Wednesday, 13 June 2018

The Bat (1959)

By 1959 the Old Dark House movie was getting rather long in the tooth as a concept but it was a genre that seemingly just wouldn’t die. The 1959 The Bat, directed by Crane Wilbur and starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead, was yet another version of the venerable stage hit written by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood. There had been a silent version in 1926 and a sound version (with the title The Bat Whispers in 1930).

Agnes Moorehead plays popular mystery writer Cornelia van Gorder who has rented a spooky mansion called The Oaks. She and her secretary Lizzie (Lenita Lane) are alone in the house because the entire domestic staff has quit. They’re afraid of The Bat, a mysterious killer who has been terrorising the local community. They’re also afraid of actual bats, following a newspaper report that the bats in this area are infected with rabies.

The Oaks belongs to the local bank president, a man named Fleming. He’s gone off on a hunting trip with his physician, Dr Malcolm Wells.

A very large amount of money has been embezzled from the bank and the nice young bank vice-president, Victor Bailey, has been arrested for the crime.

There are at least three major sub-plots and the connections between them are pretty tenuous.

There are all the standard ingredients of the Old Dark House film. There are secret passageways and masked villains and lots of running about and screaming.

It’s Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead who make this movie worth seeing, insofar as it’s worth seeing at all. The other cast members are distinctly unmemorable.

Price gives one of his more understated performances but of course he still manages to be pretty creepy.

Moorehead was a much admired actress and this film gives her a rare chance to play a leading rôle. And she has a great deal of fun as the feisty mystery novelist.

Crane Wilbur, who write and directed The Bat, had a lengthy career in film, starting as an actor and moving on to directing. A lengthy career, but not a particularly distinguished one.

Creaky is the word that is inevitably going to be used when describing this movie. Not only does it belong to a genre whose glory days were the 1930s, it really does feel very 1930s stylistically as well. There’s a heavy reliance on shadowy outlines of sinister figures to provide scares. Compared to the horror movies that were being made by Hammer at about this time it must have seemed pretty tame even to contemporary audiences.

Of course any Old Dark House movie is going to have that problem of feeling dated. It’s an inherently very old-fashioned concept. The original play made its Broadway debut in 1920, so it actually pre-dates what we think of as the golden age of the detective story. The difficulty with trying to revive The Bat as a movie in 1959 is that it was either going to feel very old-fashioned, or it was going to end up with a high camp feel. The movie mostly ends up just being old-fashioned.

I personally like old-fashioned things, and I have a certain fondness for the genre but even back in the 30s Old Dark House movies were something of a hit and miss proposition.

There are numerous public domain version of the his movie floating around. Surprisingly enough it’s actually had not only an official DVD release but a Blu-Ray release as well. The version I saw was a public domain copy and the quality was atrocious. The question you have to ask yourself is whether you would bother spending real money buying the Blu-Ray or the apparently excellent Anchor Bay DVD. This really is not the kind of movie you’re likely to watch again and again.

If you’re a hardcore fan of Vincent Price or Agnes Moorehead you might get some enjoyment from this movie, otherwise you’d have to be a pretty enthusiastic devotee of Old Dark House films to bother with this one. If you want a really good Old Dark House movie, check out One Frightened Night or Tomorrow at Seven.

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