Whatever happened to Fay Wray? Just before making a monkey out of the big ape of 1933’s original King Kong (“It was beauty killed the beast”) she made goo-goo eyes with a young Melvyn Douglas in a more appropriate same-species romance for the same year’s The Vampire Bat, getting a new Blu-ray and DVD Special Edition Tuesday, April 25.
In fact, romance and a steady dose of humor gets this creaky “horror” show off the hook for being a creature of its time, with horror simply subtly suggested, while gruesome gore is still decades away for the big screen.
That’s not to say The Vampire Bat lacks creepiness and atmospheric dread, which are its main genre strengths. It’s also reliably familiar, serving a tale of a bubbly mad-scientist lab, a fragile damsel in distress, a stalwart hero and panicky villagers, all in 1930s Germany.
There, folks are being found badly in need of tanning salons not yet invented. Why? They’ve been drained of blood, with puncture marks on their necks.
Was it vampires? Or, at least, vampire bats? A riot is an ugly thing, but it’s about time the freaked-out populace had one.
But really, there’s no need. Douglas’ skeptical police inspector is there to set things right — while wooing the lovely assistant (Wray) of the local doctor (Lionel Atwill), who reside in a dank old castle with, for some reason (chaperone, I guess), Wray’s hypochondriac aunt (Maude Eburne), who lives to amuse us with her spooked overreactions.
And let’s not overlook the wonderfully mad Dwight Frye, that lurker-in-chief who’d loved juicy spiders in 1931’s Dracula and here cuddles filthy, slimy bats like they were adorable Tribbles.
Made on a shoestring by lesser studio Majestic Pictures, yet carved in much the same mold as Universal’s prestigious horror classics of the era, The Vampire Bat has been handsomely restored for its new edition on Blu-ray and DVD, courtesy of The Film Detective and UCLA Film & Television Archive. In this age of CG excess, thank heaven we have those folks in Westwood to keep celluloid alive.
More than a B movie but what was considered a “programmer” originally, I suppose, The Vampire Bat ran a mere 63 minutes, so there wasn’t much footage to restore. But the Blu-ray also comes with a commentary track by stalwart film scholar Sam Sherman and a featurette on two-time Oscar winner Douglas via his son, Gregory Hesselberg (that being Douglas’ real last name).
What can I say, but in the Golden Age of horror spirit — if not the overt laugh fest — of Young Frankenstein, it’s fun to see such fright-flick oldies with their moody black-and-white starkness, their generous use of old-style transitional wipes and, unlike so many films today, a sense of thoughtful quiet. In fact, The Vampire Bat isn’t even scored.
Hey, what’s that sound? Is it my heart beating faster in the silence? No, not for this mildly macabre movie. Instead, it’s scratches on the print — and my bemused chuckles at this quaint yet (for its time) effective little thriller.
— Bruce Westbrook