The setting is Kleinschloss, Germany, probably sometime around the modern day, if we're going to jduge by clothes, though the attitude of the local populace is decades behind the curve. Seems Kleinschloss has been suffering from two plagues of late: on the one hand, a large number of unusually aggressive bats have been infesting the town. On the other, there have been a distressing number of exsanguination deaths, with the victims all sporting a pair of pristine holes through their necks to the jugular vein. Take those two things in hand together, and it almost inevitably spells "vampire", but at least one man, police inspector Karl Brettschneider (Melvyn Douglas), thinks that's a load of absolute bullshit. He's been unable to do much in the way of proving that he's right and the rest of town is a bunch of superstitious ninnies, mind you, and the more bodies pile up, the more tense the population is getting, to the point that they're ready to snap. While Karl, his girlfriend Ruth Bertin (Fay Wray, who'd already filmed her career-marking roles in Mystery of the Wax Museum and King Kong, though this film beat those to theaters), and her lodger Dr. Otto von Niemann (Lionel Atwill) work to find some kind of scientific answer to the goings-on, the kind of mob that tends to spontaneously form in movies like this has allowed circumstantial evidence to indict Herman Gleib (Dwight Frye), a transparent knock-off of Dracula's Renfield, right down to the actor playing both parts. And Herman is certainly creepy as all get-out with his freakish adoration of the bats that the rest of the town hates, and his uncomfortably close affection for Martha (Rita Carlyle), the latest victim of the "vampire". But we've got no reason to doubt him, and ever reason to fear for his safety just as much as Karl does. Particularly since we get to meet the real killer long before Gleib ends up running for his life from the mob.
It's no vampire, either - Universal may have paved the road for horror movies with actual monsters from the bowels of hell, but it took a while for that particular innovation to filter into all that many American movies, and The Vampire Bat eschews ghouls for simple monstrous humanst. Yet it finds space for a peculiar, entirely unexplained hypnotism subplot, so it's not entirely allergic to the paranormal.
But still, this is a movie that's deeply undecided what to do with this new thing, "horror", that it has available to it. The opening scene, barring a frantic montage establishing the nightmare that is life in Kleinschloss, is something of a case study in not quite knowing how much faith the audience will have in the film, or how much trust the film can afford to have in the audience. As remarkable as it is to say, 36 years after the novel Dracula appeared, 62 after Carmilla, and 114 after Polidori's short story "The Vampyre", The Vampire Bat is so dubious about its own subject matter that it goes to all the bother of explaining, in extensive detail, what vampires are and what they do. That this scene is palatable at all is due almost exclusively to Douglas, a sarcastic, modernist presence whose sharp energy helps to ease the clumsiness of the writing (and it is enormously clumsy - "Gott im Himmel, don't jest!" is a representative sample of the flop-sweaty Germanisms wedged into the script, and if I wanted to share a sample of the film's puffy exposition, I'd have to spend the next half-hour transcribing bloated monologues). Hindsight's a cheat, but it's not remotely surprising that the actor quickly burst from cheap quickies like this to major studio productions: in the most casual ways conceivable, he acts the pants off of everybody who shares the screen with him, possessing a more distinctive and cutting personality than the rest of the human cast combined. And he manages to add momentum and excitement to the film's rather indulgent reliance on "let's stand around the thing and talk" scenes, enough of them that I'm a little stunned to report that the movie is, in fact, not based on a stage play.
I should be fair and mention that, while Douglas is objectively the best in show, the leads are all pretty solid. Wray is let down by a part that is never more interesting or deep than in her first scene, when she's a focused science-adjacent young woman, and not yet just the romantic adjunct to the main plot, but Atwill's increasingly frayed man of science is one of the reliable character actor's more complicated creations, and Frye blends creepiness with sweet pathos in a lovely way, giving a vastly better performance here than managed to in Dracula. Maude Eburne, stranded in the absolutely unlikable role of the daffy old lady (Ruth's aunt, and Dr. von Niemann's hypochondriac patient), manages to even make the comic relief not as shrill as the writing easily could have encouraged it to be.
The real star of the show, though, is the film's attitude, partially effected by director Frank R. Strayer, who marches the script ruthlessly through its paces (the film's running time, which is variable from source to source, is never reported as more than a few minutes over one hour, and it firmly refuses to dick around with that short allotment of time), while allowing the unstated menace haunting the town to linger in the background and in the spaces where actors say nothing. That's the other thing that drives the attitude: this is actually a fairly brutal, clipped movie, for something made in a nominally more innocent time. Being pre-Code helped The Vampire Bat considerably; it can indulge in a harrowing death for a character who doesn't deserve it, and a shockingly matter-of-fact revelation of unspeakable viciousness on the part of another.
It also benefits from being enormously cheap and efficient: while the sprawling style and atmosphere of a Frankenstein is deeply rewarding in its own way, there's a lot to like about the brusqueness of The Vampire Bat. With no opportunity to slow down and dwell on things, the movie's unfussy look suggests a much more natural, everyday sensibility: the Mitteleuropean sets, looking like a hundred others from the same era, are unexpectedly naturalistic, with Strayer and cinematographer Ira H. Morgan saving the particularly complex, vivid shots for moment of punctuation, or especially intense terror in the characters' lives. As a result, those moments land much harder. And we see in this kind of impulse the seeds of setpiece-driven film production.
Enough is wrong with the film that it can't be regarded as a lost masterpiece: the hypnotism angle is a confusing distraction that writer Edward T. Lowe, Jr. never thinks about resolving, while the necessary expository slowness hasn't aged at all well, now that we all know all about vampires and Gothic derangement in European towns. And the decision to end the movie, an enormously sober look at mob rule, intellectual overreach, and basic human indecency, with a gag about an old lady who has the shits so bad that she might not even make it up the stairs without messing herself - seriously, by the standards of 1933 taste and censorship, it might as well be the diarrhea scene from Bridesmaids - is so peculiar that it transcends "bad filmmaking" into some kind of crypto-Surrealism.
What it can and should be regarded as, though, is a not-quite-great encapsulation of all the things horror was trying to be in the first years as it coalesced out of the ether: society in terror, rich visual atmosphere, pretty girls being menaced, reasonable choices turning into something awful. And there are elements to it that are notable for how little they resemble the horror of the '30s or anytime after: this is a movie in which horror is a strictly human-driven concern, for example, and not even the nicest characters are exempt from culpability, which is the really striking part. It's an invaluable time capsule, anyway, showcasing how much had been achieved by 1933, and how much was left to do. It's nowhere close to the best horror film of the 1930s, but it is maybe the best combination of wide-ranging success with utterly typical elements, and any historically-minded aficionado of the genre owes it to themselves to investigate the singular peculiarities of this one.
Body Count: A whopping 6, a spectacular bloodbath for such an early entry in the nascent genre. And that's not even counting the apparently hefty number of deaths summarised in the opening montage.