The Bat directed by Crane Wilbur
Although Vincent Price had appeared in a number of scary films before the late 1950s, it wasn’t until 1958 and ’59 that the beloved actor really began to concentrate his efforts in the fright field and thus become one of the true titans in the arena of horror. During those two years, Price starred in The Fly, House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler and The Bat, thus getting the ball rolling for one legendary horror career. This viewer, up until recently, had long enjoyed every one of those films except for The Bat, which had somehow escaped me. Thus, how pleased I was to discover that this film fits in very nicely with those other great three!
The Bat was based on a 1908 novel by mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart entitled The Circular Staircase, which I had enjoyed; Rinehart and playwright Avery Hopwood had later turned this book into a stage hit called The Bat in 1920, and this stage version had subsequently been filmed no fewer than three times prior to the Price outing. Released in August 1959, the most recent version of The Bat teams Price with the great Agnes Moorehead, in an atmospheric B&W picture that originally appeared with the Hammer film The Mummy, for one flabbergasting double feature. And if the film is not quite as frightening as some of those other Price films just mentioned (especially House on Haunted Hill, which remains, for me and many other boomers, I have a feeling, one of the scariest films ever made), and does reveal its origin as a stage vehicle, it yet remains a lot of fun.
In the film, Moorehead plays the part of Cornelia van Gorder, a mystery writer who has rented a creepy old mansion known as The Oaks to do her summer work. At the same time, the head of the local bank, John Fleming (Harvey Stephens), has absconded around $1 million in securities and bonds and stashed the resultant loot away somewhere. The perpetrator of this deed confesses his crime to Dr. Malcolm Wells (our Uncle Vinny), seeking his assistance in getting away with the crime, but the good doctor, rather than be pressured into cooperation, simply grabs a hunting rifle and shoots the banker down instead. Soon enough, the neighborhood surrounding The Oaks is plagued with a rash of murders. A black-masked killer with clawed gloves — known as The Bat — has been tearing the throats out of his/her victims, and soon enough, begins to sneak around the creepy abode where Cornelia and her maid, Lizzie Allen (Lenita Lane), are staying. The Bat, it would seem, is in search of the missing loot … but WHO is The Bat?
The audience of course assumes the culprit to be Price, who has not only shot down a man in cold blood, but who is also later seen in his home laboratory doing experiments with baby bats. But there are other possibilities: Cornelia’s chauffeur/butler Warner (John Sutton), Fleming’s nephew Mark (John Bryant), maybe even the pretty wife of the bank clerk accused of the theft, Dale Bailey (Elaine Edwards), or houseguest Judy (Darla Hood, the former Little Rascals cutie, here in her final film). That’s what Lt. Anderson (Gavin Gordon), the detective on the case, has to find out…
From its strangely incongruous jazzy theme music to its surprising revelation at the film’s tale end, The Bat works hard to entertain its audience, and if the film is never distinctly scary, it as often highly atmospheric and suspenseful, despite the light tone and moments of humor. Director/screenwriter Crane Wilbur, who had turned in the screenplays for earlier Price vehicles House of Wax and The Mad Magician, does a fine job here of making things move along nicely (the whole film runs to a streamlined 80 minutes) and engendering a creepy mood; this could almost be a product of the great William Castle, who had helmed both House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler, and if you only knew how highly I esteem that great showman and filmmaker, you would realize that this is very high praise, indeed.
But most of the credit for the moderate success of this film must fall on its lead, Agnes Moorehead, who turns in a wonderfully animated performance. Typically intense and waspish, she is yet highly likable and even attractive here, and her Cornelia character is shown to be both highly competent and intrepid, although she DOES still cling on to her maid in fright when the shadow of The Bat is seen on a corridor wall. It is to be regretted that she and Vincent did not appear in more films together, as the two work very well together, old pros that they both were, at this point.
The Bat contains any number of highlights, including the throat slashing of one victim and the discovery of that victim’s body behind a grandfather clock; the scene in which Dale and Judy go upstairs to investigate the nighttime sounds that are booming throughout the house (why The Bat thought he/she could start hammering away at walls in search of the missing loot, in the dead of night, and NOT be heard is anyone’s guess); and Cornelia’s discovery of the secret room where the loot has been stashed, and her subsequent entrapment and near asphyxiation therein. The identity of The Bat should come as a surprise to most viewers, after numerous red herrings have been strewn about, although to be honest, I DID manage to guess who the culprit was, as events converged to a conclusion. But I would never dream of revealing that secret. As the promotional poster for the film proclaimed, “Warning! Keep the Secret! Anyone who reveals who I am will have to answer to The Bat!” And I would never want to risk THAT!
Bottom line: I watched The Bat on an October evening as a nor’easter raged outside my windows and found it to be the perfect accompaniment to this very entertaining picture.