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Saturday, April 1, 2017
Who'd have thought, back when we were watching dark, battered prints of this on public domain DVDs, that one day we'd get to see it on Blu-ray in (almost) tip-top shape and in all its original glory?
Thanks to a new HD restoration by The Film Detective (in conjunction with UCLA Film & Television Archive) that day is today, and the golden-age horror classic THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933) hasn't looked this good in ages.
Sure, there are still imperfections--this thing is ancient, after all, and has been in the public domain for a very long time--but heck, I love for a film to have SOME imperfections, if only for nostalgic value.
For the most part, however, this cinematic treasure is bright, sharp, and clear, and oh, does that glorious black-and-white photography ever look gorgeous. Especially when the equally gorgeous leading lady Fay Wray is gracing the screen.
Sharing the cast list with Fay is the exquisitely evil Lionel Atwill as Dr. Otto von Niemann, a scientist--a very mad one, as it turns out--conducting some rather unsavory experiments in the laboratory of his castle in a small German village.
Fay is his unsuspecting lab assistant Ruth, whose boyfriend, police inspector Karl Brettschneider (Melvyn Douglas) is stymied by a rash of murders in which the victims are found dead in their beds, drained of blood, with two puncture wounds on their throats.
In a reversal of the Van Helsing character in DRACULA two years earlier, Karl is the only man in town who DOESN'T believe the deaths are the work of a vampire. Everyone else suspects Herman, a half-wit who loves bats (of which the village seems to have an inordinate amount fluttering about and hanging from trees).
Herman is played wonderfully by the great Dwight Frye, in a performance both disturbing and sympathetic. Dwight deftly blends elements from some of his other characters such as FRANKENSTEIN's hunchbacked assistant Fritz and the cackling madman Renfield from DRACULA.
Here, however, he's simply a pathetic outsider whom the townspeople regard as a pariah and eventually hunt down as members of the usual torch-bearing mob (with the torches beautifully hand-tinted in color as in the original release prints).
Meanwhile, the vampire murders continue to terrorize the countryside as Atwill's supremely sinister Dr. Niemann carries on his unholy experiments. As in DR. X. and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM before it, THE VAMPIRE BAT features yet another climactic encounter between Atwill and seminal scream queen Fay, while Niemann's assistant Emil (played by Robert Frazer of 1932's WHITE ZOMBIE), under Niemann's hypnotic spell, is ordered to kill Karl in his sleep.
Scripted by Edward T. Lowe (HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HOUSE OF DRACULA), this independent production has hints of the Universal Pictures style along with some of their familiar players such as Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, and Melvyn Douglas (of James Whale's THE OLD DARK HOUSE).
Director Frank R. Strayer (THE MONSTER WALKS, CONDEMNED TO LIVE) has a restrained yet fluid style during the more frenetic scenes, and a pleasingly stagelike handling of the longer dialogue exchanges.
While nowhere near as stylish as Whale, Strayer does share that director's fondness for comedy relief in the form of Maude Eburne as Ruth's hypochondriac Aunt Gussie. If you enjoy the comedy stylings of Whale favorite Una O'Connor--I do, many don't--chances are you'll find Eburne a welcome relief from the grim proceedings surrounding her character.
Strayer uses lots of wide shots but then rewards us with some frame-able closeups of the lovely Fay and the not-so-lovely Atwill and Frye. Production design is well-done and highly atmospheric. Some of the laboratory scenes are rather morbid in this pre-Code era. There's no musical score save for brief snippets of library music during the opening and closing, but this only adds to the somber mood.
The Blu-ray for this special restored edition is in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with Dolby Digital sound. It is, in the words of the press release, "restored from a 35mm composite acetate fine grain master and a 35mm nitrate print." Extras consist of a charming featurette by Film Detective featuring Melvyn Douglas' son, and a wall-to-wall audio commentary by film historian Sam Sherman which is scholarly and informative.
It's nice to see this neglected gem reintroduced to the public in this form after languishing in the public domain for so long. For lovers of vintage black-and-white films, golden age horror, Fay Wray, and classic film in general, watching this version of THE VAMPIRE BAT is like viewing fine art or savoring a vintage wine. That is, if you drink...wine.
Buy it at Amazon.com
Release date: April 25, 2017