The Shadow of a Bat, by Reed Lackey

25 Apr

Horror films of the 30s and 40s are so iconically branded by the films of Universal Studios that it can be easy to forget other studios were also capitalizing on surge of box office interest in horror features. 

One such potentially-forgotten classic – distributed by the lower-ranking Majestic Pictures – is The Vampire Bat from 1933, directed by Frank Strayer and starring Lionel Atwill, Melvyn Douglas, Fay Wray and the legendary Dwight Frye. The film is, by all possible standards, a cash grab, having been rushed from concept to production in little more than a month. Leasing sets from the Universal backlot, The Vampire Bat looks and feels almost as good as any Universal picture, even if doesn’t quite measure up to those standards of narrative quality.

What works really well about the film is the mystery underlying its story. Corpses have been appearing, drained of all of their blood and featuring the usual suspicious puncture wounds typical of vampirism. The townspeople are convinced of an undead perpetrator, but the chief inspector (played by Melvyn Douglas) doesn’t remotely believe such a fantasy to be possible. As the town’s hysteria grows, a palpable tension is created as to whether the cause is natural or supernatural. It becomes apparent that the film was trying to capitalize on the successes of Dracula and Frankenstein two years earlier as it heavily evokes elements from both of those films (and from a few others) before all is said and done.

Residing at the heart of the mystery are the town’s resident medical and psychological expert, Dr. Otto von Neimann, who may or may not know more than he’s willing to reveal about the cause of the bloodless corpses, and the bizarre, mentally impaired Herman, who many in the village suspect may be the undead monster they seek. The film teases a variety of possible solutions to the mystery before finally revealing its true conceits, and navigating the red herrings and misleading plot beats is most of the fun of this film.

As for the performances, the strongest and most legitimizing one is the presence of Dwight Frye, frequent Universal player and imminently watchable character actor. Frye balances pathos and malice in the role of Herman that elevates the emotional tension as the evidence and suspicion of his vampiric nature builds. Playing things a little too large is Lionel Atwill as the stoic – and possibly psychotic – Dr. von Neimann. His performance first registers as understated and subdued but later evolves into utterly broad theatricality. As for Douglas and Wray, the script only really allows them any range beyond flirtatious boredom in the final twenty minutes, where Wray’s damsel-in-distress and Douglas’s leading man bravado can finally show themselves in the film’s climactic beats.

And in those climactic moments, the film throws more twists and misdirections in fifteen minutes than most films do in an hour and a half. Some of the reveals you’ll likely see coming a mile away and some might disarm you, but the full result is fast and fun and easily worth the forty-five minute run time it takes to get there. The film’s brevity is most of what makes its flaws so dismissible. At 63 minutes, the film is a near perfect midnight matinee recommendation, even if it doesn’t deserve to stand among the greats in early horror classics.

All told, The Vampire Bat probably shouldn’t make anyone’s essentials list, but it easily deserves to be seen by any classic horror enthusiasts. It has all of the landmark elements of the best Universal classics: atmospheric sets, eccentrically macabre characters, and a dark, ghoulishly mysterious storyline. The treatment the film’s been given for its Blu-Ray restoration in both audio and picture by The Film Detective is truly remarkable and fans of classic early horror should be well pleased by rediscovering the long-neglected gem.

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