Monday, April 17, 2017

Dwight Frye and THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933)

The legend surrounding Dwight Frye was that he wanted to show his humorous side. As a young actor he'd appeared in several comedies on the Broadway stage, but as far as Hollywood was concerned, Frye was destined to be a second string bogeyman. In fact, the little actor known as "The Man with the Thousand Watt Stare" played some of the creepiest characters in movie history.

He got off to an impressive start in 1931 by playing the fly-eating Renfield in Dracula and the conniving hunchback Fritz in Frankenstein. This should've convinced Universal that a formidable new star had arrived, someone who could be a match for Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi. Instead, Frye toiled in secondary roles; he was usually killed off early. 

In the sort of unfortunate twist that has always prevailed in Hollywood, Frye was stuck playing madmen and degenerates. He made the best of it, though. He nearly outdid himself in 1933 when he appeared for Majestic Studios in The Vampire Bat. The movie has been restored recently by The Film Detective for a special issue DVD and Blu-ray; it gives us all a new reason to praise Frye.

By the time of The Vampire Bat, audiences knew Frye well from Dracula and Frankenstein. He'd also appeared in an early version of The Maltese Falcon as Wilmer, the twitchy gunman played in the more famous version of the film by Elisha Cook Jr. Portraying Herman Gleib, a nutty villager who lived in a house full of bats, cemented Frye as a screen wacko. In the decades to come, when vintage horror movies played regularly on late night television, Frye earned a growing cult of admirers. As author David J. Skal observed in Hollywood Gothic, Frye "became a sub-genre unto himself." The ultimate tribute may have come in 1973 when Alice Cooper recorded 'The Ballad of Dwight Frye," a surreal piece of heavy rock featuring the less than subtle lyric, "See my lonely mind explode/when I've gone insane."

Frye wasn't menacing, like Peter Lorre at his best, or threatening in the way Karloff could be. Frye's specialty was looking like he might at any moment sink into utter depravity. Writer Stefan Kanfer once described him as having "a stage whisper the size of Pasadena." But Frye's out-sized whispers hinted at the madness within his characters.

You can sense Herman's status in the village by the way he appears to slither in and out of scenes. He simply appears at the edge of the shot and, like a  midnight mist, works his way into the camera's focus. A woman who has apparently been bitten by a vampire bat and lays dying in her bed is surrounded by loved ones, but soon we see Herman, his large head offset by an asylum haircut, nuzzling his way into the circle. How does he know these people? Is he the village idiot? Tolerated but not accepted? 

When several people in the town are found dead, their necks showing needle-like teeth marks, Herman becomes a suspect. He keeps bats, after all. In one delicious scene, we see him petting a bat before gently slipping it into his coat pocket. When he notices a crowd of people watching him, he turns on them and hisses. Like all good lunatics, Herman knows the effect he has on people and enjoys putting a chill in them. But the locals don't like him; they're soon taken with the hysterical notion that he might be a vampire.

"Bats nice," Herman says, speaking in a kind of cracked English. "Soft, like cats." At one point he offers a woman a bat in exchange for an apple. 

Herman is eventually pursued into the mountains by angry villagers carrying torches. Frightened, he leaps to his doom so the movie's other stars, Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Melvyn Douglas, can get on with their business. As red herrings go, Frye's Herman is a tasty one.

The Vampire Bat featured one of Frye's last significant roles. He'd continue working (he had nice turns in The Bride of Frankenstein and The Crime of Doctor Crespi, both 1935), but the jobs became smaller. Now and then he'd have a decent part in some Poverty Row feature - he was 10th billed in Monogram's Sky Bandits (1940), and fourth billed in PRC's Dead Men Walk (1943),  - but even when he was back at Universal for more horror films  - Son of Frankenstein (1939), Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) - his screen-time diminished. Sometimes his part was cut entirely. In 1941 he returned to the role of Renfield in a Los Angeles stage production of Dracula. To make ends meet, Frye worked in a tool factory for Lockhead Aircraft.

"If God is good," Frye said in a press release for The Vampire Bat, "I will be able to play comedy, in which I was featured on Broadway for eight seasons and in which no producer of motion pictures will give me a chance! And please God, may it be before I go screwy playing idiots, half-wits and lunatics on the talking screen!" 

It looked like Frye's luck was about to change in 1943 when he was cast in Wilson, a film that would go on to win five Academy Awards. It wasn't a comedy, and he may well have gone unnoticed in the enormous cast, but it was step away from the crazy roles for which he was known. Unfortunately, before filming began, Frye died of a heart attack on a city bus at age 44. The coroner's certificate listed his occupation as "tool designer." It was as if, even in death, Frye couldn't get recognition as an actor.

So we'll recognize him here. There's a scene in The Vampire Bat where the locals have gathered after another murder. Looking especially frazzled and wild-eyed, Herman works his way through the crowd. By now they've practically accepted him as a murderer, perhaps one of supernatural origin, and they slowly move back to make room for him. What Frye does in this scene is remarkable;  he doesn't make any grand gestures, but with nothing more than his manic eyes, and fatigued, shuffling walk, he gives the locals a haunted visage to remember. They'll recall to their dying days the time a man thought to be vampire walked among them, close enough to touch.

The Vampire Bat follows the horror movie rules of its day. There's the nondescript European village that harbors secret laboratories, little old ladies who can break a night sky in half with their screams, and the required appearance of a doddering burgermeister. It was directed by Frank R. Strayer, a B movie workhorse who labored in all genres. He wasn't picky about assignments - he even directed a series based on the popular Blondie cartoon strip - but you could put together a nice boxed set of Strayer's horror features, including The Vampire Bat, The Monster Walks (1932), The Ghost Walks (1934) and Condemned to Live (1935). Phil Hardy's excellent The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies (1986) refers to The Vampire Bat as "One of the best of the independent films churned out to meet the new vogue for horror," and praises the "clever camerawork" of Ira Morgan (who would go on to film Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, 1936). Horror scholar and Frye biographer Gregory Mank called it a "Poverty Row gem."

The cast is impeccable, its major stars at pivotal points in their careers. Two months after The Vampire Bat premiered at Broadway's Winter Garden Theater in January, 1933,  Fay Wray would appear in King Kong and earn fame that would last decades; Melvyn Douglas, who plays the cynical police inspector, was at the dawn of a career that would see him win two Best Supporting Oscars; and Lionel Atwill, the mad scientist of the tale, was becoming a favorite movie villain; he'd be busted a few years later for throwing kinky parties at his home.

The sets, too, are outstanding - the fly-by-night Majestic smartly leased the still-standing Universal sets for Frankenstein and The Old Dark House (1932). Watching Frye skulk along the old castle walls is like seeing Fritz again, which makes The Vampire Bat seem like the impoverished cousin of a James Whale picture.

But the fun of the movie exists mostly in the performance by Frye. Remove him from the production, and it would play like any other mystery thriller set in Europe, with a lot of actors harrumphing around saying, "Surely, you don't believe in vampires!" It's standard issue -- except for Frye's otherworldly presence. 

He doesn't act so much as give off a vibration; he doesn't even need lines, because his appearance is so striking. When in a scene with the other actors, Frye seems real, if somewhat alien, while they seem like performers of the period, speaking in stagy, clipped accents; he's like an actual insane person who has crept into the movie. When he's in full strut, petting a bat or giving someone the evil eye, you wonder why Hollywood didn't do more with this superb, offbeat actor.


The Vampire Bat DVD and Blu-ray release from The Film Detective  includes a pair of interesting extras: a short documentary featuring Melvin Douglas' son, and an audio commentary by filmmaker and historian Sam Sherman.


  1. Excellent article. The best Frye related piece that I have read in a LONG time. Herman is probably my favorite Dwight character.