Dwight Frye-days is a column where I will explore the films of Dwight Frye, arguably the first method actor and a personal favorite of mine. During October, I will be exploring the horror films in Frye’s filmography. Today’s movie is The Vampire Bat starring Lionel Atwill (Mystery of the Wax Museum, Son of Frankenstein), Fay Wray (King Kong, The Most Dangerous Game), Melvyn Douglas (Hud, Being There), and the star of this column Dwight Frye (most well known for Fritz in Frankenstein and Renfield in Dracula).
I’m not a huge fan of the 1931 Dracula film. In my opinion, Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye are really the only great things about it. But I do love a good classic vampire film, so I was incredibly pleased when The Vampire Bat ended up being fantastic. Even though it’s less of a horror film and more a whodunit mystery, The Vampire Bat is deeply rooted in vampire mythology and incredibly engaging throughout.
The Vampire Bat is an early example of a small time studio capitalizing on the free press of high profile films from bigger studios. This tradition of B studios is a cornerstone of horror cinema, with the likes of Asylum flogging cheap quickies on the back of big name studio projects. But this is hardly an Asylum joint; the filmmakers cared about delivering a quality film here after all. The Vampire Bat was Majestic Studios’ way of taking advantage of the hype surrounding Warner Bro’s upcoming The Mystery of the Wax Museum by hiring its stars Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill and releasing it earlier, in turn gaining some widespread publicity. Wray and Atwill had already proven themselves a hot property the year before with the successful horror film Doctor X, so hiring them while they were on a wave of momentum was a sound business move.
The ruse worked well as they were able to get The Vampire Bat into theatres a month before The Mystery of the Wax Museum’s release. Granted, the studio would go out of business soon after as they were unable to cope with the financial burdens of The Great Depression. But they left behind a film still worth talking about 83 years later, and that’s pretty damn neat.
The Vampire Bat starts out with a five minute scene of people talking about recent murders and how they must have been committed by a vampire. They then proceed to lay out all the ground rules of the superstitions the characters in this movie believe. It also establishes most of the main players, most notably Lionel Atwill as Dr. Otto von Niemann, who spearheads the suspicion of vampiric involvement. Melvyn Douglas plays Karl Breettschneider, the incredibly sceptical police inspector who isn’t so easily swayed by superstitions and the supernatural. It’s incredibly fun to see the entire town, except for Karl, believing in the reality of a vampire when usually in films of this ilk it’s the other way round.
The acting is this film is all-round great, but it’s the writing that really shines. It’s got a lot of mystery, a lot of great comedic moments, Dwight Frye’s incredibly tragic Herman character, and one freaking epic twist. The set pieces are pretty great as well. Interestingly, the settings from two James Whale films, Frankenstein (1931) and The Old Dark House (1932), were reused for The Vampire Bat, so that should give you an idea of its quality backdrops. Furthermore, the cinematography is really quite exquisite, courtesy of Ira H. Morgan whose work has been considered instrumental in the transformation of the Silent era to ‘talkie’ pictures.
Now let’s talk about Dwight Frye. Frye plays Herman, a slightly weird and off character who’s known by all the townsfolk. He wanders around a lot, talks to all the older ladies, and keeps a live bat in his jacket pocket. His oddness tends to put people off as well as give off the vibe that he may be the vampire everyone is looking for, especially when he’s often found hanging out with bats that have just recently started infesting the town. Frye plays this character phenomenally, giving us a character who is comedic, caring, and incredibly tragic and misunderstood throughout the film. From the moment he appears on screen, coming to the dying Martha (Rita Carlisle) to express how he cares for her only to accidentally set off her fear of bats, to his final scene which is incredibly sad, his acting is miles above the rest of the cast. He plays off them well and has great chemistry, but they all pale in comparison, as usual.
Vampire Bat is a wonderful vampire tale, even though the twist at the end might put people off. It’s very well acted, looks fantastic, and the script is a wonderful blend of humor, mystery, and horror. My only problem with the film is the slightly unsatisfying ending, which lacked explanation. A little bit more information to tie up the loose ends and give us a better idea of what went on would have been appreciated. However, Dwight Frye shines in this and brings incredible depth, as usual, to a character most would deem as a strange outsider. For fans of his work in both Dracula and Frankenstein this is a must watch.
Stay tuned for next Frye-day when I talk about the loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial” short story, The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935).