Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The Bat (USA, 1959)

(Meandering verbosity & spoilers ahead.) Arguably, Roland West's 1926 silent version of The Bat (full film — with the wrong music) is the [surviving] granddaddy of the old, dark house genre. Based on the eponymous play by Mary Roberts Rinehart* (12 Aug 1876 – 22 Sept 1958) and Avery Hopwood (28 May 1882 – 1 Jul 1928), the tale itself originated in Rinehart's 1908 novel The Circular Staircase but was retooled and substantially changed for the stage, where it was re-titled The Bat. The novel The Circular Staircase was itself made into a movie in 1915, the first feature-film adaptation of any Rinehart novel. Directed by Edward LeSaint (13 Dec 1870 – 10 Sep 1940) — LeSaint plays the judge (uncredited) in Reefer Madness (1936 / trailer / full colorized film) — The Circular Staircase is now considered a lost film. As it beat The Bat to the screens by 11 years, it is perhaps the true (gone and forgotten) granddaddy of the genre.**
* A highly successful novelist in her day, she and her books are mostly ancient history today. See our typically verbose review of her novel The After House at our zombie blogspot Mostly Crappy Books for more about her and her lateral pop-cultural influence. 
** For that, the best surviving early old, dark house movie out there that we know of is Paul Leni's silent version of The Cat and the Canary (1927 / full movie), a film fave of ours. Definitely worth a watch. Leni's early and unexpected death due to blood poisoning truly robbed film of a talented visualist and director.
Trailer to
The Bat:
At one point, prior to being lost, The Circular Staircase was re-released briefly as The Bat, which is why it is often claimed that the play The Bat has been adapted for the cinema four times. The character of the Bat, however, appears only in the official adaptations of the stage play and nowhere in The Circular Staircase. And so, though often touted as the fourth adaptation, Crane Wilbur's 1959 version, The Bat, is truly only the third (and to date last*) cinema adaptation, following the previously mentioned silent version and Roland West's own remake of his first film, The Bat Whispers (1930).
OK, there were a few TV versions, the most "interesting" (in the British English sense of the word) of which is probably the German adaptation from 1978 titled Der Spinnenmörder ("The Spider Killer"), a (very dry) and static movie. Available on DVD (trailer), should you want to bore yourself.
Interestingly enough, or perhaps to be expected in a business as incestuous as film, the director of 1959's The Bat, Crane Wilbur* (17 Nov 1886 – 18 Oct 1973), is "linked" career-wise with Roland West (20 Feb 1885 – 31 Mar 1952), the director of the two first versions. Wilbur wrote the original stage play The Monster, which West converted into a movie in 1925 (full film) starring Lon Chaney. The Monster, with its comic elements, can be viewed as a proto old, dark house movie, but it is actually set in an old, dark sanatorium; it is perhaps more noteworthy as one of the first horror movies to ever feature that old standby, the mad doctor/scientist (if not, also, a very early version of what could be called a non-eating zombie of sorts). 
* Wilbur, a successful actor turned successful playwright and director, was basically an all-around success in Hollywood. One of his earliest directorial projects of note is undoubtedly the once scandalous eugenics-critical message film Tomorrow's Children (1934 / full film); his last film, for which he was not given directorial credit, was the WIP film House of Women (1962 / trailer). Among his scriptwriting credits, aside from diverse WIP films like Women's Prison (1955 / trailer) and crime films like He Walked by Night (1948 / trailer / full film), are the Vincent Price vehicles House of Wax (1953 / trailer) & The Mad Magician (1954 / trailer), and the Turhan Bey vehicle, The Amazing Mr. X (1948 / trailer / full film). 
But to get to Wilbur Crane's The Bat, a film that has long entered the public domain and can easily be found on an untold number of DVD releases if not all over the web. The movie is commonly seen as a Vincent Price vehicle, especially since he gets lead billing, but in all truth his [important] role is a secondary one: the film is actually very much a starring vehicle for the great Agnes Moorehead (6 Dec 1900 – 30 Apr 1974). (She only ever received top billing in one film, her last one, the under-appreciated and cheesy grindhouse "horror hag" Southern Gothic Dear Dead Delilah [1972 / trailer & poster below].) Price plays the murderous Dr. Malcolm Wells, one of the movie's red herrings, while Moorehead plays the successful crime novelist Cornelia Van Gorder, who has rented the old dark house that is the site of The Bat's dastardly shenanigans. And is the film any good? Well, to use a German word, "jein" — which basically translates into "yes/no". 
Trailer to
 Dear Dead Delilah:
The Bat does start off swinging, to say the least, if only in its music. The opening music, by Alvino Rey (1 Jul 1908 – 24 Feb 2004) is some pretty cool music, heavy on guitar, and promptly calls to mind the great, off-the-wall stereophonic compositions that often graced the German krimis of the 60s & 70s, and the Rialto Edgar Wallace films in particular, a series of 39 films that was born in 1959 with The Fellowship of the Frog (trailer). (Aside from our review of The Fellowship of the Frog [1959], see those of The Red Circle [1960], The Forger of London [1961], The Dead Eyes of London [1961], The Devil's Daffodil [1961], The Inn on the River [1962], The Black Abbot [1963], The Indian Scarf [1963], The College Girl Murders [1967] and The Hand of Power [1968].) Indeed, The Bat almost comes across as a semi-template for the wacked-out krimis of Germany, the clawed hand with which the Bat kills his victims itself calling to mind the fun Rialto krimi Die Blaue Hand a.k.a. Creature with the Blue Hand (1967 / German trailer).*
* The occasional shadow of the fedora-wearing, claw-handed killer also makes one think of Freddy Kruger — not that the film ever comes close to being as bloody or suspenseful as the last franchise's films are, or ever delivers as much thrill and scare-factor as the better Freddy films. 
Alvino Ray's title track to
The Bat:
Speaking of the German krimis, one thing many of them have in common that The Bat sorely lacks is excellent B&W cinematography, deep in contrast and shadow, very much steeped in the style of German Expressionist silent film, in turn a cinematographic style that heavily influenced the horror movie in general. The Bat is brightly lit, if not overexposed, with even the scenes involving shadows too blandly bright, which substantially eradicates any sense of "horror" that this "horror thriller" might have had. Indeed, although considered a horror film, The Bat is pretty much anything but that: the chills are none existent, the overall effect being more of a creaky but enjoyable who-done-it/who-is-it mystery film, the mystery of which is somewhat diluted by a script that has the Bat commit a murder at a time that basically flat out indicates that the movie's biggest red herring, Dr. Wells (Price), definitely is not the killer — thus reducing the number of possible male suspects down to two, despite Dr. Ward's inexplicable but highlighted obsession with bats.
In that sense, Wilbur's script of the movie is about as slapdash as his direction. In his desire to shoehorn Dr. Wells into the movie, for example, Wilbur resorts to an absolutely ridiculous plot device in which the larcenous bank manager John Fleming (Harvey Stephens [21 Aug 1901 – 22 Dec 1986] of Diary of a Madman [1963 / trailer], The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing [1955, w/Farley Granger] and Cell 2455, Death Row [1955, w/William Campbell]) tells Dr. Ward about what he has done and then attempts to force Ward at gun point and with the threat of death to become an accomplice — his less-than-ingenious plan, however, is undone by a fortuitous forest fire and Dr. Ward's sudden criminal proclivities. (If the embezzled amount of one million dollars seems too low to make a man of the Hippocratic Oath suddenly turn murderous — we all know how honest and morally pure those in the medical profession are — keep in mind that that would be the equivalent of almost ten million dollars today.) And while most old, dark house stories usually transpire quickly within one, dark night, in The Bat the tale stretches over days if not months at the cost of substantial suspense and speed — all that dialogue that is needed to keep viewers up to date is rather deadening.
For those and other flaws of the script, what Wilbur did right was how he made the main female character of the movie, Cornelia Van Gorder (Moorehead) into a proto Jessica Fletcher (as in the character Angela Lansbury played forever in the TV series Murder, She Wrote — a series perhaps slightly inspired by this movie). Van Gorder never lets fear sway her as she uses the events that transpire as the basis of a new novel even as she herself tries to solve the mystery of the Bat and what it is he wants in her rented house. True, she also hardly bats an eye when an important witness for the upcoming court case, the young bank secretary Judy (Darla Hood*), is killed by the Bat, but she is enjoyable as a self-reliant, resourceful and intelligent female character (a rarity in movies even today). Here, Moorehead delivers a typically enjoyable performance, her arch but dry delivery of even the most humorous dialogue working well as a counterpoint to the almost stereotypical comic-character delivery of Lenita Lane**, who plays her trusty and true assistant Lizzie. 
* Darla Hood (8 Nov 1931 – 13 Jun 1979), left in the still above, might be familiar to many from her early days as a wee child, when she played the regular and beloved character named Darla in original Little Rascals / Our Gang series. (Darla, the singing 5-year-old.) The Bat is her last appearance on the silver screen before she entered her phase as a successful singer, initially with a few albums and then on TV and as a jingle singer. 
** The Bat is likewise the last film appearance of character actress Lenita Lane (16 Dec 1901 – 15 Mar 1995), the wife of Wilbur Crane, who is found in the background of movies such as Murder by the Clock (1931 / full film), Girls on Probation (1938 / full film) and I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. (1951 / trailer). 
Darla Hood singing
No Secret Now:
It must be said, however, that the dialogue of the dialogue-heavy movie in itself is as uneven as it is excessive; while the wry wittisms and irony are served up well by both Price and Moorehead, there are way too many scenes in which all people do is talk, which is not all that helpful in an already visually static movie like this one. But then, when a screenplay has as much disparate stuff tossed into it as Crane tosses into his, it is probably hard not to resort to excess expository.
A nice touch to the nighttime scenes, and particularly to the illogical one that sees the Bat breaking into the house and literally knocking a hole in the wall with a hammer while four different women are staying the night there, is all the wandering about the house in flowing nightgowns. True, the typically stupid "let's separate" bit, which results in Judy's demise, is too ridiculous to accept without a groan, but the image of most of the gals — and in particular the visually pleasant Dale (Elaine Edwards* [4 Feb 1928 – 26 Apr 2004]) — wandering the night in those long, flowing nightgowns is oddly reminiscent of all the wonderful Italo Gothic horrors that were still to come in the 60s. Too bad that in The Bat even the nighttime nightgown scenes are all so terribly over-lit and flatly filmed. 
* Elaine Edwards, quiet attractive in The Bat, never had much of a film career. Those raised on Creature Feature shows might remember her in the fun non-classic Curse of the Faceless Man (1958 / trailer), while fans of early grindhouse softcore sleaze will perhaps remember her face (and her boobs, which remain unseen in The Bat) from the possibly lost William L. Rose movie Pamela, Pamela, You Are... (1968) and The Curious Female (1970 / opening titles).
All in all, The Bat cannot be called a good movie; more so, it could be said that there is a semi-good movie struggling to get out, but it ultimately fails to do so because of the script and direction. (Put the blame on Crane, so to speak.) For that, however, The Bat is a mildly enjoyable movie which, if you are catching it for the very first time, will ignite a slightly "comfort-film" response: it is very much similar to any number of 50s "horror" movies that many of us US Americans caught on TV after school in our youth, a warmer, safer time when we were not faced with all the trials and tribulations and troubles of adulthood. Thus, much like comfort food picks you up when you are feeling down, The Bat makes for a warm 1.5 hours. As such, it becomes relatively easy to consciously overlook the movie's [obvious] flaws and to just go with the flow.

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