Nice cast for a ‘B’ grade horror movie: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Melvyn Douglas. Atwill is Dr. von Niemann, a mysterious, suspicious big-wig in Kleineschloss. Wray is Ruth, Maude Ebern is her Aunt Gussie, Douglas is Police Inspector Karl Brettschneider who, along with the Burgermeister (Lionel Belman) tries to figure out why bloodless corpses turn up in the village. There’s even a village idiot, Herman (Dwight Frye).
A wolf-like cry, and bats flitting around on a dark (withal, not a stormy night). The Burgermeister hosts a meeting at which notables discuss the local murders, which look suspiciously like the work of vampires and/or vampire bats. “This unseen, unsightly death” has them unsettled.
Meanwhile, Karl meets Ruth in Von Neiman’s basement lab. Back in the Mueller household, Von Neiman treats Martha Mueller (Rita Carlyle) for a bat attack, while the ghoulish Herman skulks about. He not only likes bats, he even carries one his pocket.
Karl meets von Niemann in his lab, but the Dr. brushes him off. The next day, Martha’s dead; the villagers think maybe Hermann is the vampire/murderer–given his odd behavior, and his fondness for bats. Kringen (George E. Stone) thinks he’s in imminent danger, as Herman creeps him out. Also, Ruth’s Aunt Gussie (Maude Ebern) fears a few dozen ailments. Herman seems to be everywhere–offering Gussie his bat for an apple.
As Niemann, Karl, Ruth, and Gussie discuss vampire history, the Burgermeister bursts in with news of more killings and disappearances. Now Niemann’s assistant Emil (Robert Frazer) becomes a suspect in Martha’s death. Poor Herman is on the run, hiding from a lynch mob in a cave. He leaps to his death to avoid capture.
Looks like Niemann has a sort of psychic control over Emil; he directs him to kidnap his housekeeper, Georgianna (Stella Adams), for his lab experiments. Sure enough, she’s soon discovered dead. “It passes all belief” says Karl. Conveniently, Martha’s incriminating crucifix is found near Georgianna’s corpse, exonerating Emil and everyone else except Herman–except of course that he’s dead.
Karl and the Burgermeister realize the vampire theory doesn’t hold water. But “why should anyone want human blood?” Karl wonders aloud. Niemann tries to poison Karl. Someone is on the roof, and sneaks outside Karl’s room. It’s Emil, under Niemann’s control. Unfortunately for Niemann, Ruth hears him commanding Emil.
“Life, created in the laboratory!” Niemann exhorts. Obviously, she’ll be the next victim. Emil shows up carrying Karl’s limp body. But it’s actually Karl carrying Emil. Karl has a gun on Niemann; but there’s a scuffle, Emil and Niemann kill each other. All’s well.
The Vampire Bat came off pretty well. It’s fairly obvious from the start that von Niemann is up to no good, but the mystery involves just exactly what he’s doing that causes the murders. The atmosphere really sells the vampire theme; the bat motif enhances this. Herman embodies all the creepiness of Renfield from Dracula.
There’s a lot going on, and, though the plot’s simple, the pacing deftly shifts among Niemann, Karl/Ruth, and Herman, with plenty of slideshows featuring Aunt Gussie and the villagers. There’s a thick comic layer as well. In a macabre sense, Herman is a great send-up of the ‘harmless madman’ type whom no one takes seriously until everyone else goes nuts and blames him.
A running joke (maybe also a comment on the scientific genius characters common in this sort of movie) is the medical terminology tossed off by Gussie and Ruth. No one really listens to them, probably because they seem smarter than anyone else.
One thing I couldn’t figure out is that at least half the characters seemed to live at von Niemann’s. Except for some visits into the village, they’re cloistered around Niemann. Another thing, Karl is not very convincing as a policeman–plus, he doesn’t do much investigating until nearly the end
Farmermouse thought the bats were about as scruffy as he is, so he gives The Vampire Bat seven little bats. 7/10.