A mysterious plague of deaths has struck the sleepy village of Kleinschloss, and the superstitious townsfolk immediately jump to the conclusion of vampires, suspecting the bat-fancying simpleton Herman. The local inspector Karl Breettschneider has other ideas though, determined that a more human murderer is at work here. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Ruth works for a mild-mannered local scientist, who is conducting innocuous experiments in his castle home. However, unbeknownst to the rest of the village, Dr. von Niemann has other more sinister motives at play...
The Vampire Bat is everything great about 1930s horror! There's murder, mystery, and mayhem, all in a classic time and place. A somewhat creative mix of old and new, it's a fairly simple tale. That way it focuses on what's important and pays enough attention to that for everything to be sufficiently fleshed out.
The Vampire Bat was a low budget production, shot in the off-hours of more 'important' pictures. This is a surprise to hear, as it's a very good looking movie! The cobblestoned village looks great, feeling like a convincing Germanic location, while the castles and laboratories are all neat, filled to the brim with fancy looking doodads.
The main villain here is a neat one! Kind at first glance, he turns malevolent behind closed doors, and makes for a spooky presence, even if he is only human. The 'vampiric' manservant though was a bit confusing. I understood his role by the end, but that's a little late. Herman is a good red herring, acting very creepy, but we know he's not actually bad, just different. And he ends up suffering dearly for it!
Sadly there is not an actual vampire here, or even a giant bat, but that's ok, since it'd only validate these superstitious assholes if it turned out vampires were real (plus, it helps we already have plenty of movies that fit those bills). The actual solution ends up being surprisingly different, taking the movie into more abstract Frankenstein territory, almost to the point of mild science-fiction. It's a neat mix, coming up without you realising, and not feeling out of left field when it shows up.
The remainder of the cast are effective enough in their small but important roles. At only an hour long, The Vampire Bat doesn't want for any extra story, telling plenty to fill out the runtime, and wrapping everything up satisfactorily. The only thing I feel it lacks is punishment for the bastards who killed poor Herman! They oughta have been strung up and exsanguinated!
Melvyn Douglas is a fine lead, just your typical handsome fellow. Fay Wray is always a treat to see, and delivers a good performance, both as a lighthearted romantic plus scientist, and also as a petrified damsel. A couple of lines come off a bit over the top, but she does well. Lionel Atwill is great as the villain, polite and unassuming, until he's exposed, and he rants and raves like a quintessential mad scientist. Dwight Frye is great as the creepy yet gentle Herman, while Robert Frazer does well in his Dracula-esque role. And lastly, Maude Eburn makes for a decent comic relief.
The direction in The Vampire Bat is stellar. The shots are frequently stylish and brilliantly arranged, even in moments where they didn't need to be. This goes to show just how much the people behind the scenes cared about this production.
One drawback that does affect the movie though is the lack of soundtrack. In some scenes the silence works well (or even works wonders), but in others you wish there was a traditional atmospheric track playing, to run a shiver down your spine. Instead there's nothing. I didn't even realise until late into the film, but once I did I was able to put my finger on what felt missing the whole time.
The Vampire Bat is a nifty example of classical horror of the 30s, and like all movies of the time it has a good moral. To all scientists, it's really not sensible to bother creating life when it's only an inanimate ball of flesh that needs 10 corpses a week to survive. It's uncanny how movies like this could so perfectly understand human nature and offer us such wonderful teaching moments...