The Film Detective continues its series of restored films with a special edition of the 1933 horror film The Vampire Bat, starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas and Dwight Frye. The Vampire Bat is about a series of mysterious deaths which the superstitious and frightened townspeople believe are the work of a vampire. Skeptical inspector Karl (Melvyn Douglas) investigates the deaths.
The film opens late at night, with a single figure making his way through a street. He is startled by a noise and looks up to see a man on the roof of a nearby building. The camera then moves up to a window of that building, and as we hear a woman scream, the light in that room is extinguished. Several bats on a tree outside then fly off. Not a bad opening, eh? We learn that six people in the town have died, their bodies drained of their blood, puncture wounds found on their necks. Unlike more recent vampire films, most of the men gathered to discuss the crimes in The Vampire Bat immediately come to the conclusion that they are dealing with a vampire. The inspector is the only one who mocks this conclusion. One of the other men says to him: “But the bats, man. The bats!” There is some good dialogue in this scene, as when they talk of an earlier account of local vampirism. The burgermeister says, “Why, this record from the town archive proves it.” Karl responds, “Says it, not proves it.” And then as he leaves, the inspector teases the others: “Good night, gentlemen. Don’t let the vampires get you.”
Of course there is a science laboratory, and it is in the basement, where all good science laboratories should be. But it is kind of a surprise when we see it is a woman working down there, Ruth (Fay Wray), who assists Dr. Otto (Lionel Atwill). By the way, this film was released the same year that Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill appeared together in Mystery Of The Wax Museum, and the same year that Fay Wray starred in King Kong. As Karl takes Ruth in his arms and kisses her, the cork in a beaker pops like champagne, a nice bit of humor. And in fact, there are some good humorous touches in several scenes of this film. I love when Aunt Gussie enters and asks Karl how he’s doing. As he begins to answer, saying he is quite well, Gussie interrupts, “Well I’m not,” and goes on to complain about various imagined ailments. It’s a delightful moment, and begins a recurring joke.
Dwight Frye, who played Renfield in Dracula, here plays Herman, a strange and creepy fellow who likes bats, and so course is suspected by the townspeople of being the vampire. He likes them because they’re soft, reminding me of Lennie from Of Mice And Men. Herman at one point even puts a bat in his pocket so he can stroke it. Interestingly, this movie came out a few years before Of Mice And Men was published. Did John Steinbeck see this film? This movie features some nice camera work. I like the shot when Martha is attacked; the camera moves swiftly to the windows, as they open, then over to the bed, as if following a not-quite-visible character. The movie is presented in black and white, but has an interesting moment when the torches of the search party are in color. A note before the film starts tells us, “Hand-color sequence restoration by West Wing Studios, Inc. Fotokem.” By the way, the picture in this restored edition looks excellent.
This Blu-ray disc includes a commentary track by Sam Sherman, a film producer himself, responsible for Independent-International Pictures. He starts by talking about superstitions, and how they affect our lives. He also talks about producer Phil Goldstein, and about meeting some of the cast members. He mentions Bronson Canyon, and offers information about the tinted torches of the original print, and about that tinting process. He also gives some thoughts on the film’s music.
The special features also include Becoming The Son Of Melvyn Douglas, featuring an interview with Gregory Hesselberg who says, “I never connected emotionally with the man on the screen until very late in life.” Through watching his father’s old movies, he gets closer to his father. His father was not really present during his early childhood. He mentions that it was Melvyn Douglas’ performance in Inherit The Wind that first made him impressed with his father’s acting. This featurette features several still photographs.
This special edition of The Vampire Bat is scheduled to be released on April 25, 2017 through The Film Detective, in collaboration with UCLA Film & Television Archive.