Borrowed Time and Borrowed Sets

We all know Hollywood is far from ashamed of ripping itself off. If a movie makes money, more of those movies get made, be it direct sequels or films from other studios along the same theme – superheroes, fantasy adaptations, animated musicals, romantic comedies, found footage horror and so on.  Of course, such films usually arrive after the works that inspired them, rather than before. This wasn’t always the case.

Lionel AtwillCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Public DomainIn early 1933, Warner Bros prepared their latest big horror show, Mysteries of the Wax Museum for a February première. The studio backed Mysteries to cash-in on the contemporary horror boom by re-uniting the two stars of Doctor X (a hit for First National Pictures the previous year), the distinguished British-born lead Lionel Atwill and rising starlet Fay Wray. Warner Bros invested a great deal in promotion for their first colour horror film and word spread of the forthcoming hit, not least of all to other film companies. Although studios turned movies over much faster back in the thirties, the bigger studios still moved slower than their Poverty Row counterparts, the small companies who often shot a film in ten days and got the finished product to cinemas almost as fast, studios like Republic, Monogram, PRC and, in this instance, Majestic.

Sensing an opportunity to cut ahead of a major studio picture, Majestic rushed its own horror film into production, signing up both Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray to appear in The Vampire Bat, and throwing in Dwight Frye of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) fame for good measure. Majestic’s tight budgets meant no color filming, but the company saved money through a lease deal with Universal to use some of their discarded sets. This means we see the same European village streets as in Frankenstein, and the house inhabited by Lionel Atwill’s character matches the main set of The Old Dark House (1932), providing The Vampire Bat’s other star, Melvyn Douglas, familiar ground on which to perform his heroics.       

The Vampire Bat starts in familiar manner, both visually and thematically, as from those reused streets, we see bats alighting at the dead of night in some gothic middle European village, as a man limps along the cobbles with a walking stick. The man, Kringen, watches as the bats gather by an open upper window, from which a woman shrieks in terror - a death-scream.

The burgermeister (Lionel Belmore, another refugee from Frankenstein) convenes a meeting the next day with three councilors and Karl Brettschnieder (Melvyn Douglas), who has arrived in the village of Kleinschloss to investigate a series of murders in the village. The council blame vampires, pointing to the village’s bat infestation, the victims’ lack of blood and an account of vampirism from 1643 noted in the village records. The murdered villagers die in their sleep, and one counselor tells Karl of how he shutters up his room each night, and keeps the windows barred, so no-one can gain access. Karl resists replying that the councilors needn’t worry about anyone getting into their bedroom at night; if the council represent the villagers, then the monsters must look terrifying. A clever surmise of the villagers’ fears comes when the group hear a distant howl from outside. “That’s it!” cries a counsellor. “What?” asks Karl. “I don’t know,” is the reply. Karl scoffs at all this superstitious nonsense although his investigations are going nowhere.  

Karl heads for that great cinematic symbol of science, a laboratory, with its elaborate, well-A labCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Häßler, Ulrichconstructed array of pipes, flasks, test-tubes and retort stands of the sort we always hoped we’d get to play with in school science lessons. In this array is Fay Wray, playing Ruth Bertin, working for Dr von Niemann as his regulation pretty female lab assistant with regulation corrugated 1930s hairstyle. Ruth and Karl create a chemical reaction of their own, and they kiss, before Karl bemoans the lack of clues to the spate of deaths, from the increasing pile of dead bodies; at least the villagers had some sort of theory to work on, Karl. This romantic discussion over the horrific deaths of various wizened villagers is interrupted by Ruth’s Aunt Gussie (Maude Eburn), a comic relief hypochondriac who claims vampires don't scare her while clearly terrified at the idea. Comic relief characters are often aunts, for which I blame P G Wodehouse, though Aunt Gussie also channels Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. in her mock-courage and fear of anything that moves.

Ruth and Karl laugh at the frightened elderly neurotic as we cut to Ruth’s employer, Dr Otto von Niemann (Lionel Atwill), treating an even older and more frightened woman, Martha (Rita Carlisle), confined to bed after a nasty attack of the bats. Martha’s daughter Georgiana (Stella Adams), servant to von Niemann, shows the doctor a medicine her mother takes ‘with water’. Dr von Niemann takes a swig himself and recommends continuing the dosage (now there’s my kind of doctor).

Enter Herman Glieb (get used to this; Herman enjoys free range of every location in the film), unfortunate holder of the post of village idiot. Herman, who performs a high-wire act with sanity, likes bats and is upset at the talk against his friends. Dr von Neimann warns Herman against his pro-bat talk, in case the villagers hunt Herman down as a vampire and kill him. Well, the doctor doesn’t say that as such, but he might as well; he knows there’s little else for the uneducated middle European village peasant to do other than form mobs with flaming torches against the nearest odd-man-out. Maybe that’s why Herman is so edgy; village idiots tend to have a limited life expectancy in horror films.

Herman does himself no favours later by capturing a bat before the crowded village inn, stuffing the creature in his jacket pocket and laughing the villagers in as crazed a way as possible before running away. Oh Herman, there’s being insane, and there’s being plain silly.

Dr von Niemann arrives home, coat worn from the shoulders in a way you just don’t see these days, and enters a room through a secret door. We don’t see what’s in there, but we can guess it isn’t full of puppies and Hello Kitty posters. Could the secret room connect the doctor to the murders? Well, duh.

Back at Martha’s, an unknown figure does a better job of finishing the old dear off than the bats, as the barflies at the inn decide Herman is a vampire, and therefore the murderer. We did try to warn you, Herman.

The next day, Dr von Neimman performs an autopsy on Martha, quite the spectator sport in those days, and Martha’s big occasion sees the whole village turn out to watch. Herman sneaks in, takes a look at the fatal neck wound and runs away. “A child fleeing at the sight of death,” is Dr von Niemann’s opinion. Kringen claims he is Herman’s next victim and runs off in panic. Keeping his head while others are fearing for their own, Dr von Niemann feels an animal might be responsible for the deaths after all, quoting the case of vampire bats of the Amazon, and we also ‘know’ vampires can change shape...puzzled as to why von Niemann is espousing such unlikely views keeps Karl as baffled as ever.

With the killer obvious to us, if not to Karl, the film takes a detour through the scenic route of comedy, with Aunt Gussie our guide, as she uses a stethoscope on herself and explains to Dr von Niemann she can hear a terrible thumping sound in her chest. This, as the patient doctors explains to the patient, is what science calls a ‘heartbeat’. Ruth flirts with Karl by making him kiss an apple while outside, Herman lurks in the bushes and distracts Aunt Gussie by with cat impersonations, to steal some fruit. Aunt Gussie takes pity on Herman, and returns indoors to find food for him, only to step into a worrying conversation between Karl and Dr von Niemann, who is definitely way too interested in vampires. The burgermeister enters with the news of Kringen’s death. The villagers are in uproar, but Karl remains reasonable; who will find Herman first, the stake or the law?

Oblivious to these developments, Herman tears up a newspaper for reasons best known to Great DaneCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Jon Hurdhimself, as Aunt Gussie, now more nervous than ever, brings him food. Herman is so pleased he presents the old bat with a new bat. Aunt Gussie faints, Herman departs, and a Great Dane appears, adding to the sense The Vampire Bat stole a march on Scooby-Doo let alone Mysteries of the Wax Museum. Waking up, Aunt Gussie believes the dog is a vampiric transformation of Herman’s and runs screaming back into the house, followed by the gamboling Great Dane who didn’t spend four years in dog acting school for such disrespect. Inside, Aunt Gussie downs a medicinal beaker of foaming liquid Dr Jekyll would pour down the sink, and lets out a pre-Hayes Code belch.

The standard version of The Vampire Bat runs for 62 minutes, but many multi-pack DVD versions run at only 59 minutes, with the above sequence cut for space, or to spare the viewer’s aching ribs. At least one source quotes a running time of 67 minutes, and I hope every second of those extra five minutes includes Aunt Gussie and the Great Dane.

Back at the plot, Martha’s crucifix is found in the bedroom of Dr von Niemann’s other assistant, Emil (Robert Frazer), arousing suspicion, while the quaint, traditional Unruly Mob of Villagers with Flaming Torches chases Herman into a cave. Portraying the cave is another old friend of the movies, Bronson Canyon (a disused quarry in Griffith Park, Los Angeles), whose most famous role came in 1953 with Robot Monster, where it also played a cave. Cornered onto a ledge, Herman falls to his death. One of the councilors makes sure of the job and drives a stake through the dead man’s heart. It’s nice to see a politician who isn’t bothered about small government and gets involved on a personal level.

Only forty minutes into the film, the next scene reveals the truth - Dr von Niemann is responsible for the deaths (surprise!). Emil is the dupe, performing the murders under his nefarious employer’s hypnotic control (there’s an interesting metaphor for labour relations for you). This time, the victim is Georgiana and Emil brings the body to the lab, where Dr von Niemann needs blood to feed his experiment, a rather unprepossessing-looking sponge inside a tank. Far from being bat bites, the distinctive 'wounds' are where von Niemann siphons off the blood of the victims to feed his creation, the living sponge. Emil returns Georgiana's body to bed once her 'donation' is complete.

A little later, Karl, Ruth and Aunt Gussie pay a call on Doctor von Niemann for coffee, served from some devilish contraption resembling a brass octopus. The doctor admits to coffee as his one great weakness, just as Aunt Gussie finds Georgiana slacking, in both senses, upstairs. Aunt Gussies faints and is found by Emil, who cannot understand how he slept through the commotion. Emil helpfully explains he dozed off at around ten and now has forty-five minutes of missing time he’s not getting back anytime soon. Von Niemann observes of the death that Herman visited earlier, hint hint.  

The burgermeister returns with the good news of Herman’s brutal death. Dr von Niemann’s alibi dies too when the burgemeister tells us Herman died at nine o’clock and so couldn’t be responsible for Georgiana’s death at ten o’clock, as not even Swiss vampires are that efficient. Karl brings all his deductive powers to bear on the case and decides “a human agency is at work, a madman.” Dr von Niemann could not look shiftier as Karl paces around on the spot, delivering such gems as “murderers leave clues” and “Why would the killer need blood?” Von Niemann advises Karl to sleep on the problem and hands him a bottle of sleeping tablets labelled, I kid you not, ‘poison: sleeping tablets.’ It gets the point across, I guess.

Later that night, we see a figure on the roof; Emil, under hypnotic control again, climbs through the window of Karl’s room and kills him in his sleep. OR DOES HE?

Ruth wanders into Dr von Niemann’s drawing room and is understandably curious about why her employer his talking aloud about killing someone. Found out, von Niemann careens full pelt into madness, signified as ever in horror by the over-ripe speech: “life created in a lab...I have erected life from life!”

Overcome by this cheese, Ruth awakens strapped to a chair before the vaunted sponge, the life von Niemann created. Emil enters the lab with a body – but it isn’t Emil, it’s Karl in disguise, carrying the comatose assistant. Looks like Karl’s the sort who always reads the label. Karl pulls a gun on the doctor; Emil awakens; a struggle breaks out. Emil grabs the gun as Karl rescues Ruth and carries her out of the lab. Shots ring out; Emil has killed the evil doctor and taken his own life. A downbeat ending, but don’t worry, here’s Aunt Gussie to brighten up the finale. To give herself a pick-me-up, clever old Auntie downs some hydrated magnesium sulphate, but suddenly finds herself indisposed. As she runs upstairs, Ruth and Karl realise Aunt Gussie has overdosed on Epsom salts and our parting shot of The Vampire Bat is of an old lady in a desperate hurry to reach the bathroom before something worse happens than Dr von Niemann’s foul experiments.

Fay WrayCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Dr MarcoLionel Atwill, who made a career of playing shady colonels and immoral aristocrats, plays Dr von Niemann with his trademark air of stern feline solemnity, a big cat with better things to do than listen to silly little humans. Atwill turned in an archetypal 1930s and 1940s filmography, appearing in Mr Moto, Charlie Chan, Dr Kildare and Abbot & Costello pictures, as well as two Sherlock Holmes films (including 1942’s Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, as Professor Moriarty) and five of Universal’s monster series, starting with Son of Frankenstein in 1939. Fay Wray soon secured her place in cinematic legend as the imperiled Ann Darrow in King Kong (1933), but found the giant ape cast a mighty long shadow. Wray retired from films in 1942, returning to acting eleven years later, concentrating on TV work. Wray died in 2004, at the age of 96, a film icon to several generations of film-goers.

The Vampire Bat is a brisk film, making up for in pace what it lacks in originality. The film’s speedy production tells in some choppy editing and a script bordering too often on the obvious, but director Frank Strayer, later to put in sterling work on the Blondie series, directs with what panache he can manage under severe budgetary restrictions. Landing somewhere between a horror, a dark thriller and a whodunit, The Vampire Bat, like the bats in the film, is a harmless and diverting thing, but lacking the bite of its scarier cousins.