Despite its title, The Vampire Bat probably has more in common with Frankenstein than Dracula because of the way it stitches together parts of so many past horror movies. Bouncing off the phony-vampire ruse of London After Midnight and the bat-mimicking murderer of The Bat, this Poverty Row programmer also sprinkles in a villagers-and-torches hunt straight out of Frankenstein, Dwight Frye recreating Renfield (complete with iconic giggle), a bit of rooftop stalking yanked from Murders in the Rue Morgue, and a cast of horror mainstays that includes the eternally creepy Lionel Atwill, the gorgeous and affable Fay Wray, and Melvyn Douglas, the horror hero David Manners might have been if Manners had a personality.
That sublime cast and director Frank R. Strayer’s prowling camerawork help The Vampire Bat to flap above its patchwork origins. A bizarre climax involving some sort of pulsating monster meatloaf in a fish tank also helps disguise the fact that it is a horror film that tends to pull its punches and engage in a bit too much silly comic relief by way of the shrill Maude Eburne. Nevertheless, The Vampire Bat affords Frye his juiciest horror role aside from Dracula, and that is no small thing, even if Edward T. Lowe’s script forces him to talk like Tonto.
Essentially, The Vampire Bat is a mixed bag. So is The Film Detective’s new DVD. The company’s restoration of the film from 35mm elements boasts a host of video issues. There are scratches, missing frames, stability problems, speckles, washed out shots, and shots that almost look like they were captured on video. However, taken as a whole, the film actually looks good. Quite a number of shots are astoundingly crisp for a picture from 1933 that probably wasn’t at the top of anyone’s to-preserve list. Compared to the mutilated prints on all those cut-rate collections of public domain horror pictures out there, this restoration is revelatory. Plus this new disc restores a startling sequence in which those rampaging villagers wield hand-colored torches of red and yellow, which you probably won’t see on the budget DVDs. With The Vampire Bat, The Film Detective also gets into the bonus material game with a dry yet informative audio commentary from film historian Sam Sherman and a poignant seven-minute featurette in which Melvyn Douglas’s son Gregory Hesselberg discusses his troubled relationship with his dad.