Posted by Richard Harland Smith on October 12, 2012
For my admittedly singular tastes, the vampire bat (there are other kinds?) is as essential a herald of Halloween as the old witch, the black cat, the Jack-o-lantern, and the scarecrow. As a kid, I loved the sudden appearance of a flapping vampire bat and the bigger and more leathery the beastie the better. Take this barrel-like example from Hammer’s BRIDES OF DRACULA (1961) — it’s like a rumpy Manx with wings — but I love it, I want to hug it, I want to bring it home and ask my mom if I can keep it. I miss bats in horror movies. How did we ever get it into our heads that we could live without them?
It was Bram Stoker who floated the conceit that vampires could turn themselves into bats; so hardwired was the immortal Count’s connection to bats that Stoker even depicted the old blighter crawling, bat-like, down the stony facade of Castle Dracula. Bat participation in Tod Browning’s DRACULA (1931), the first authorized adaptation of the 1897 Stoker novel, is however so noncommittal and fleeting that it’s almost subliminal, leaving the viewer with the uncertainty as to whethr protagonists David Manners and Helen Chandler have had a close encounter with Dracula himself in bat form or just a wayward sparrow. Yet despite Universal’s diffidence on the subject, bats had true Gothic cachet in the early years of the horror film. Pre-DRACULA, Roland West (by way of the Broadway play by Mary Roberts Rhinehart and Avery Hopwood) made a master criminal of THE BAT (1926) and choked the frame with batty bric-a-brac; he remade the film after the advent of sound as THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) but again the supernatural was purely a smokescreen for human avarice and malice aforethought. Out of this exchange, it is generally accepted, we got Bob Kane’s superhero avenger The Batman, whose own cinematic credibility continues to generate revenue to this day. But I digress. Back to the 1930s…
As if picking up Universal’s bat slack, Majestic Pictures offered THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933), a product of Poverty Row employing ringers from First National’s DOCTOR X (1932) and sets left over from FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932). You get to see a real bat in this, close up, but the vampirism is attributed in the final analysis to natural rather than supernatural causes. Still, the vampire bat received prominent placement in the ad campaign, cementing in the minds of moviegoers the association of horror movies with bats. When Universal phased out Bela Lugosi as Dracula in favor of Lon Chaney, Jr. for SON OF DRACULA (1943), special effects whiz John P. Fulton depicted Chaney metamorphosing from bat to man — the first time the effect had ever been shown on screen. The gag was retained for John Carradine’s two at-bats (sorry) as Dracula for the studio in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945). When Lugosi stepped back into the opera cape and celluloid collar of his immortal creation for ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), he got to play along, albeit briefly, in the film’s slam-bang, rock’em/sock’em finale.
I mean, look at that beauty, c’mon! Haven’t you missed vampire bats? Isn’t that precisely what is wrong and boring about the TWILIGHT movies and TRUE BLOOD and every other banal and trendy vampire story over the last, eh, thirty years? Sure, Dan Curtis’ THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) telefilm was novel for its depiction of an immortal bloodsucker who has to get around by station wagon — it brilliantly butted the European vampire mythos up against America’s awakening understanding of the methods of serial predators and made its bogey as pathetic as he was genuinely fearsome – but look at the fallout. THE VAMPIRE DIARIES! Couldn’t you kill?
There was a big old fat bat in Tod Browning’s MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935), seen early on for a cheap, fun scare. Later in the film, Carroll Borland (as Luna, a vampire girl) transforms in flight from a bat into Carroll Borland via a nifty little process shot achieved by Tom Tutwiler and cinematographer James Wong Howe. And standing smack dab in the middle of this silly but enjoyable MGM production is Bela Lugosi, providing an over easy riff on his most famous onscreen creation. Lugosi was back in the bat trade five years later for THE DEVIL BAT (1940), as a bitter old alte kaker who has nurtured bred a bat the size of a sleeping bag to be the instrument of his revenge upon a supporting cast of potential victims. I don’t know if big, fat bats ever got a fairer shake at the movies than in THE DEVIL BAT, where the creature in question is frequently dropping out of the sky to bite out an unsuspecting jugular. Understandably, bats featured squarely in the publicity campaign for the Producer’s Releasing Corporation release, as they did for the sequel, DEVIL BAT’S DAUGHTER (1946), which made do without Lugosi and giant bats. Oh, there are bats to be soon, albeit shunted off to the margins and relegated for the most part to a nightmare fantasia… which is of course not a proper substitute for the real thing.
Mario Bava included a fat bat in his first solo outing as a horror film director, LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO (BLACK SUNDAY, 1960) but it was really Hammer Studios up in the United Kingdom who put the species back on the genre map. Bava’s bat (barely seen and communicated mostly by shadow and synecdoche) was flown in merely as a matter of plot expediency, to force a character to flail about and destroy the ceremonial cross holding vampire Barbara Steele in her tomb. In BRIDES OF DRACULA however, the bat (arguably the undead Baron Meinster in rodent form but possibly just a familiar) stamps the terra, knocking Peter Cushing’s customarily prepared and proactive Van Helsing right on his keister… and is never punished directly for the offense! Bats played a key role as well lin Hammer’s THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963), actually wielded against the film’s resident savant (Clifford Evans) against the vampires — a plot point cribbed from the jettisoned finale of BRIDES OF DRACULA. Hammer’s in-house Dracula, Christopher Lee, generally shied away from any association with bats — perhaps he thought it undignified — but in the later sequel, SCARS OF DRACULA (1970), the fat bat is back, not only to revive Dracula from dusty death but to slaughter a whole church full of parishioners. How bat-ass is that?!
There was a sea change within the horror genre as the Sixties yielded to the Seventies. The success of PSYCHO (1960), ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) created a demand for more tenable horrors, for mundane modern settings, and an overall eschewing of Gothic curliques in favor of the Nightmare Next Door. As the genre was redefined by such popular hits as THE EXORCIST (1973), THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974), and THE OMEN (1976), vampire bats were largely shown the door, at least the fat ones. Bats continued to work their way into the game but they got smaller and smaller, even when they caused human beings to turn into THE BAT PEOPLE (1974). Bats were the villains of CHOSEN SURVIVORS (1974) and NIGHTWING (1979) and used as a mechanism of Biblical retribution in THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1970) but they were piddly little things, just a jump up from the killer bees of THE SWARM (1978), the intelligent ants of PHASE IV (1974), the hookworms of SQUIRM (1976) and the tarantulas of KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (1977). Flash forward thirty years and not much has changed. When bats do pop up in horror movies, as in BATS (1999) or THE ROOST (2004), they’re still downsized, scientifically accurate, normal, dull, and lethal only by dint of volume, volume, volume. And they never look as though they were made out of an old wet suit. And that’s called sad.
If bats were in the main conspicuous in the absence from horror movies from the Seventies on they still made appearances in other media. In Marvel Comics’ mighty-mighty Tomb of Dracula series, the Count often transformed into a bat to elude his enemies, with no discernable loss of stature, and the same was true of Henry Polic II’s repurposed revenant in the Saturday morning kiddie show THE MONSTER SQUAD. Bats were often seen in horror-themed cartoons as well, on THE GROOVIE GHOULIES, SCOOBY DOO WHERE ARE YOU! and even SESAME STREET, where Count von Count urged us to do “The Batty Bat.”
And no redblooded American boy who read comic books or Famous Monsters of Filmland during the Nixon administration could pass up the opportunity to send away for a mail order bat of his very own, especially a “life size” vampire bat that you could control to do your bidding! For a buck! Yeah, the Guarantee Company of Chicago, Illinois, had my allowance money before the ink was even dry on the advertisement.
I imagined a fat bat just like the one in BRIDES OF DRACULA, with the pleather wings and the glowing eyes. It was remote controlled, of course, and squeaked like a proper vampire bat and maybe there was even a little burning smell as the wheels and cogs turned within and the thing did its black magic in the air above the heads of my horrified sisters. I was psyched, I was pumped, I was jazzed… I was had! I was wholly unprepared for the pathetic lump of molded rubber that arrived in the mail some weeks later attached to a piece of elastic string, with which I was encouraged to dangle the bat over the transom or hang it from the rafters. It was 1975 – nobody had transoms and rafters anymore, we all lived in raised ranches. Man, I got screwed. Nearly forty years later and I still feel the pain. (Yeah, I know, technically the Guarantee Company told the truth — vampire bats really are tiny but that thing did nothing at my command I had to do all the work. Who did they think I was, Bill Baird?) My bad experience certainly did not put me off of bats, oh no no no. I’m a lifer. Last Halloween I cut out a dozen or so construction paper bats and hung them on a mobile over my daughter’s bed… and it’s still there. My wife and I priced rubber vampire bats this year weeks in advance of the Halloween season but we never found one sturdy enough for our liking, so we’re going batless in 2012 because, as far as bats are concerned, it’s either go big or go fish.
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