Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Vampire Bat - 1933

Director:                          Frank R. Strayer
Writer:                             Edward T. Lowe, Jr. (story)
Producer:                         Phil Goldstone
Cinematography:             Ira Morgan
Film Editing:                    Otis Garrett
Art Direction:                   Charles D. Hall (as Daniel Hall)

Dr. Otto von Niemann       Lionel Atwill
Ruth Bertin                        Faye Wray
Karl Brettschneider            Melvyn Douglas
Aunt Gussie                       Maude Eburn
Kringen                              George E. Stone
Herman Gleib                     Dwight Frye
Emil Borst                          Robert Fraser
Martha Mueller                  Rita Carlyle
Bűrgermeister                    Lionel Belmore
Sauer                                 William V. Mong
Georgiana                          Stella Adams
Weingarten                         Harrison Greene

Majestic Pictures.
Released:  January 10, 1933
71 minutes

I would really like to recommend "The Vampire Bat" more, and give it at least one more kiss.  The visuals are great, and most of the performances are very good or at least creditable.   The actors ennoble this enterprise far and above where it would be in the hands of any lesser performers.  The story is an imaginative sort of hybrid, an attempt to graft some of "Dracula" onto "Frankenstein".  However the "monster" in this thing is just, well....let's just say that the most intense reaction one could have to it would be a giggling fit.  In addition, the character who is supposed to supply the comic relief is very irritating -- if there is one thing that makes me nuts it is an unfunny 'funny bit'.   

While watching this film you may get confused and need to flip through your program for clarification about what you are looking at.  You will probably think:  “I don’t get it—this thing looks pretty good for a cheap little low-budget practically forgotten horror flick.  It also looks very familiar.  What’s going on???”  Calm down and let me help you – after all, that’s why I’m here.

Yes, this movie was made by a studio called Majestic Pictures, of which you have probably never heard.  Majestic was one of the studios commonly referred to as “Poverty Row” studios.  What does that mean?  Here is a definition:

"Poverty Row:  Name given in the 1920s to the section of Hollywood around Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street where fly-by-night producers tried to make movies on the cheap.  The shabby buildings housed a tiny maze of offices, often ornamented with exposed wires and pipes.  Its most famous success story was Columbia Pictures, which had its start here before becoming a major studio.  In the studio era, the term “Poverty Row” came to refer not to a geographical location but to any production by minor companies such as Grand National, Mascot, and PRC – Producers Releasing Corporation."  
 Katz, Ephraim with Ronald Dean Nolen.  The Film Encyclopedia.  7th edition.   New York.  Harper Collins, 2012.  

The reason that these studios could fly “by-night” or at any other time was because of the very low overhead they had to carry.  Generally, their “studio” consisted of a small office.  Period.  No buildings full of sets, no warehouses filled with props, no separate departments, no commissary.   Just “exposed wires and pipes” as Mr.Katz put it so elegantly.  And I bet the pipes leaked. 

Majestic took advantage of the schedule at Warner Brothers Studios which released the film "Doctor X" earlier in 1932.  That one starred Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.  Warners had just finished filming “The Mystery of the Wax Museum”, also starring Mr. Atwill and Ms. Wray.  There was going to be a gap of a few weeks between the time "Mystery of the Wax Museum" was in the can and when it would be ready for release.  So, Majestic contracted with Mr. Atwill and Ms. Wray to make their own quickie horror film and get it out to theaters before “The Mystery of the Wax Museum”.  That way, Majestic was able to ride on the coattails of the publicity from “Dr. X” and the pre-publicity for “Wax Museum”.

And that's what you do if you are "fly-by-night" and don't have much of a publicity budget.

They rented the sets from Universal Studios.  Remember "The Old Dark House"?  Of course you do.  The main room from that set was used as the interior for the castle in "The Vampire Bat" and the morgue was originally the wine cellar set from "Frankenstein".   

Staircase in "The Vampire Bat", recycled set from "The Old Dark House". 

The morgue in "The Vampire Bat" where, Melvyn Douglas on the left and Lionel Atwill are checking out the latest victim.  The set had been used previously as the cellar of castle Frankenstein -- see below.   

Exterior scenes were filmed on the Bavarian village set which was used in “Frankenstein” and so many other films.  Part of that set exists to this day and can be seen on the Universal Studios tour.
Outdoor crowd scene in "The Vampire Bat".  Notice the archway - part of the Universal European village set through which many a monster walked, ran or lumbered.  
Same set.  Angry villagers getting ready to do what they do best in "Bride of Frankenstein"

Another exterior scene was filmed at Bronson Cave, near Los Angeles.  The cave, part of Bronson Canyon in Griffith Park has been used over the years in scads of films and tv shows— everything from classics such as “The Searchers” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” both in 1956 to less than classic films such as “Teenage Caveman” in 1958 up to the unforgettable, unfathomable, not to mention unnecessary “Mega Python vs. Gatoroid” in 2010.  The redressed cave entrance also served as the entrance to the bat cave in the 60's TV show "Batman".  
Bronson Caves.  Larger cave to the left is the most familiar to movie and tv audiences. When filmed, the camera usually keeps a tight shot on the cave so the smaller entrance on the right is not visible.  
Scene from the movie.  The torch bearing mob is entering the cave. Camera is looking outward and you can see both the larger opening and (just barely) the smaller one on the left.

The look of the film is aided also by the fact that the art director was Charles D. (Danny) Hall.  His sets always had an atmospheric grandeur as well as a sense of realistic detail.  He worked on many films and in the horror genre they include:  “The Phantom of the Opera” 1925, “The Cat and the Canary” 1927, “The Man who Laughs” 1928, “The Last Warning” 1929, “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” both 1931, “The Invisible Man” 1933, and “The Bride of Frankenstein” 1935.  This movie has the polished look of a Universal film. 

Before I begin I need to once again warn readers that there will be spoilers.  So, use your own good judgment. 

The movie opens on a dark street in the hamlet of Kleinschloss as Kringen, the watchman (George E. Stone),  lights the gas streetlights and notices the many bats hanging from the trees.  We also get a brief glimpse of a dark figure on a building roof, and soon after the camera moves to a window on that building and we hear a scream.  The photography here is very nice.  When the camera pans upward there is a quick, almost imperceptible dissolve so it can appear to be moving up a much taller building.  This was eight years before Orson Welles did the same thing in “Citizen Kane.”  Way to go, low-budget movie making!

We then go to the office of the Bűrgermeister who is meeting with his council and the police detective Karl Brettschneider (Melvyn Douglas).  The Bűrgermeister is played by Lionel Belmore who played the Bűrgermeister in “Frankenstein” and many other roles.  In "Son of Frankenstein" he was demoted to councilman.  

The council is convinced that the series of deaths in the village is the work of a vampire.  The victims were all drained of blood, had two punctures at the jugular vein, and there was a blood clot eight inches from the wounds “the mark of the fiend”.  (The blood clot thing is a new one on me.)  Their proof of a vampire presence is the large number of bats around the village, and the written history of the town which tells of a similar series of deaths and a bat infestation in the seventeenth century.  According to the historical document when the villagers executed the suspected vampire, the deaths ended and the bats departed.   Level-headed Herr Brettschneider doesn’t believe in such things and dismisses the “proof” as superstition.  He is trying to catch a murderer, not a ghost. 

Herr Brettschneider's girlfriend, Ruth Bertin, is played by one of the original scream queens, Faye Wray.   

Ruth is lab assistant to Dr. Otto von Niemann (Lionel Atwill) and lives in his castle along with her aunt Gussie (Maude Eburn).  Aunt Gussie serves as chaperon for her niece as well as "comic relief" for the movie.  However, I find her very trying.  On top of being a general nuisance, she is a hypochondriac who is forever pestering the doctor to diagnose or prescribe something.  

Aunt Gussie checking her heart.

Kringen directs suspicion at simple-minded Herman Gleib (Dwight Frye).  Herman doesn’t work, always looks well-fed, and most damning of all — he makes pets of the bats.  What else could he possibly be but a vampire?

Herman is a friend of the apple seller Martha who becomes the next victim.  After the murder Kringen reminds the council that Herman had brought a flower to Martha shortly before her death.  Frankly, that does not sound suspicious to me, but what do I know?
Dwight Frye as Herman, with Rita Carlyle as Martha.
After the death of Kringen the council is convinced that Herman is the vampire.  Herr Brettschneider is out of ideas and so gives permission for the townsfolk to bring in Herman.  He makes it very clear that they are to bring him in for questioning only, that they are not to harm him in any way.

  Needless to say, the torch-bearing mob goes a little crazy-- after all, "crazy" is part of the definition of "torch-bearing mob".

They chase Herman into a cave and corner him and the poor, terrified man leaps to his death rather than be torn apart by the rabid villagers.  For good measure, they put a stake through his heart.  So much for "bring him in for questioning." 

Frye is very lovable and moving as pitiful Herman and gives one of his best performances.  The character is kind and sweet and yes, a bit loopy but as harmless as a baby.  The one moment of real horror I feel while watching this movie is when the mob is hounding him to his death.  The terror Frye expresses feels very realistic.  Even dear old Aunt Gussie feels sorry for him when he is trying to sneak an apple from her garden.

After his role as Renfield in “Dracula” Dwight Frye was typecast as crazies for the rest of his career.  In the press book for this film he said:
If God is good I will be able to play comedy in which I was featured on Broadway for eight seasons and in which no producer will give me a chance.  And please God, make it before I go screwy playing idiots, halfwits and lunatics on the talking screen.
  Tom Weaver.  Universal Horrors.  McFarland & Co. Inc.  1977  

Unfortunately, he continued to be seen in small roles as the “idiots, halfwits and lunatics” with which he was fed up.  His last roles were uncredited bit parts.  He died in 1943 of a heart attack at the age of forty-four.  He was doing war work in an airplane factory at the time, and his death certificate listed his profession as “tool designer”.

When another death occurs at the doctor's castle and the doctor leaves a clue that implicates Hermann, Herr Brettschneider is convinced that Herman is the killer.  However, at that moment word arrives that Herman is dead, and had died before the last murder happened.  Brettschneider is now at a complete loss for suspects.  (Hello, he's right in front of you!!)  The doctor kindly prescribes some sleeping tablets (from a bottle marked "Poison") for the detective, so he can get a good night's sleep and clear his mind. Brettschneider accepts the pills, but judging from the look he shoots the doc, it seems that his detective sixth-sense has kicked in.  Later, the doctor is in his lab, in a trance and speaking telepathically to his assistant Emil who has been the one actually committing the murders for the doctor.

 Emil has crept into Herr Brettschneider's room and is approaching the bed ready to claim another victim.

Unfortunately for her, Ruth happens to overhear the doctor giving instructions to Emil and realizes that he is responsible for the atrocities.  She very unwisely confronts him in his lab, and gets his mad scientist rant about how important his work is, more important than a few useless lives.

  A few minutes later she seems to be surprised to find herself gagged and tied to a chair.  Well, at least she didn't have to listen to him spouting anything about creating an army of super sponges to conquer the world.  

Emil arrives with Brettschneider's body and places it on the operating table.  When the doctor lowers the sheet he sees that it is not Herr Brettschneider, but Emil on the slab.  The detective had only pretended to take the sleeping tablets and had gotten the drop on Emil.

While the doctor is ranting again, this time blaming Emil for all the deaths, Emil wakes up and hears that he is going to take the fall.  A rather perfunctory fistfight breaks out between Brettschneider and the doctor.  Emil grabs the gun and tells Brettschneider to get Ruth out of there while he takes care of von Niemann.  After the couple leave the lab two gunshots are heard.  Brettschneider peeks in and sees that both Emil and von Niemann have paid for their crimes.  

Aunt Gussie shows up one more time looking for Doctor von Niemann.  He had prescribed "hydrous magnesium sulfate" for her and it is affecting her "most peculiarly".  One burp and one "you will please excuse me" later, and Gussie is scurrying up the stairs.  Brettschneider then translates "hydrous magnesium sultate" as "epsom salts". It's a laxative!!  Aunt Gussie is making tracks to the W.C.!!!!  It's hilarious!!!!!  My sides are splitting!!!!!  I suppose audiences at the time were exiting the theaters with light hearts after this risible finale.  I could have done without the sight of Gussie's panicked waddle up the stairs - it may be the most frightening image in the entire movie.
Oops....I forgot to mention the creature, the thing, the horror, the abomination created in the laboratory, the reason for all the hullabaloo, the MacGuffin.  The doctor's pride and joy is......wait for it......

...either a sponge or possibly a meatloaf.  Not exactly Boris Karloff as the Creature.  It is a ridiculous lump of something or other about the size of a softball that the doctor calls, "living, growing that moves, pulsates and demands food for its continued growth!"   It's the dumbest looking thing, but, well, as it wiggles and bubbles away in its tank of liquid it does pulsate, ya gotta give it that!  But this is what has caused all the tsuris?  

Melvyn Douglas does his usual dapper, wry sensible chap stuff -- much too sophisticated and intelligent a fellow to be slogging away as an investigator in this backwater village.  After cracking this case he should have gone on to a job with Scotland Yard at least.  His emotional arc swings from calm professionalism to frustration to giving in to superstition to righteous anger (at the tragic and senseless death of Herman) and back to the cool, collected professionalism he needs to catch the real murderer.  He is great; really too hip for the room.  

Fay Wray is her usual lovely self-- a heroine who doesn't do a whole lot, but doesn't really have to because she is blonde and beautiful.  Her purpose is to be imperiled and then rescued in the nick of time.  She does it well.  

Ms. Wray was born in Canada but raised in Los Angeles to Mormon parents though she was not a participating church member herself.  She broke into films as a teenager and worked in bit parts until 1928 when she was cast for the lead feminine role in Erich von Stroheim's film "The Wedding March".  

She had an incredibly busy schedule in 1932-33:  She appeared in fourteen films which were released in those two years.  The most famous film and her claim to immortality was of course, "King Kong" in 1933.  As the character of Ann Darrow she screamed her way through the South Pacific jungles and up the Empire State Building, with "the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood'.  Because of the very long, ten-month shooting schedule needed for the complex technical requirements of the stop-motion animation for "Kong", she had time to take jobs at other studios while waiting for her next scene.  Our little movie, "The Vampire Bat" was one she was able to knock off quickly and get back to her hairy inamorata at RKO.  She said this in her autobiography, On the Other Hand:

        "The pattern of work [on King Kong] had been established:  Animation and special effects would be prepared, then there would be a few days of shooting with me...The film took about ten months once they got into this on-again-off-again rhythm and I would be able to do other films while Kong and the prehistoric animals were performing together.  I began to believe it was the rumored scariness of Kong that stimulated producers to offer other "scary" roles to me:  "Dr.X (sic), "The Mystery of the Wax Museum", "The Most Dangerous Game", and "The Vampire Bat" -- all these in the same year as the making of "King Kong."   

                                            Bryan Senn. Golden Horrors.  McFarland & Co., Inc. 1996.  pg. 180.

Ms. Wray effectively retired from acting in 1942 when she married her second husband, screenwriter Robert Riskin.  After his death in the 1950's she returned to show business and worked in films and on TV until the 1970's.  She retired again, but made personal appearances until her death in 2004 at the age of 96.  Peter Jackson had asked her to make a cameo appearance in his remake of "King Kong" and she met with actress Naomi Watts.  However, she refused the part saying her Kong was the only "King".  

When she died the lights in the Empire State Building were dimmed for 15 minutes in her honor.

Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill made three films together:  "Doctor X" (1932), "The Mystery of the Wax Museum" and "The Vampire Bat" (both in 1933).  

Lionel Atwill was born in Croydon, England in 1885 and died in 1946.  He started on stage in London and appeared on Broadway and in silent films in the States.  He made a smooth transition to the talkies; his rich, English accented voice and authoritative bearing were made for the movies and he seemed to never stop working in the 1930s and early 1940s.  That is, until a scandal interrupted his career.
Lionel Atwill in "Doctor X"

Atwill was known in the Hollywood community for hosting adult parties -- the word "orgy" has been used to describe them.  In 1941 he was implicated in a charge of showing pornographic movies at one of these functions in his home while an underage person was present.  When he was before the Grand Jury, he refused to name any of his guests and so in 1942 was convicted of perjury and sentenced to five years probation.  Atwill stated that he had "lied like a gentleman" to protect others.  A few months later the sentence was revoked and his record was again clean.  In spite of this, he had become anathema to the Hollywood hypocrites and found work very, very hard to come by.  This fine actor who had done such distinguished work on stage and on film for so many years and should have had many more years of success ahead of him, could find work only in the small studios of "Poverty Row".  He still has not received a star on the so-called "Walk of Fame" in Hollywood.  Tragedy continued for Atwill in the 1940's, his first son John Anthony was killed in action in WWII.

Lionel Atwill was the consummate mad scientist in so many of these films, and his skill is the only thing that almost puts the whole thing over.  

One of my favorite lesser known actors, George E. Stone was known mostly for tough-guy and gangster roles.  Here he plays something different -- Kringen, the hunch-backed village snitch.  
George E. Stone as Kringen.

With James Cagney in "Taxi", 1932.  

One other problem with this movie is the direction.  There are some good looking and creative visuals in the outdoor scenes, but as soon as the camera goes indoors the film looks much more stage-bound and flat.  Director Frank Strayer worked primarily in B-movies for his career.  He made two other "horror" films, "The Monster Walks" in 1932 and "The Ghost Walks" in 1934.  He is remembered now for a string of "Blondie" movies in the 1940's, based on the comic strip character.   

"The Vampire Bat" is an atmospheric piece of early horror and is worth a look.  But, holy cats!...I just can't quite get past that sponge/meatloaf.  That brings the whole movie down a few notches from interesting thriller to just too goofy for words.  

And by the way, don't forget the Public Service Announcement at the end of the movie:  Remember to use epsom salts for your bath; be careful of them in any other context.  


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