It’s hard not to be, at least, somewhat impressed with The Vampire Bat, if only because it came out in 1933 as a knockoff Universal horror picture. Except at this point, there’d only been Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy. The Vampire Bat brilliantly resembles a Universal horror picture in every way but the filmmaking. There’s the burgomaster, played by the same guy as in Frankenstein (Lionel Belmore). Dwight Frye plays a role somewhat similar to Renfield. It’s only the three principles who don’t really fit–and Lionel Atwill would go on to do a lot of Universal horror pictures.
The screenwriter Lowe eventually did write a Universal horror picture. It took him eleven years, but he wrote House of Frankenstein.
It’s a knockoff, but it’s an effective knockoff made on a lower budget without music. By Bride of Frankenstein, in 1935, music was very important in the Universal horror formula. Seeing one of these pictures without the music is very interesting–it’s a transitory step, but made by a different studio.
The film was shot on the Universal backlot at night. But the set isn’t directed like it’s a Universal horror picture. Frank R. Strayer had time to do a lot of crane shots. His interior shots aren’t impressive (way too much headroom), but the exteriors and transition shots, it looks like Curtiz shot it during his exterior movement phase.
It distracts the viewer from realizing he or she has never seen the exterior of Lionel Atwill’s house. It’s referred to as the castle, but it’s never shown.
Atwill is pretty bad. He would go on to develop a certain character and he hasn’t gotten to it here. Fay Wray’s in it, just before Kong. They don’t use her much. She’s the girl in peril, but only a little bit. The movie only runs sixty-five minutes. She’s second-billed and it’s like they couldn’t get her to stay up late to shoot.
The most interesting thing is Melvyn Douglas, being someone who went on to greater fame. He’s fantastic in this film. He’s very aware of what film he’s in, almost mugging for the viewer when he has to deliver crazy lines–actually, when the other actors deliver the crazy lines to him, you can feel his understanding of how absurd the viewer feels watching the exchange.
Maude Eburne plays Wray’s aunt. It’s never explained why Wray works for Atwill or why Eburne lives there with them (Wray probably lives here because she’s Atwill’s assistant). It’s also never explained what kind of medicine Atwill practices (or why he needs the Universal horror bubbling devices).
Thinking about The Vampire Bat at all, it collapses–which isn’t to say it holds up. It’s an interesting debacle. It ends on a joke and it’s one of the most unfunny jokes you could end on. There’s a whole comic element to the film. Eburne’s played for laughs and it makes no sense.
For a sixty-five minute film to be as meandering and as loosely constructed as this one, it’s impressive.
Directed by Frank R. Strayer; screenplay by Edward T. Lowe Jr.; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Otis Garrett; produced by Phil Goldstone; released by Majestic Pictures.
Starring Lionel Atwill (Dr. Otto von Niemann), Fay Wray (Ruth Bertin), Melvyn Douglas (Karl Brettschneider), Maude Eburne (Aunt Gussie Schnappmann), George E. Stone (Kringen), Dwight Frye (Herman Gleib), Robert Frazer (Emil Borst), Rita Carlyle (Martha Mueller), Lionel Belmore (Bürgermeister Gustave Schoen), William V. Mong (Sauer), Stella Adams (Georgiana) and Harrison Greene (Weingarten).