by Don Stradley
Dwight Frye wanted to be funny. As a young actor on Broadway he'd appeared in several comedies. In Hollywood, however, Frye was destined to be a second string bogeyman. But fame is sometimes laced with irony. Though a career of playing madmen wasn’t what he’d wanted, Frye became a near mythical figure of Hollywood’s antediluvian days. He started down this path in 1931 as the fly-eating Renfield in Dracula and the conniving hunchback Fritz in Frankenstein. In the decades to come, when these two classic horror movies played regularly on late night television, Frye earned a cult of admirers who dubbed him, "The Man with the Thousand Watt Stare." As author David J. Skal wrote 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 Boris Karloff could be. Frye's specialty was looking like he was just seconds away from sinking into utter depravity. Writer Stefan Kanfer once described him as having "a stage whisper the size of Pasadena." Frye's out-sized whispers hinted at the madness within his disenfranchised characters, never more so than when he appeared for Majestic Studios in The Vampire Bat (1933). His portrayal of Herman Gleib, a misfit who lived in a house full of bats, was Frye’s ultimate turn as a screen wacko. You can sense Herman's status in his 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. Loved ones surround a woman who has apparently been bitten by a vampire bat and lays dying in her bed, 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 with tiny teeth marks in their necks, 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 hisses. Herman knows the effect he has on people and enjoys putting a chill in them. "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. But the locals don't like him; they're soon thinking that he might be a vampire. Angry villagers carrying torches eventually pursue Herman into the mountains. 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 Frye in one of his 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 a 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 Wolf Man (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. He may well have gone unnoticed in the enormous cast, but it was step away from the roles for which he was known. Unfortunately, before filming began, Frye died of a heart attack 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 supposed 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. Frank R. Strayer, a B movie workhorse who labored in all genres, directed it. He wasn't picky about assignments - he even directed a series based on the popular Blondie cartoon strip - but a nice boxed set of Strayer's horror features could be assembled, 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 major players in the cast are 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, would go on to win two Best Supporting Oscars; and Lionel Atwill, the mad scientist of the tale, was becoming a favorite movie villain. He'd make headlines a few years later for throwing kinky parties at his Hollywood 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 Frye’s performance. 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. In scenes 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 if more could’ve been done with this superb, offbeat actor.