BLU-RAY REVIEW: THE BAT (1959)
Crane Wilbur’s 1959 THE BAT is well-crafted, intriguing, mystery-thriller about a large country estate, The Oaks, that gets rented out to a popular mystery author, Cornelia Van Gorder (Agnes Moorehead, POLLYANNA) whom gets terrorized by
a faceless, murdering madman with giant claws on one hand who is killing women.
Van Gorder, along with her maid of 20 plus years Lizzie Allen (Lenita Lane, THE MAD MAGICIAN) and the rest of her staff, move into the massive abode amidst all the rumors and chatter of the town about a crazed killer known only as “The Bat“. After most of the staff in the house leave, Van Gorder and her few remaining loyal staff Warner (the chauffeur portrayed by John Sutton, RETURN OF THE FLY), Jane Patterson (Riza Royce, SAVAGE INTRUDER), and the ever-loyal Lizzie (Lane) are all the staff that are left. The rumors of the murderous man with no face who kills women at night by ripping out their throats with steel claws has got everyone in town spooked and on edge. Cornelia Van Gorder is not one to be frightened off so easily though.
As the plot tosses into the mix a missing sum of a million dollars of bank securities that is believed to possibly be hidden in the very house that Van Gorder is renting, everyone is suspect as to being either The Bat or a would-be thief on the prowl for that missing fortune. Lt. Andy Anderson (Gavin Gordon, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) comes to keep watch on their house after Van Gorder’s maid swears she saw the faceless man trying to break into the estate, and a cop is then kept on duty keeping watch on the ladies inside such as Detective Davenport (Robert Williams, THE KILLING). Take into account that after quite a few twists and turns early on into the story occur rather unexpectedly, as I was watching this entertaining story filled with some fantastic performances by Agnes Moorehead (Van Gorder), Vincent Price (Dr. Malcolm Wells), and the marvelous supporting actress Lenita Lane (Lizzie Allen) who also was married to the director of this film, Crane Wilbur.
The story of THE BAT may be one well-known because it is actually the fourth film adaptation of the story that originally began as the story, The Circular Staircase (1908), by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Rinehart then went on to adapt her story into a play with Avery Hopwood in 1920. The play was a smashing success and ran for 867 performances on Broadway and was even revived twice. Crane Wilbur adapted the playwright, as well as directing the version of the story and playwright now being reviewed.
Director Crane Wilbur contributed to writing the screenplays for such classic horror and sci-fi films such as 1953’s HOUSE OF WAX (also starring Vincent Price) and 1961’s MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (based upon the Jules Verne novel The Mysterious Island published in 1874). Wilbur, who began appearing in films as an actor in 1910 and had directed many silent films, but his sound film debut occurred with the very controversial TOMORROW’S CHILDREN (1934). The film was “an expose of the “science” of eugenics, tied to a story about the attempted forced sterilization of a married couple by the Welfare Bureau”. The film also “exposed the fact that many people were sterilized against their will and even without recourse to due process of law”.
One of the leads in THE BAT that always puts a smile on my face with her performance is actress Agnes Moorehead, whom many of which will remember fondly as having portrayed the devilish mother of Samantha Stevens in Bewitched, Endora. Fondly, I will forever remember Moorehead giving my favorite performance by her as Ms. Snow in the Walt Disney film POLLYANNA. In THE BAT as Cornelia Van Gorder, Moorehead portrays a very spunky and fearless mystery novelist whose wit and background in writing mystery novels aids her in eventually figuring out where the million dollars in securities is located and who THE BAT really is.
Another notable performance, but one that I felt was very under-used in the film, was Vincent Price’s character as the doctor to bank president John Fleming (Harvey Stephens), Dr. Malcolm Wells. Dr. Wells also happens to be Van Gorder’s doctor as well (and probably the whole town’s!). Price’s character is very cool-headed and almost strategic in his choice of words and mannerisms which may have been intentional to give viewers the impression that because he also conducts research on bats in his laboratory that he is a prime candidate for being the elusive faceless maniacal killer, THE BAT. The fact that Vincent Price was given top-billing on the cover of Film Detective’s Blu-ray (along with Agnes Moorehead), I felt for sure his role would have been considerably greater. Not to say that his role is a cameo or anywhere as brief as that, but I was hoping for more appearances throughout the film. As a large horror buff, I wanted more screen time from the legendary Mr. Price.
For those of you whom hold The Little Rascals shorts very dear to their hearts, a very entertaining childhood program I watched religiously throughout my youth on television, one will notice a familiar face in the film: Darla Hood who played Darla in The Little Rascals. Hood portrays Judy Hollander in THE BAT. This was Hood’s final film appearance.
The film did not do spectacular at the box office when it first came out, partially (some say) because the film is a period piece mystery that was lacking in the chills and scares, especially when many of the films around the time THE BAT was released centered around aliens and ghoul-like monsters like in TEENAGE ZOMBIES, THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON, ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, etc…Suffice to say, as the years have gone on THE BAT has achieved a growing fan-base and is accumulating a little bit of a following.
There are many versions of varying quality of THE BAT online and in physical format due to the film being in public domain, but I implore cinephiles worldwide to check out the THE FILM DETECTIVE release of the film on blu-ray which is quite a notch above many of the other editions of this movie, especially versions only in standard definition. This version has been newly restored by FILM DETECTIVE and their website shop is linked up with Turner Classic Movies and THE BAT retails for $14.99. Although the film is bare-bones minus an option for subtitles, the superb transfer is well worth owning a definitive transfer of the film with great quality in sound and in picture sporting a 1.85.1 Aspect Ratio in Dolby Digital. When films are in public domain, there tends to be countless editions of the film, all varying in quality, and some so horribly transferred from the original source (or not so original source!) that the end result is a livid nightmare to view.
This review marks the first time I have ever viewed 1959’s THE BAT, and I was fortunate to have been able to view it on blu-ray in high definition and was treated to an entertaining murder-mystery-whodunnit that featured a favorite actress of mine, Agnes Moorehead, and a cast of credible entertainers including the phenomenal Vincent Price. I recommend seeing this film highly if one has not seen it already as I regret having not seen THE BAT until now.
FILM DETECTIVE founder Philip Hopkins has taken his lifelong love of film collecting and turned it into restoring classic film and distributing them with broadcast-quality and digitally-remastering all the material. Starting services in 1999, one may have viewed films distributed from him on various platforms such as Turner Classic Movies, American Movie Classics, Hulu, NBC, Amazon, and EPIX HD. Over 3,000 titles are getting the all-star treatment and being remastered and professionally transferred from original film elements and are available in ProRes, with many in HD.