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Thursday, 21 April 2016

THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933)

By the end of 1932, Lionel Atwill had already co-starred with Fay Wray in both Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum. While Warner Bros was in post-production on the latter, enterprising Poverty Row studio Majestic Pictures capitalised on the advance publicity by teaming them up once more in a rushed production called The Vampire Bat and sending that out before Wax Museum could be released. This explains its slapdash, hurried climax topping off a crackpot 62-minute quickie that features Atwill perfecting his insane scientific genius – and who can object to that?

Directing a functional script by experienced horror writer Edward T Lowe Jr was Frank R. Strayer, the same maestro who gave us another haphazard medical misfire, The Monster Walks (see my review dated 21/2). We open on the village of Kleinschloss, plagued by unsolved murders of its villagers, their deaths the result of blood-loss and neck puncture wounds. Coupled with an infestation of bats, this leads the Grand Council to conclude that the fanged undead who menaced them in 1643 have resurfaced to feast on them again. “Vampires are at large, I tell you!” shouts the Burgomeister, literally hammering his point home on the table with his fist. (No wonder he is so emphatic; this was a second time for Lionel Belmore in the role after Frankenstein and he would go on to cameos in two of the other sequels).

No-one in the village seems to have noticed the other peculiar phenomenon, that vaguely 19th-century Germanic territories in horror films of the era all share both ‘ze Cherman’-accented characters and imported modern Americans side by side. One such anachronism is Inspector Karl Brettschneider (Melvyn Douglas) - hot, or at least mild, on the case. Douglas had just appeared in The Old Dark House (reviewed 1/4) with Boris Karloff and here he is kept equally busy trying to get some down-time from the murders with his lover Ruth, Fay Wray. They are peppered with comic-relief peanuts from her busy-body hypochondriac Aunt Gussie, (Maude Eburne, who had previous horror form in the area of mice with wings, having featured in The Bat Whispers in 1930). The full house’s traffic also includes Atwill as the smooth, genial Doctor Von Niemann with a fully-equipped laboratory, his servant Emil played by Robert Frazer and housekeeper Georgiana (Stella Adams).

The townsfolk are keen to pin the grisly crimes upon the weirdest person they can find. Their chief suspect is Herman, the local simpleton. His qualifications include a bizarre fondness for the bats, talking about himself in the third person with wild-eyed cackling and being played by Dwight Frye. This is good enough for the reliably unbiased vigilante mob who go after him with lit torches and hounds in time-honoured pursuit of the innocent till he flees into a cave system and tops himself down the Devil’s Well.

By now Frye had become firmly locked into horror typecasting over at Universal as the jittery, eccentric henchman, (Renfield in Dracula and Fritz in Frankenstein), which didn’t go unnoticed by Majestic. They added him to bolster the image of The Vampire Bat being a major’s studio release. To further save money whilst giving the appearance of the opposite, the company shrewdly leased James Whale’s village sets from Frankenstein and interiors from The Old Dark House.

Meanwhile, back at the Bunsen burners, Dr Von Neimann proves there is more to him than a warm bedside-manner. In fact, he is remotely sending Emil to the bedrooms of the local ladies to sweep them off their feet – and into his lab to be drained of their blood for his experiments. We know this because we are treated to the sight of him verbally giving instructions into thin air when alone. When he hears from Brettschneider that Herman has killed himself, he sucks on his pipe, ruminating inwardly that he can no longer use the young dimwit as a scapegoat since the most recent murder occurred after his death. His remote puppeteering of Emil to do the same to the Inspector comes a cropper when Ruth overhears him. Curses! If only he’d understood that he was only contractually obliged to incriminate himself out loud as a plot device for the audience’s benefit. Brettschneider hadn’t taken the sleeping pills the M.D. had prescribed either. (Just as well, since they are hilariously labelled ‘Poison. Sleeping Tablets’ as if in a cartoon).

As aforementioned, the denouement is cobbled together and presented like a hastily-wrapped gift on the run with some very awkward moments. When Atwill grabs the suspicious Ruth outside his lab, her delivery of the line “You! You’re the one! What mad thing are you doing?” is comically wooden. As is the stilted face-off between Niemann and Emil where they look as though they’re waiting for the director to call ‘cut’. The only high-point is Niemann’s God complex declaration to Ruth after sputtering some woolly nonsense about his experiments wresting life from life. “What are a few lives weighed in the balance against the achievement of biological science?” Like a card-carrying member of the Mad Doctor’s Union, he gives an impassioned aria of messianic lunacy for the ages. Amidst this crowd of under-achievers, you can’t help rooting for him. Sadly, in a climactic fight with his servant, he is number one with a bullet.

Lionel Atwill’s horror campaign though was only just warming up…



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