Small, independent distributor Majestic Pictures (known for their westerns and melodrama throughout the 1930s) attempted to capitalize on the major-studio horror boom of the early 1930s by creating this unusual hybrid film comprised of sets, props and actors borrowed from Universal Studios and Warner Bros. Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray make one of three screen appearances together (the others being DR. X and THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM), with the former playing yet another mad scientist and the latter another terrified, screaming damsel in distress. A darling of public domain companies for decades, THE VAMPIRE BAT gets its most definitive home video release to date with this Blu-ray, transferred from a newly film elements.
In the European village of Klineschloss, there’s total panic in the wake of a rash of murders and a mysterious cloaked figure lurking throughout the streets (and rooftops) at night. The body count is slowly piling up as several villagers have been found dead in their beds, completely drained of blood (with puncture wounds on the jugular veins). Despite debonair police inspector Karl Brettschneider (Melvyn Douglas, NINOTCHKA) being convinced that the murderer is nothing more than a common criminal, the superstitious villagers believe the killings to be the work of a real vampire and their suspicions are heightened by an infestation of bats and by childlike village idiot Herman Gleib (Dwight Frye, FRANKENSTEIN) and his unusually eccentric affection for the furry winged creatures (he carries them on his person while he steals fruit and scares women). Experimenting scientist Dr. Otto von Niemann (Lionel Atwill, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN) suggests that a real human vampire is causing the havoc, and with the burgermeister being puzzled and the villagers crying out for justice, a vengeful mob then brings on the death of the assumed vampire killer, with a stake being driven through his heart to be on the safe side. But that doesn’t stop the abduction of Niemann’s assistant and Brettschneider’s girlfriend Ruth Bertin (Fay Wray, KING KONG) and the other horrors that await!
Scripted by Edward T. Lowen (HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HOUSE OF DRACULA), THE VAMPIRE BAT is a golden age horror film that references both FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, especially by casting Universal regular Frye doing his Renfield variation and as much scene-stealing as possible. It’s basically an early “poverty row” horror, but with the look and feel of a major studio effort, and this is because it was shot on Universal’s backlot, taking advantage of the village set from James Whales’ FRANKENSTEIN, the majestic dwelling from Whales’ THE OLD DARK HOUSE, and various furnishings from the silent version of THE CAT AND THE CANARY (according to the book Forgotten Horrors: Early Chillers from Poverty Row, by George E. Turner and Michael Price, the morgue seen in the film is the cavernous wine cellar of Castle Frankenstein and although a torchlit chase resembles the pursuit of The Monster in FRANKENSTEIN, it was filmed at Bronson Canyon rather than utilizing Universal's man-made cliffs). This may not be the most revered horror film of its era, but director Frank Strayer (who also helmed THE GHOST WALKS and CONDEMNED TO LIVE) sets up a few striking shots, creates a properly creepy mood and makes ample use of the advantageous sets and the cast, especially Frye (truly memorable here) who after this film, would be relegated to supporting roles up until his death in 1943. Lionel Atwill was at the height of his career at the time of this film, and he proves to be the preeminent sinister mad scientist here, while Melvyn Douglas, having just appeared in Universal's THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932), provides a sardonic leading man quality with his own brand of humor, and helps maintain a bit of level-headed heroism to the proceedings. Making the film look and sound even more like a Universal horror is Lionel Belmore, who is basically reprising his burgermeister role from FRANKENSTEIN (though given a lot more screen time here) and Robert Frazer will be familiar to horror fans, playing opposite Bela Lugosi in the earlier WHITE ZOMBIE, and later in the Monogram quickie BLACK DRAGONS.
Like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE TERROR, THE DEVIL BAT, DEMENTIA 13, HORROR EXPRESS and a few others, THE VAMPIRE BAT is one of those vintage horror films that has fallen into the public domain, thus being released on DVD by nearly every budget company in the business (and some of them running shorter than the correct 63-minute running time). These presentations have been dark and murky, so it’s a real treat to see this release from The Film Detective, in conjunction with UCLA Film & Television Archive, who have digitally mastered THE VAMPIRE BAT from a 35mm composite acetate fine grain master and a 35mm nitrate print. Whatever your opinion of the film is, this new transfer will at least help you appreciate its aesthetic value, as it’s more than a revelation. Presented in 1080p in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, fine detail is abundant (the picture rarely gets soft) and the film's organic grain field is tight an unobtrusive, showing no signs of unnecessary digital tampering. The black levels are surprisingly rich, and although there are some scattered scratches and speckles throughout (we wouldn’t want in any other way, that’s character!) the entire image is complemented by agreeable grayscale. This print also recreates the long-lost Gustav Brock hand-colored sequence, bringing red and yellow to the flames of the villagers’ torches as they chase Dwight Frye into Bronson Canyon, and that's a nice touch. Yes bring on that cliché: “it’s the best it’s ever looked on home video”, and we can say that with utmost confidence. The English DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track complements the picture in that dialogue is clean and crisp, and free of the expected background scratchiness. Like all of The Film Detective’s Blu-rays, this one is presented on BD-R recordable media, rather than being a pressed disc. Sure we would rather have it on a pressed disc too if we had a choice, but the quality is just as good either way, and even if you read on some message board someone geeking out about a disc such as this inevitably disintegrating or whatnot, don’t worry, it won’t. Optional English SDH subtitles are included here, and they’re very well done.
Extras on the disc include a charming new featurette “Becoming the Son of Melvyn Douglas” with Gregory Hesselberg (7:03) as he talks about how his famous father left his mother for another woman, remarried, and that he hardly saw him throughout his early childhood. He did eventually end up living with his father when his mother got ill, and talks about what life in Hollywood with the Douglas family was like. He tells some anecdotes, talks about seeing dad on the stage (initially in INHERIT THE WIND) and that heeventually got very close to him. Legendary drive-in film producer Sam Sherman is on hand for an audio commentary, giving background information on producer Phil Goldstone and his importance to motion picture history, and he mentions his conversations with Goldstone’s widow in the mid 1970s. Sherman mentions that Medallion Pictures distributed the film to television (and that Goldstone made decent money from that) as part of a package, his running into Melvyn Douglas and their brief discussion, meeting Fay Wray at Joe Franklin’s studio (and that she didn’t like talking about her horror movies, though he assured her of their significance), he makes comparisons to this film and CONDEMNED TO LIVE by the same director, and he points out how THE VAMPIRE BAT got away with a scene of blood being drained with a tube into a jar before the Production Code was enforced. Sherman, who is always a pleasure to listen to on commentaries (especially on films he was directly involved with) sums up his talk by discussing Lionel Atwill and the music (or lack of) used in the film. (George R. Reis)
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