Majestic Pictures, a Poverty Row studio despite its grandiose name, wouldn't ordinarily have been able to compete even with Universal's modestly produced horror movies, with Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Old Dark House (1932), and The Invisible Man (1933) all made in the $200,000-$350,000 price range. Majestic's cheap films were generally closer to one-tenth the cost, but Larry Darmour, the head of the company, and producer Phil Goldstone were pretty clever guys.
What they did was rent interior standing sets left over from The Old Dark House and European streets from Universal's backlot during the wee hours of the morning, when they weren't in use. They shot a big chase sequence in Bronson Canyon, a former quarry within spitting distance of the Hollywood Sign, subsequently used in hundreds of movies and TV shows, but still novel in 1933. For these scenes, for at least some engagements they added the novelty of hand-painted tinting of the lit torches used in that sequence.
And, to further give The Vampire Bat an air of class and big studio respectability they hired Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, the stars of Warner Bros.'s Doctor X (1932) and WB's upcoming Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), along with Old Dark House leading man Melvyn Douglas for the leading roles, with actors like Dwight Frye and Lionel Belmore, both of whom had appeared in Frankenstein, for supporting roles. The Vampire Bat may be a lesser horror film, but it sure doesn't look like one.
Nor until now has it looked this good, at least not since its original release. A co-release from the Film Detective and the UCLA Film & Television Archives, the Blu-ray utilizes newly restored 35mm film elements preserved by the latter, even digitally reinstating the colorized torches in the chase sequence.
The citizens of Kleinschloss are in a state of near-hysteria after a series of inexplicable deaths by blood loss, which the town fathers blame on vampirism. Police Inspector Karl Breettschneider (Douglas) ridicules them and their superstitions. Only local physician-scientist Dr. Otto von Niemann (Atwill) is likeminded, at least at first concurring with Karl that the deaths must have some rational, scientific explanation. Niemann's assistant is Ruth Bertin (Wray), who's mainly around to provide love interest and screams, and Ruth's hypochondriac Aunt Gussie (Maude Eburne, The Bat Whispers), who exists solely to provide comedy relief.
With Ox-Bow precision the villagers quickly suspect and condemn village idiot Herman Gleib (Frye) as the would-be vampire, but he's a harmless simpleton who merely likes to keep a stray bat in his pocket. The villagers ruthlessly pursue the increasingly frantic Herman to Bronson Canyon, where he falls to his death. But the real menace involves telepathic control of an unknowing agent, with no vampires and nary a bat in sight.
Though only 63 minutes, The Vampire Bat is undone by endless yacking in statically filmed interior scenes, which breaks up intermittently atmospheric bits. In this sense the picture resembles the later Poverty Row horrors made by Monogram and PRC in the 1940s, in which the audience is clued in pretty early on what's happening, yet most of the film lethargically lumbers on with our heroes trying to figure out what's happening long after the audience has already seen or guessed the rest.
On the plus side, Douglas's Doubting Thomas is so sarcastic toward the superstitious villagers that his performance today seems very modern and amusing, far more interesting than similar roles played by actors like David Manners and John Boles in Dracula and Frankenstein, characters that absolutely no one remembers five minutes after those movies are over.
Frye, the "Man with the Thousand-Watt Stare," plays a character familiar to horror fans, the wild-eyed loony, if more Steinbeck's Lennie than Stoker's Renfield here. It's hard to tell if screenwriter Edward T. Lowe had intended hapless Herman's fate to be so callously tragic or tragically callous, but after the mob basically murders then stakes the poor sap, policeman Karl has to prompt those responsible to "at least give the man a decent burial." But there's not even a whiff of discussion about filing criminal charges against those leading the mob.
Given the menace projected by Atwill in all the posters, to say nothing of his typecasting in sinister parts, it comes as a surprise to no one that von Niemann (a name writer Lowe also gave to Boris Karloff's similarly sinister scientist in 1944's House of Frankenstein) is behind the killings. A bit less entertainingly oily than he'd be in some ‘40s films, Atwill is fine, though the script denies the audience a scene where he and Douglas's character match wits, and Fan Wray is pretty much wasted in a thankless part. Aunt Gussie has more screentime, and while she's mildly amusing it's like she's wandered in from a screwball comedy being made on an adjacent stage, particular when in a solo bit she downs a concoction of sodium bicarbonate and other medicines. It's certainly the only horror film of the period to feature an old lady belching.
For all the talk talk talk about vampires and werewolves, it's a red herring, as Atwill's secretly created life itself. However, this astonishing news is diminished somewhat once the audience gets a look at von Niemann's creation, which looks like nothing more than a dirty sponge with respiration.
Video & Audio
For years The Vampire Bat existed only via public domain labels which generally didn't look too terrible (and which were likely sourced from 16mm), but this is a huge improvement, a release comparing favorably to the best work from major labels on movies of similar vintage. The colorized torches play no part in the story (such as was the case in Kurosawa's High and Low) but are a neat little flourish showing that its makers were trying to give their audiences something a little different from other cheap pictures. Audio is fine, English subtitles are offered and the disc is region-free.
Supplements start with a brief but unusually good little short about Melvyn Douglas, featuring his son, Gregory Hesselberg. Intriguingly, it focuses on Hesselberg's evolving perspective of his father as a working actor, how he gradually learned to appreciate his father's craft and how that in turn brought them closer on a personal level. The audio commentary by film historian Sam Sherman is very uneven, with some good material scattered about, but it's not thought through very carefully and is generally disorganized.
For horror fans, The Vampire Bat is a must even if the film is minor. Its restoration, however, is a major event and comes Highly Recommended.