Written by: Avery Hopwood & Mary Roberts Rinehart (play), Crane Wilbur (screenplay)
Directed by: Crane Wilbur
Starring: Vincent Price and Agnus Moorehead
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"As an author I write tales of mystery and murder, but the things that have happened in this house are far more fantastic than any book I've ever had published."
Vincent Price needs no introduction to the seasoned horror fan, as the veteran actor is synonymous with classic horror. Of the dozens of horror films he starred in, he is perhaps best known for his role in the original House on Haunted Hill and his roles in various Edgar Allan Poe adaptations produced by cult maestro Roger Corman. Like any horror legend, however, several of Price's films are overshadowed by his more famous efforts. One such film is The Bat, which features Price on the precipice of the iconic status that he would go on to attain in the 1960s. Having recently starred in the aforementioned House on Haunted Hill and the two Fly films, Price was beginning to carve his niche into the horror genre, and The Bat features Price in a signature role. While genre fans will no doubt come to The Bat just for Price alone, they might be surprised to find that there's more to the film than the horror legend.
Released in the same year as House on Haunted Hill, The Bat features Agnes Moorehead in the role of Cornelia Van Gorder, a mystery author who has taken up residence in a town that has been recently terrorized by a brutal murderer known as "The Bat." Meanwhile, a million dollars worth of assets has been stolen from a local bank by its manager, who confides in his doctor, Malclom Wells (Price). Wells then promptly kills the manager with the intentions of keeping the loot for himself. However, things soon become complicated when The Bat begins to terrorize Van Gorder and her maid, Lizzie, at the Oaks mansion. Soon, all involved are ensnared in a night of mystery and murder as the killer stalks his prey.
The Bat is essentially a murder mystery tale, as the main thrust of the narrative is essentially propelled by the viewer's intrigue over the title character's identity. This is a true "whodunnit" in every sense of the word, and it's a pretty good one to boot. Along the way, there are several red herrings and speculation before the truth is finally revealed. While this final revelation isn't one of the more mind-blowing horror twists, it's well done, and I admit to not seeing it coming. Though the film practically telegraphs the killer's identity in retrospect, there are enough twists and turns along the way to keep you off-balance. Furthermore, the film moves at a nice pace that keeps the suspense at a decent level.
This is not to say that the film is simply a mystery, however, as it does contain many horror elements. Though it's a product of the late 50s, I've always felt like the film belongs to an earlier era of horror, perhaps because it's adapted from a 1920s Broadway play. In terms of horror films, it actually feels like something from the 30s or 40s, quite possibly due to its soundtrack, which reminds me more of a classic Universal picture. There's also some great, atmospheric shots filled with fog that are almost gothic in nature. The film's black and white photography also makes great use of light and shadows, which gives the film a more classic feel.
However, the film is also ahead of its time in many ways, as it almost feels like a prototype for the body count pictures that would become popular decades later. Indeed, at its basic core, the film seems like a slasher film: a group of people are gathered into a house and are systematically picked off by a vicious stalker that's hiding within the house. One can even see an slight resemblance to Black Christmas, but with older women replacing the sorority girls. Of course, it's certainly not as gory or as focused on violence as its horror heirs, the elements are there. Horror fans are often concerned with identifying influences and rip-offs within the genre, but it's odd that The Bat is rarely cited as exhibiting such traits.
Any slasher-esque film needs a good slasher, and The Bat certainly fits the bill. Resembling a more contemporary and more famous horror villain, the title character dons a fedora and a set of razor claws on his left hand. Those who are fortunate enough to have seen him and lived claim that he has no face, and he is decked out in all black. Furthermore, his M.O. is quite brutal, as he has a penchant for tearing out the jugulars of women (don't get your hopes up, though--like I said, the film's not gory in the least). All told, The Bat is a fairly creepy character who stealthily slinks around the mansion's halls and strikes with a quick ferocity when he catches his prey. Unfortunately, the character isn't as effective as he could be because once we learn his motives, he's not quite as terrifying. The prey he stalks is a decent cast of characters: Van Gorder and Lizzie are full of spunk, and Price is of course brilliant. One can truly see him coming into his own here, as he plays the role of Wells with an inviting, yet creepy warmth that would come define Price as an actor.
At the end of the day, The Bat is a fun little horror film that's perfect for a late night viewing, as it has a bit of a B-movie midnight movie vibe. Sure, it's a 50s film that feels a bit stilted and staged because of its Broadway origins, and this might be a turn-off for modern viewers. However, if you give it a chance, you'll find a good film here. Fans will also be interested to know that the play was adapted for the screen twice by Roland West as The Bat (1926) and The Bat Whispers (1930). This version of the film is one of several films featuring Price that have fallen into public domain, which means you can find about a dozen of cheap releases. It's one of fifty films featured in Mill Creek's Classic Horror collection, and it's among the better presentations there. Though it certaintly isn't up to snuff with a major DVD release and is features an open matte transfer, it's certainly watchable. There are a few releases that feature in the film in its proper 1.85 aspect ratio and can often be found paired with House on the Haunted Hill. Regardless of which release you prefer, this is one that classic horror fans (and Price fans, especially) will want to track down. Feeling both oddly ancient and ahead of its time, The Bat is one film that deserves more recognition. See for yourself. Buy it!
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