. Cut to Burgermeister Gustave Schoen (Lionel Belmore) and his cronies struggling to explain a series of deaths. Everyone but Karl Brettschneider (Melvyn Douglas) believes vampires are at large. That's all there is to it.


Karl says it's merely superstition. When told that the town record proves it, Karl says, "It says it, not proves it." Apparently, the village has experienced a bat problem in the past, but the day a vampire was hung, they disappeared. The question for the believers becomes whether there are human vampires or bats. Embellishing a legend to accommodate their circumstances, they decide the killer "can take either form." Karl stands firm, "We're looking for a human being, a fiend."


Karl's romantic interest is Ruth Bertin (Fay Wray), who works for Dr. Otto von Niemann (Lionel Atwill), the physician that examines the dead bodies and helps perpetuate the idea that there are supernatural forces involved. Otto doesn't seem suspicious… at first. Plus, Herman Gleib (Dwight Frye) is depicted as the obvious suspect. He lives somewhere between Fritz (Frankenstein) and Renfield (Dracula) on the evolutionary scale, and has an obsession with bats.


But we are talking about Lionel Atwill, and although The Vampire Bat was made early in his career, we now in retrospect recognize him as the bad guy in several genre films. Plus, he has something hidden behind a big, locked door and employs a quiet henchman, Emil Borst (Robert Fraser.) No spoilers, I'm just saying there are other suspects besides poor Herman, who's ultimately chased through a cave by a colorized torch-bearing mob of angry villagers.


At only an hour and five minutes, the movie drags a little. It more than compensates by disguising its Poverty Row origins with sets leased from Universal's Frankenstein and The Old Dark House and A-list stars. With a tighter scripts and a couple improved special effects, you'd never know this wasn't a major Hollywood production. Workhorse director Frank R. Strayer, who made six other films the same year, even utilizes a moving camera in some scenes.


Screenwriter Edward T. Lowe, Jr. was another workhorse that began his career with silent shorts and features (including 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, then concluded it over 120 films later with House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945.) He was part of a production that Majestic Pictures Inc. rushed to capitalize on the success of Doctor X and precede the press for Mystery of the Wax Museum, both starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.


Finally, there's one other thing in The Vampire Bat that reminds of a Universal film, specifically a Universal film directed by James Whale. She's no Una O'Connor, but Maude Eburne approaches the same type of shrill comic relief in her role as Aunt Gussie Schnappmann. During her key scene, she faints when Herman pulls a pet bat out of his pocket. Then when a dog barks to wake her, she runs willy-nilly back to the house, thinking Herman has transformed into this dog.


Screenplay by Edward T. Lowe Jr.

Directed by Frank R. Strayer

Starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas, Maude Eburne, George E. Stone, Dwight Frye, Robert Frazer, Rita Carlyle, Lionel Belmore Released January 21, 1933 RT 65 min.

Home Video The Film Detective (Restored Version Blu-ray)

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