Roaming Atwill

In such a terrific year for major DVD and Blu-Ray releases, it’s almost apt that a contender for one of the best vintage titles of 2017 is a poverty-row potboiler, now on Blu-Ray from The Film Detective.

Now wait, we’re not just talking run-of-the-mill/bottom-of-the-bill potboiler, but an iconic horror one, 1933’s THE VAMPIRE BAT, a pre-Code pip from Majestic Pictures.

For over a half-century, THE VAMPIRE BAT has been a collector’s public-domain staple, infamous for its lousy quality (both picture and sound), cheesy dialog, ridiculous narrative (of a potentially intriguing scenario), etc.

So how does this 65-minute antique ascend to near-classic status?  Simple.  For one thing, the cast — essentially a Dinner at Eight roster for Majestic.  The four leads are Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas and Dwight Frye, with excellent support in the (bat) wings.

The story, for what it is, takes place in the tiny Bavarian village of Kleinstadt (roughly translated as “tiny Bavarian village”).  A series of gruesome murders are rapidly diminishing the already sparse population.  The mostly female victims are being discovered with strange marks on their throats, drained of every drop of hemoglobin.

Kleinstadt is unique, as it seems that bats outnumber the people (and vampire bats at that).  The townsfolk are in a dither.  Can these bats be working on their own, or are they controlled by a vampire – or even a werewolf?  Yeah, I know, that last part doesn’t make much sense, but the hackneyed scripter (Edmund T. Lowe, Jr., author of such subsequent kiddie horror faves as House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula) doesn’t miss a genre-friendly code word (other mentions in the storyline include Svengali, released a year earlier, plus references to telepathy, pulsating life forms…the usual suspects; Lowe’s greatest cinematic glory, BTW, was as scenarist for the 1923 Lon Chaney Hunchback of Notre Dame).

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Naturally, the most trusted personage in the burg is Dr. Otto von Niemann, a mysterious, erudite sawbones who conducts nocturnal experiments with blood, bats and a gorgeous assistant (Wray); of course, no one suspects him.  They opt for the village idiot, Herman (Frye), a lunatic who loves the flying rodents with a creepy passion (often seen petting them in an inappropriate manner).  The wonderful character actor’s impersonation heavily relies upon his earlier incarnations of Fritz and Renfield (laugh included), but with the mentality of Lenny in Of Mice and Men.  The villagers themselves act like nine-year-olds playing grown-ups.

The only rational person on view seems to be Karl (Douglas, slumming in his only poverty-row outing; a quick stop, too, as months earlier, he appeared opposite Garbo – the first of three teamings – in As You Desire Me; from then on, it was “eat my dust, only A-pictures for me!”).  Indeed, even in this low-budget crowd-pleaser the underrated actor displays the self-assurance and humor that would make him a much-in-demand costar for the likes of Crawford, Dietrich, Dunne, Loy, Swanson, Colbert, Stanwyck, etc.  Much of his demeanor and attitude is actually quite consistent with his turn as Leon in Ninotchka (that said, I wonder what a vampire version of the Lubitsch masterpiece would have been like:  “Garbo Sucks,” perhaps?).

Let’s cut to the chase.  Everyone in the audience knows Atwill is the maniac culprit, planning to conquer whatever he needs to achieve with all that female blood; this also encompasses controlling his beauteous assistant in what can only be called a mind-boggling fifty shades of Fay relationship.

THE VAMPIRE BAT obviously spent most of its meager budget on the cast.  Atwill and Wray were both major stars at the time, having had a huge success in the 1932 two-strip Technicolor horror fest Dr. X.  They had just wrapped a Technicolor follow-up, Mystery of the Wax Museum, filming VAMPIRE BAT on brief hiatus before rushing back to primo studio work (Atwill to Paramount for Murders in the Zoo; Wray to Radio for some picture about a giant ape).

As indicated above, the supporting cast is aces, too, with Lionel Belmore as the not-too-bright burgomeister and George E. Stone as a local coward who does everything but put a bullseye on his back.  There’s also Maude Eburne, Robert Frazer, William V. Mong, Fern Emmett, and Paul Panzer.

Although the immensely impressive thesps are responsible for the movie’s incredible appeal (and replay value), one cannot slight the excellent direction of Frank R. Strayer, a name many late-night movie fans do not know, but whose prolific work they have more than likely been exposed to.

Strayer was a master at piling on oodles of atmosphere with virtually no money.  His churning out thriller after thriller in the mystery and horror genres at Majestic attests to his talents.  Everything this guy did is watchable, and, while VAMPIRE BAT (again, primarily because of the cast) remains his epic, I prefer 1935’s far darker and eerier Condemned to Live, a picture that doesn’t offer a logical explanation capper.  Strayer, himself, after years of slaving on the row, finally scored big (well, by his standards), netting a deal at Columbia where he helmed a plethora of the enormously successful Blondie comedies (running from 1938-1950!); not surprisingly, many consider the 1940 quasi-old dark house entry, Blondie has Servant Trouble, to be among the best in the series.

But there’s still more to admire in THE VAMPIRE BAT.  Seeing it in an almost perfect 35MM transfer (and with excellent mono audio to boot, even with the awful stock music – out of date in 1933, but really more of a sore thumb ten years later when utilized in Monogram’s Eastside Kids adventures), digitally re-mastered in 1080p from UCLA’s archival print, makes one realize how nicely photographed the pic was; kudos to d.p. Ira Morgan, who effectively used the rented space/existing goth sets on the Universal lot, where this movie was shot.  The real coup is that this print contains the restored Gustav Brock hand-colored Handschiegl sequence.  This transcends mere interesting; it’s outstanding.  Who knew it even existed on this pic? One wonders that, if they went through all this trouble to utilize this painstakingly achieved effect, why didn’t they just opt for a two-strip sequence?  Glad they didn’t, though.  Two-strip Technicolor wouldn’t have done it justice.  The weird result of perfect yellow, orange and gold torch flames (and the orbs emanating from them) in a cave scene comprising the Kleinstadt fools (pursuing and persecuting Dwight Frye) is hauntingly stunning.  It’s worth the purchase of the disc just to see it.  How many other talkies used this technique is a question I desperately need to research; it’s THAT addicting.

And speaking of purchasing, how, in toto, is the Film Detective’s Blu-ray of THE VAMPIRE BAT?  It’s as if one has never seen the picture at all, that’s how good.  Razor-sharp with spectacular contrast, this movie now often looks as good as anything its A-pic competitors could come up with.  And it’s complete and uncut, containing an oft-snipped insert of blood being drained out of an unfortunate.  In fact, THE VAMPIRE BAT could be the best title Film Detective has ever released.  They must have known it, too, as they have additionally gone the distance in the extras department, serving up audio commentary, and, even better, an exclusively filmed interview with Gregory Hesselberg, Melvyn Douglas’ son.  Hesselberg has definitely inherited some of his pater’s savoir faire, and his first-hand accounts of living with movie royalty in the 1930s are priceless.  My only complaint is that the supplement is way too brief.  I wanted more (I could be prejudiced; my parents named me after the debonair star).

Trust me, if you’re even slightly interested in any of  VAMPIRE BAT‘s stars, the genre itself or the period, this blu-ray is a must-have to (dare I  say?) sink your teeth into.

THE VAMPIRE BAT.  Black and white with hand-colored sequence.  Full frame [1.33:1].  DTS-HD MA.  Region free.  The Film Detective/UCLA Film & Television Archive.  CAT # FD0740.  SRP:  $19.99.

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