Old movies: The Vampire Bat - an hour of devilish mystery (2024)

In this week’s old movies column, we take a look at another great Dwight Frye film – The Vampire Bat…

Last week on this very site, I spoke about the immutable Dwight Frye and his gravitas as a character actor, especially in the chilling Tod Browning horror Dracula (1931).

Briefly, I stumbled upon one of his other great performances in The Vampire Bat (1933), which I think is an underseen horror of the 1930s, despite it’s behind the scenes intrigue.

Directed by Frank R Strayer, this hour-long outing is a most devilish mystery. In the fictional village of Kleinschloss, a spate of murders has become the talk of the town. Due to the wounds on the neck, the superstitious villagers and the town governors believe that it signifies the return of a vampire! However, police inspector Karl Brettschneider refutes this claim. However, as the attacks continue, Brettschneider starts to come around to the idea that their might be a Count within their midst.


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Old movies: The Vampire Bat - an hour of devilish mystery (1)

The Vampire Bat boasts the third outing together for horror icons Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill, who previously starred alongside one another in both Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933) and Doctor X (1932.) And, spoiler alert, they are in the exact same position as they are in most of these films. Lionel Atwill plays a mysterious professor who is suddenly revealed to be murderous towards the end, whilst Wray plays the beautiful science ingenue who gets too close to the killer and winds up tied to his table. Eek gad!

It is a riff that has been played a few times but gosh, they play it very well. Wray always had an alluring presence when it comes to horror films and her role here as Ruth Bertlin is no different. Though admittedly she starts as an interesting scientist with her experiments, and being the won who figures out the plot, is ultimately diluted to screaming girl on table.

Whenever Atwill is in a film, it is correct to assume that he’d be a villain, no matter how nice he starts in the beginning. However, Atwill is deliciously ham when he is the bad guy. It’s always fun watching him romp through the screen after his dastardly reveal.

On top of this, while Mervyn Douglas plays the brilliant Brettschneider who tries his best to uncover the scheme, especially when he gets closer and closer to the idea that vampire’s a roaming the world again. He also has great chemistry with Wray – as a besotted pair who have to triumph over their evil. Their first scene together, smooching within the popping chemicals, is highly enjoyable.

For me the highlight here is Dwight Frye, as the gentle Gleib. His storyline is perhaps the more pertinent and is still a prevalent message to today’s audience. Gleib is kind but he is simple, with an obsession for cats and bats. This leads to the villagers and Brettschneider to conclude that he is the murderer. However, Gleib is innocent, his fixations merely harmless.

That doesn’t stop the villagers from attacking. In a powerful sequence – made more memorable by the addition of colour to a greyscale film, illuminating the oranges of the furious flames – Gleib is pursued by an vicious mob and ultimately killed. Frye wonderfully brings an incredible sensitivity to role, understanding Gleib as the harmless outsider who is woefully misconstrued as bad. It is a tender wonderful performance.

The Vampire Bat feels somewhat like a poorer imitation of better horror films – and for good reasons. If you, as a modern audience, are sick of production companies churning out the same film over and over again, you’ll be pleased (or dismayed) to learn that Hollywood has been doing this for an almighty long time.

Thanks to the success of Wray and Atwill’s other aforementioned outings, production company Majestic Pictures saw their chance to cash in – contracting the performers for their own quickie horror film. With lower overheads than larger studios, Majestic Pictures utilised some savvy to make The Vampire Bat look as prestigious as other horror films. See, Majestic used sets from other horror films. The German Village of Kleinschloss is actually a backlot from James Whale’s castoffs. Speaking of Whale, the film also used the interiors from his other horror outing The Old Dark House (1932). In fact, hilariously, Dwight Frye was hired to keep up the pretence of The Vampire Bat being a big budget film (because he is just that iconic, guys).

This all worked in Majestic’s favour because they were able to bash out The Vampire Bat before audiences could sink their teeth into Warner’s Mystery Of The Wax Museum.

Of course, hilariously, over the 90 years since The Vampire Bat, classic movie fans seem to have warmed more to Mystery Of The Wax Museum and The Old Dark House. But there is enough merit here in the mystery for fans to take a bit out of. If not for the production values, then most definitely for Frye and that breath-taking and sinister amber hue within the murky grey.

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Insights, advice, suggestions, feedback and comments from experts


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