The Vampire Bat, 1933
This is an odd little movie. But it’s an odd little movie with the delectable Fay Wray and the wonderful Melvyn Douglas, so it’s very much worth watching.
Produced by Majestic Pictures, one of the six Poverty Row studios that, in 1935, merged to form Republic Pictures, The Vampire Bat is one of the better examples of what those studios could do with no budget and when jumping onto a bandwagon. The bandwagon here was the runaway success of Universal’s horror movies Dracula and Frankenstein (but not The Mummy, which was released a month after production on this movie wrapped). The inspiration of those two movies is readily apparent in various aspects of the story, as we shall see, not to mention in at least one casting decision.
In a tiny German town ((cf. Frankenstein, and don’t worry, nobody tries for an accent. )) there has been a rash of killings, with each victim drained of blood, apparently through two punctures in the neck ((I don’t need to do this, I realize, but… cf. Dracula. )). The town is also serving host to a large number of bats ((cf. Dracula. )), which has not happened in hundreds of years, since the last time a vampire was hanging around (according to local superstition, anyway). The townspeople are getting twitchy, and the Burgermeister ((cf. Frankenstein )) assigns Inspector Karl Brettschneider (Melvyn Douglas!) to investigate.
Douglas ((What, you think I’m going to keep typing Brettschneider every time I refer to him? )) is a modern man, who doesn’t hold with superstitious rot. He frequently consults Dr. Niemann (the great Lionel Atwill) and his gorgeous assistant (Fay Wray, brunette in this picture, and more fetching than ever). Natural causes are explored ((In dialogue only; remember, this is a Poverty Row pic. )), including the notions of vampire bats and serial killers (not called such, but that’s what it amounted to).
The townspeople come to the conclusion that slow, weird Karl (Dwight Frye ((Who played the hunchbacked assistant not named Igor in Frankenstein, and would do so again in Bride of Frankenstein. ))) must be responsible, because he’s mentally slow, and decidedly odd. Oh, and he has an affinity for creepy-crawlies such as bats ((cf. Renfield in Dracula. )).
Anyway, there’s not much of a plot, but in the end what turns out to be going on is that Dr. Niemann is somehow controlling his butler ((It never really gets explained how. I think they intended some sort of hypnotic control, but as presented, it looks more like some kind of psychic phenomenon, as Niemann seems to see through his butler’s eyes and know what’s happening in real time, over some little distance. Also, he verbalizes orders in this state, which the butler follows. )) ((cf. Dracula. )), who goes out and kidnaps victims, bringing them back so that Niemann can drain them of their blood. His plan, dealt with very sketchily, is to create life from blood ((cf. Frankenstein. )). He even has a rig for causing the punctures in the neck.
He doesn’t get away with it, of course, and in the end, the survivors all live happily ever after, even though the townspeople hunted poor, innocent (but yeah, weird) Karl to his death in the meantime.
It’s a Poverty Row picture in a lot of ways, not just the limited number of locations. Nothing much really happens to advance the main plot. A chunk of the movie is taken up with hunting down Karl, and none of the main characters (excepting Karl, of course) really takes part in that. The doctor’s plan is not explained in a very comprehensible way, and his discovery comes not as the result of Douglas’s investigation, but more by chance than anything else.
Still, the cast is far better than I’m accustomed to from Poverty Row, the movie is moody and atmospheric, and it works hard to give everything a rational underpinning, something I would have a hard time begrudging it even if it were a far worse movie than it is. Plus, it gives you an excuse to stare at Fay Wray for an hour or so, which can be no bad thing.