The Vampire Bat (1933) | (2024)

Genre is cumulative. Successful elements of one film are picked up,refined, and tweaked by the next. Sometimes the result is animprovement or even an advancement, other times it is imitation orhomage. In many cases, a film will combine the perceived successes ofits predecessors, synthesizing them into something familiar but new.These are the places where genre evolves. Take the case of TheVampire Bat, which borrows two of the stars of Doctor X and Mysteryof the Wax Museum, but more importantly, it carries forward some ofthe themes and genre trappings of Universal's 1931 horror hits,Dracula and Frankenstein. In doing so, the film shows some innovationof its own, resulting in an entertaining, if occasionally slipshodfilm.

The Vampire Bat has very little to do with the title animals.Certainly there is an infestation of bats in the village ofKleinschloss, but the townspeople are more concerned with actualvampires. One can scarcely blame them -- people keep turning up dead,drained of blood, with two puncture wounds in their neck.Investigator Karl Brettschneider (Melvyn Douglas)knows that there must be a rational explanation for the killings.With the help of his girlfriend, Ruth (Fay Wray), and her employer,eminent scientist Dr. Otto von Niemann (Lionel Atwill), Karl sooncomes to believe that the truth may be more fantastic than he couldhave possibly anticipated.

Given the popularity of bothDracula and Frankenstein, it was only a matter of time before somefilm came along that tried to marry elements from both. The VampireBat is just that movie. Beyond the obvious use of vampire lore, TheVampire Bat's debt to Dracula also extends to its use of a VanHelsing style vampire expert in the form of Doctor Von Niemann, somewide-eyed hypnosis, and a tendency to run exposition through verytalky drawing room conversations. From Frankenstein, there's themiddle European setting (using the same backlot sets, no less), mobsof villagers with torches, and, later in the film, some sciencefiction elements.

Solidifying The Vampire Bat's relationship to both films is DwightFrye (Renfield in Dracula and Fritz in Frankenstein), featured asHerman, a simple-minded man suspected of being the town vampire. Fryeis often positioned in a way that recalls one of the two films. Forinstance, there is the shot Herman peers through a gate in a mannervery similar to the opening scene of Frankenstein. Herman also has an obsession with bats and blood, which harkens back to Frye's role as Renfield.

However, all of that is window dressing. The most interestingresult of the combination of elements from Dracula and Frankensteinis the conflict between reason and superstition. While this was aminor element in Dracula and had a slightly larger presence inFrankenstein (couched more as science vs. religion), here it is aconstant tension underlying everything. The people of Kleinschloss"know" there is a vampire among them. No amount of reason orevidence to the contrary will dissuade them, and every tiny bit ofproof that confirms their already held beliefs is seized upon andclung to. As one villager says after yet another local ismurdered, "Kringen said Herman (the suspected vampire) wouldget him and he did." Never mind that there's no proof that Hermanwas anywhere near the scene of the crime. In the minds of thevillagers, the fulfillment of one part of the prediction proves thewhole of it.

Navigating through the village's superstitious waters is Karl, whois visually set apart from them by his metropolitan dress style. Hisnicer clothes and intelligent speech set him as the voice of reason,a rare thing in Kleinschloss. However, Karl's status as thereasonable one is a feint by the filmmakers -- eventually, with someprodding from Niemann, he comes around to the idea that vampires maybe real. In fact, The Vampire Bat may be the first example of aparticular kind of horror plot that exemplifies the tension betweenreason and superstition, one that would be repeated in several Hammervampire films in the 1960s and 1970s. In this plot, the onereasonable man surrounded by superstitious common folk learns, oftenwith the help of a wise expert, that his rationality means nothing inthe face of an actual supernatural threat. This basic outline isstill being used today; it appears in a somewhat modified form inthis year's The Woman in Black.

The Vampire Bat pulls out a surprise twist on its own formula in thethird act (spoilers for The Vampire Bat will be prevalent from thispoint on in the review). After our hero has begun to pursue thepossibility that a vampire is at work, the expert he has relied on,Dr. Niemann, is revealed tobe the actual villain. There are no supernatural forces at work --Niemann is a regular mad scientist, bent on creating new life (moreshades of Frankenstein). The tissue he's developed in the lab needsblood, so he's hypnotized his lab assistant, Emil, to kidnaptownspeople so he can steal theirs. As it turns out, Karl was correctfrom the start -- the explanations for the murders was rational.Well, rational within the world of the film, anyway.

The reveal also turns what had been a plot weakness into a strength.The idea of a logical-minded scientist like Dr. Niemann supporting atheory as fantastic as vampires seems odd. However, knowing his rolein the murders, it makes sense that he would try to direct theinvestigation away from himself by feeding the local superstition. Onreview, his tactics are delightfully insidious. Karl has rejected thevillagers' tales of monsters, partially because they seem sounreasonable. Niemann uses his veneer of respectable rationality togood effect, peppering his tales of bloodsucking ghouls with phraseslike "according to accepted theory", adding authority where noreal authority exists. Once one is aware of the twist, rewatchingAtwill's act as a master manipulator is a real joy. Unfortunately,while the twist is of great retroactive benefit, it also ruins thecharacter for the rest of the film. Once all cards are on the table,Niemann becomes another monologuing madman who leers at pretty girlsbefore tying them up. His motivations also seem pretty thin for afellow as intelligent as he's been revealed to be.

Poor Herman fares much worse than Niemann, however, being poorlywritten and (I hate to say this of any Dwight Frye performance) actedthroughout all of his scenes. Herman's clearly meant to beanalogous to Dracula's Renfield, but instead of being mad, he'smentally challenged. To show his cognitive dysfunction, Herman speaksin an improbably inconsistent syntax. Within a single scene, he'llrefer to himself as "Herman", "I", or "me". Frye doesn'tdeliver the garbled sentences with any sort of authenticity and thewords hang in the air like dissonant musical notes.

Behind the camera, director Frank R. Strayer is about as uneven asHerman's speech patterns. He opens the movie with a creepy seriesof shots that culminate in a chilling scream. It's the perfectmood-setter, but the mood dissipates with the static, overly talkyexposition scenes that follow. The rest of the film follows thisbasic pattern. When Strayer is working on macabre visuals, he'sabsolutely aces, doing some of the best work of the era. However,these sequences are few and far between. Whenever characters have totalk, and they often do, the scenes are stagey and plodding. SinceStrayer had started out in the silent era, one wonders if he wassimply more comfortable doing complex visual work without sound,since he is clearly capable of great visuals. Whatever the reason, itremains disappointing that Strayer's talent is only apparent inlimited doses in The Vampire Bat.

In combining elements of Dracula and Frankenstein, The Vampire Batputs forth its own lasting advancements in the horror genre. Futurefilms then take what The Vampire Bat does and twist it intonew and different configurations. On and on this process goes, eachfilm flowing into the next over the course of the 20th century andinto the 21st. When we watch modern horror films, we know that some part of theirDNA comes from renowned classics like Dracula, Frankenstein, Invasionof the Body Snatchers, Psycho, and Night of the Living Dead, yes. But there is also genetic material from the little films, the scrappy unsung independent filmslike The Vampire Bat, that took from the greats and then refined whatthey took and made it better or at least different. They weren't always great films, but they are no lessimportant to the history of horror films. And after all, isn't thatwhat we're here to celebrate?

The Vampire Bat (1933) | (2024)
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