Ready to go batty?
Good! Then check out THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933), an atmospheric vampire movie from the 1930s starring Lionel Atwill in the lead role of mad scientist Dr. Otto van Niemann.
In THE VAMPIRE BAT, Atwill demonstrates that had the stars been aligned differently, he might have become a major horror movie star, rather than just a supporting actor, playing as he so often did police inspectors in the Universal Frankenstein and Dracula movies. He delivers a fine performance in THE VAMPIRE BAT, and there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t have continued to play lead roles in future films with similar success.
A small village is up in arms over a series of vampire-like murders, in which the victims have been drained of all their blood. Karl, the local police inspector (Melvyn Douglas) doesn’t believe in vampires and instead insists the crimes have been committed by a human culprit.
His girlfriend Ruth (Fay Wray) works for Dr. van Niemann (Lionel Atwill) whose strange experiments should have raised some eyebrows, but since he’s such a respected member of the community, he escapes suspicion. Instead, the villagers accuse the town simpleton, Herman (Dwight Frye) of being the vampire, since he loves bats and is seen regularly handling the creatures.
The villagers chase Herman through the countryside with hunting dogs, in a scene clearly reminiscent of the chase scene at the end of FRANKENSTEIN (1931). In fact, if you happen to stumble upon this scene unaware of what you are watching, you might suspect you are seeing some long lost footage from FRANKENSTEIN of the villagers chasing Henry Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz (also played by Dwight Frye). At the end of the chase, Herman falls from a cliff to his death, and the villagers then drive a stake through his heart. They are ecstatic that they have killed the vampire, but this only lasts a few hours, until another victim is drained of blood.
Eventually, Karl’s investigation leads him to Dr. van Niemann, and he discovers that the doctor has been hypnotizing his assistant to commit these murders in order to obtain human blood for his experiments.
The plot of THE VAMPIRE BAT is nothing new, nor is it very exciting. The screenplay by Edward T. Lowe, who also wrote the screenplays for HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945), is average at best, and the biggest strike against the story is that it’s not about a real vampire. Heck, it’s not even about a real vampire bat!
Director Frank Strayer does little at the helm to make this one stand out, as THE VAMPIRE BAT contains nary a memorable scene.
The reason to watch THE VAMPIRE BAT is its cast. Lionel Atwill is more than satisfactory in the lead role as Dr. van Niemann. Although Atwill’s signature role, his defining moment in horror cinema remains his one-armed police inspector in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), a supporting role, in the early 1930s Atwill was getting lead roles, and he was shining in them, including 1933’s MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, which also starred Fay Wray. He’s a convincing mad scientist here in THE VAMPIRE BAT, sinister yet likeable enough to hide his madness from those around him. Atwill does a good job of not going too over the top with the role.
Also in the cast is Dwight Frye, who sadly was already being typecast in 1933 playing weird madmen. Frye of course stole the show as Renfield in the Lugosi DRACULA (1931) and nearly repeated the effort as Henry Frankenstein’s hunchback assistant Fritz in FRANKENSTEIN (1931). Here, he’s Herman, the man who loves bats, who tragically gets chased to his death because the villagers feared he was a vampire. Frye seemed to be able play these parts in his sleep.
It was a busy year for Fay Wray. In addition to appearing in both THE VAMPIRE BAT and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM in 1933, she also of course had a notable encounter with one Mr. King Kong in KING KONG (1933). Interestingly enough, Wray was not a natural blonde and wore a wig in KING KONG. She has her natural brunette hair here in THE VAMPIRE BAT. Wray was actually a very good actress and could do a lot more than just scream. She’s relaxed and very natural in THE VAMPIRE BAT.
The other main star on hand was Melvyn Douglas who went on to make many, many movies and win two Academy Awards. He had starred the year before in the atmospheric Boris Karloff film THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932), and Douglas would return to the genre many years later with two notable performances, with George C. Scott in THE CHANGELING (1980) and in Peter Straub’s GHOST STORY (1981).
And then there’s Lionel Belmore as the Burgomaster, playing nearly the same exact role he enacted in FRANKENSTEIN (1931), providing yet another connection to the Boris Karloff classic (as well as the fact that both films were shot on the same Universal village set giving both films similar exterior shots.)
When it comes to early 1930s vampire movies, I prefer DRACULA (1931), MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935) and VAMPYR (1932) to THE VAMPIRE BAT, which doesn’t have as much atmosphere or story as these three classics.
But it does have a great cast, including vintage Lionel Atwill. I like Atwill a lot, and it’s a shame he didn’t have substantial roles in more movies. He rarely disappoints.
And for that matter, neither does THE VAMPIRE BAT. While it’s not a classic of the genre, it is a showplace for some terrific performers working at the top of their craft.
—This IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column was originally published in 2010 in THE OFFICIAL NEWSLETTER OF THE HORROR WRITERS ASSOCIATION. It was recently republished within those same pages in November 2021.