The Vampire Bat

Vampires have always been my favorite supernatural creature. Long before “sparklepires” glittered all over the big screen, long before brooding bloodsuckers started stalking nearly every modern paranormal romance heroine, long before they became popular, I liked vampires.

I think part of the allure was the whole “creature of the night” thing. I have always been a night owl myself so I felt a sort of kinship with creatures that cringed from the sight of sunlight glaring in through the windows. I also always felt sorry for the vampires. They have to eat, too, you know. It’s not like they can just get on the phone and order up some B negative to go. And back in the late 1960s and 1970s, when I was first being introduced to the cinematic revenants, there was no where to go and nothing to do after the sun went down in small town middle America. Even the local television stations that we could get (all three of them) went off the air at midnight. What was a poor night dwelling leech to do?

Even though vampires were my favorite monster, they still scared me. We used to always visit my Grandma during the weekend. She could get a channel which showed “Science Shock Theater”. Some guy in creepy makeup would introduce scary movies. I watched many monster movies at Grandma’s house. I can distinctly remember one vampire movie, name long forgotten, that scared me so much I ran into Grandma’s kitchen and watched the movie by peeking around the door at the TV. I even made myself a vampire Halloween costume. It was the second costume I ever made (first was a hairy space alien with a wooden light saber). It had a red satin dress with a black lace overdress. And a huge swirling half circle cape. I loved my cape.

Despite my love for vampires, I do not remember ever before seeing this week’s Halloween Monster Season movie: The Vampire Bat. The Vampire Bat is a 65 minute, black and white Horror/Mystery that was released on January 21, 1933. It stars Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas, Maude Eburne, and Dwight Frye.

Fay Wray, of course, is everybody’s favorite gigantic ape bait. Fay Wray (September 15, 1907 – August 8, 2004) had a film career that spanned 57 years and was known as “one of the first “scream queens”.” but she is most remembered for playing Ann Darrow, the love interest of the huge ape, King Kong, in the famous 1933 King Kong movie. Fay had been approached by a producer who promised to star her in a picture with “the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood”. She thought: “Clark Gable”; the producer never told her the leading man was a giant gorilla. Fay Wray made just $10,000 in the role that turned out to be her most famous performance. Fay is quoted as saying:
Every time I’m in New York I say a little prayer when passing the Empire State Building. A good friend of mine died up there.” Fay Wray plays Ruth Bertin, love interest and damsel in distress in The Vampire Bat.

Lionel Atwill plays Dr. Otto von Niemann, a doctor with a secret, in The Vampire Bat. Lionel Atwill (March 1, 1885 – April 22, 1946) was an English stage and film actor who is most famous for his horror films, especially his role as the mad sculptor in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and his role of inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein (1939). Although Lionel is equally famous for a nasty sex scandal and trial that pretty much ended his career. Apparently, Lionel threw a wild Christmas party, complete with “an “orgy” at his home, naked guests, and pornographic films”. There was also a rape. Lionel “lied like a gentleman” during the grand jury to protect his guests and was eventually convicted of perjury and sentenced to five years probation on October 14, 1942. His wealthy wife left him and he was effectively blackballed from the better film studios although he was still able to find work with the “poverty row” studios.

Also in our film, The Vampire Bat, is Melvyn Douglas (April 5, 1901 – August 4, 1981) a Mayflower descendant and two time Academy Award winner (both times for Best Supporting Actor). Melvyn plays Inspector Karl Breettschneider, love interest and skeptical investigator in The Vampire Bat. Maude Eburne (1875 – 1960) plays Ruth’s hypochondriac  Aunt Gussie Schnappmann, a patient of the good (?) Dr. von Niemann and the comic relief for our film. Dwight Frye (1899 – 1943), who was Renfield in the classic Dracula (1931), plays Herman Gleib, a simple-minded villager with a suspicious fondness for bats.

Majestic Picture, Inc. hired Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill fresh from their wrap of Warner Brother’s film Mystery of the Wax Museum. The Warner Brother’s film was a big budget project with lots of advertising in the works and Majestic was a “poverty row” studio with limited resources. Majestic hired Fay and Lionel and rushed The Vampire Bat into production and were able to get their film to the screen less than a month before Mystery of the Wax Museum, just in time to take advantage of the bigger film’s publicity. Majestic Pictures also saved time and money by leasing sets from bigger studios. Majestic filmed The Vampire Bat at night on Universal Pictures “beautiful “German Village” backlot sets left over from Frankenstein (1931)” while Universal used the sets during the day. Interior sets used for The Vampire Bat were from Universal’s The Old Dark House (1932).

The Vampire Bat takes place in the small town of Kleinschloss. The village is suffering a surplus of spooky looking bats. Villagers are dying of blood loss, they are found dead and drained in their beds. Between the bats and the two suspicious looking holes on the throats of all the dead victims, the town is in a hysterical uproar. The Bürgermeister and the other villagers are convinced the deaths are the result of an ancient plague of bloodsucking vampires. Inspector Karl Breettschneider does not agree. He has no belief in vampires at all. All too quickly the attention of the villagers fastens on Herman Gleib, a simple-minded young man who is always seen near the victims just before they die and who has an untimely love of bats (“soft like cats”).

The Vampire Bat holds up very well. The borrowed Universal sets look great and give the movie some weight and all the main players are terrific. I love Melvyn Douglas arching his eyebrow as the doubting Inspector. Fay Wray has a pretty limited role as the Inspector’s love interest but she seems very natural as she laughs and flirts. Too bad she never gets a chance to let loose with one of her famous screams. I can not believe Majestic missed the boat and left out Fay’s screams.

The film is mostly set at night so it is sometimes very dark and difficult to see and there are some scratches and skips in the film from age and damage. But it does not distract from the story. The film’s sound is excellent. A word of warning: the film is listed as being originally 65 minutes long but the various versions found on the Internet Archive range from 59 minutes to 62 minutes long. At least one reviewer complains about missing minutes. The version I watched was 59 minutes and 42 seconds long. I never noticed any gaps or missing scenes in the film so I’m not sure what, if anything, is missing. Another word of caution: The Vampire Bat has a huge twist. The villagers are convinced they are being preyed upon by actual vampires, the Inspector is positive the murderer is just a human madman, and poor Herman Gleib keeps showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time and muttering the wrong things. But what is really causing all the strange deaths? Is it vampires or humans or something else entirely?

Right from the start, the villagers are all hysterical. The Bürgermeister frantically raves, “Our friends, neighbors that we’ve known for years, drained of their life’s blood, found dead in bed, lifeless skeletons of skin and bones! Vampires are at large, I tell you! Vampires!” Inspector Karl is far too pragmatic and scoffs at the hysterics, “All the records in the world can’t make me believe in vampires.” He even gets in a jab at the Bürgermeister and council, “Good night, gentlemen. Don’t let the vampires get you.” Dr. von Niemann is open to the possibility of vampires and lectures Inspector Karl, “Our saner, calmer judgment tells us that such things can’t be and yet, here for instance, in this ponderous tome are cited a thousand and one phobias and complexes that human beings are heir to. Some of them are strange, more (un?)terrible even than werewolves and vampires.” The Inspector remains mystified but determined, “Those simple fools in the village can believe what they like but you and I are sane, thinking people and you know and I know, doctor, that these are murders.”

Overall, The Vampire Bat looks spooky and atmospheric and holds up very well. The film keeps you guessing about the true nature of the mysterious deaths but does expose the secret before the end. Fay Wray is pretty and flirty, Melvyn Douglas is stalwart and skeptical, and Lionel Atwill is condescending and secretive. There is no blood or gore (except for a short scene of blood slowly dripping into a vial from a tube). There are also no sudden scares, just an ongoing spookiness, so most younger film fans should be just fine. Although they may be upset about the sad fate of poor Herman Gleib. There is also some vagueness in the story such as just why and how the killer is able to exert control. But, overall, The Vampire Bat was much, much better than I expected. Of course, the very best thing about The Vampire Bat is that it is FREE in the Public Domain at the Internet Archive.

The Internet Archive has six versions of The Vampire Bat available. The Vampire Bat Version #1, the version I watched, is also the most popular with more than 48,000 views. It runs 59 minutes 42 seconds. Version #2 is the second most popular version with more than 6,000 views and the same runtime as the first. The Vampire Bat version #3 has more than 5,000 views and actually has two cuts of the film. Cut #1 runs one hour two minutes. Cut #2 runs one hour. This version claims to be sharper than other versions. The fourth most popular version of our film is Version #4 and it has more than 4,000 views and runs 59 minutes 45 seconds. Version #5 has less than a thousand views, runs one hour two minutes, and claims to be the complete version. Version #6 and the final version of The Vampire Bat also has less than a thousand views and runs 59 minutes 42 seconds.

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