The Vampire Bat [Blu-ray]
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Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (23rd April 2017).
The Film

The Mitteleuropean village of Kleinschloss is in the grip of terror with the deaths of six residents found drained of their blood. Although the locals fear that a vampire is on the loose due to the sudden infestation of bats in the area, police inspector Karl Brettschneider (The Changeling's Melvyn Douglas) suspects a human culprit. He hopes for some logical answers from Dr. Otto von Niemann (House of Dracula's Lionel Atwill), the local scientist who conducts experiments in the village's local hilltop castle, but the good doc – for whom Karl's plucky girlfriend Ruth (King Kong's Fay Wray) is an assistant – is guarded in his opinions on such phenomena, noting that aside from the supernatural belief in vampires he has observed in his travels victims of vampire bat bites become blood drinkers themselves. When Martha the apple woman (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde's Rita Carlyle) becomes the next victim, town crier Kringen (The Man with the Golden Arm's George E. Stone) voices his suspicion of childlike misfit Herman (Dracula's Dwight Frye) who plays with bats and visited shortly before her death. The Bürgermeister (Frankenstein's Lionel Belmore), citing a seventeenth century epidemic of similar deaths that stopped when an accused man was hanged and staked, whips the populace into a superstitious mob who target Herman when Kringen is the next victim. Karl deputizes the village men to search for Herman and bring him back alive. Von Niemann's housekeeper Georgiana (Sing Sinner Sing's Stella Adams), however, has other suspicions about the identity of the vampire and makes the mistake of voicing them to the wrong person.

The last and least of three collaborations between Atwill and Wray after the MGM color duo Dr. X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Vampire Bat is nevertheless a suitably entertaining Poverty Row chiller with some pre-code blood spillage as well as some hand-painted effects during the sequence with the torch-wielding mob pursuing Herman into the very un-Mitteleuropean Bronson Caverns. While it is structured as a thriller, it does suffer from too many overfamiliar elements like the obvious red herring of the Reinfield-like Frye and a castle-bound mad doctor played by no less than Atwill (along with the White Zombie's Robert Frazer given a throwaway introduction only to be forgotten until more than half-way through picture but fooling no one). Comic relief comes in the form of Ruth's hypochondriac Aunt Gussie (To Be or Not To Be's Maude Eburne) – who faints dead away at the sight of Herman and wakes to believe a slobbering dog is the transformed vampire – but the hysterical pitch of some of the performances (unmatched by anything else in the picture) makes even a restrained Atwill look ridiculous well before the climax in which he provides an explanation for his actions that really tells us nothing at all about his experiments behind the locked door in his laboratory. Of her lady in peril roles, Wray has the least to do here before she is tied up for the finale; she does, however, do more to investigate the mystery in a single scene than Douglas' police detective who also seems to get the drop on one of the perpetrators by not taking the advice of the villain's advice rather than suspecting anything about them. The film does manage atmosphere on a budget (one of Modern Times cinematographer Ira Morgan's sweeping crane shots is reused minutes after it appeared the first time) and is comparable to the competing Universal horrors of the period (screenwriter Edward T. Lowe would subsequently script House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein).

Video

Long available on the public domain circuit on VHS and DVD from the usual suspects (presumably from Medallion TV prints), The Vampire Bat is presented on BD-R in a 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC pillarboxed 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive from the original negative looking often as good as the restorations of pre-code genre studio fare. The film's optical wipes (which were missing from some prints) are a little grainier and there are some missing frames here and there, but this is without doubt the best the film has looked on home video. The opening night scene has some grayish shadows but that may be the flare of a street lamp as shadows in the reverse angles are satisfyingly deeper, as are the blacks in subsequent night exteriors and interiors. It is not specified how the hand-painted torch shots were restored. If they were done digitally then they cannot still be credited to painter Gustav Brock but they are striking nonetheless.

Audio

The sole audio option is a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track that is relatively clean and intelligible throughout. Apart from the titles, there is no music and sound effects are also minimal. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided.

Extras

Extras include an Audio Commentary by filmmaker Sam Sherman, producer/distributor of Independent-International and something of a film historian in his own right (having contributed commentaries to releases of title he has produced and distributed). He starts off by reciting Majestic Pictures' promotional presentations for the film which cite the material effect of superstition on our daily lives before conveying what knowledge of producer Phil Goldstone (Damaged Goods) he has been able to glean over the years, including how he came from wealth and was able to loan major studios money in return for the free use of their studio facilities and contract players for his own smaller productions, his founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well as running a successful upscale Hollywood hotel in which he freely housed soldiers returning from the war in the forties. He also discusses how the film and other Majestic Pictures productions came to be owned by fellow poverty row western producer William M. Pizor (The House of Terror) who licensed them to Medallion Television in the fifties before his death in 1959, with the revenue passing on to his son Irwin Pizor who would leave sixties/seventies exploitation distributor Hemisphere Pictures where he would expand upon The Vampire Bat's hand-tinting to apply full silent film-type tints to the Filipino vampire film The Blood Drinkers which had been shot partially in color and finished in black and white when the color stock ran out (Pizor later left Hemisphere to work with Sherman at Independent-International). He also notes that film's work-for-hire director Fred R. Strayer - who would direct the twelve Blondie in the space of four years - would the thematically-similar Condemned to Live two years later for rival poverty row picture company Invincible Pictures (even more interesting considering one of the TV reissue titles of The Vampire Bat was Forced to Sin). He also provides recollections of his own encounters with Douglas and Wray (who was at the time reticent to talk about her horror films but would warm up to them again when she penned her autobiography). "Becoming the Son of Melyvn Douglas" (7:03) is an interview with the actor's son interview with Gregory Hesselberg who did not really get to know his father until he was fourteen, and only now getting to know his father's earlier roles in films like The Vampire Bat.

Overall

The Vampire Bat is a clunky but suitably entertaining Poverty Row chiller comparable to the competing Universal horrors of the period.

 


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