Friday, 14 October 2016

Halloween 31 For 31: The Bat (1959)

Director: Crane Wilbur
Screenplay: Crane Wilbur
Cast: Agnes Moorehead (as Cornelia van Gorder); Vincent Price (as Dr. Malcolm Wells); Gavin Gordon (as Lt. Andy Anderson); John Sutton (as Warner); Lenita Lane (as Lizzie Allen)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #38

The Bat emphasises the blurry nature of the "Suspense" genre, not used as commonly now next to thrillers, but one of a more classical period which straddles the line between the thriller and horror. Murder mystery writer Cornelia Van Gorder (Agnes Moorehead) rents out a home which has been plagued by deaths caused by the notorious killer the Bat, a masked figure in a suit who murdered with clawed gloves. When the owner of a bank in the town mysteriously dies, money has been embezzled from his company and an employee is taking the blame for the later, Cornelia suspects the money is within the house itself. However it appears the Bat has returned, terrorising the people in the house, the result part of a long series of adaptations that have mutated from a 1908 novel to a theatre adaptation co-written by the original author; steeped in many influences from the decades reaching this film, its appropriately macabre with the added menace helped by Vincent Price as Dr. Malcolm Wells, a man with questionable morals despite his charm, immediately a possible suspect for a tendency to fondle bats for experiments in his lab.

The result is prime pulp, a b-movie with its foot firmly between genres. The bat himself, sending an actual bat into someone's bedroom and leaving corpses in secret compartment cupboards amongst his foul deeds, is closer to the more melodramatic villains of comic books or European literature like Fantômas, dressed like a film noir villain in his suit but a cartoonish villain who in the context of a monochrome film manages to have a great ominous nature to them in spite of the simplicity of their real motives and identity, certainly above all else a distinct visual appearance especially with their faceless appearance and the talons on the gloves, lurking by windows behind people for great effect. The rest of the film surrounding this figure is the same, one that's more arch with a possible self reflective nature to it, at least having a sense of humour with Cornelia's cowardly older maid Lizzie (Lenita Lane) and her ignorance and paranoia being played for comedic effect. Moorhead's own performance, while serious, does also contains moments of her character reacting, after the fact, with the grandeur of a novelist trying to assess the absurdity of the events that took place adding to this.

Surprisingly though, while its sanitised and bloodless, there's still a bit of menace and nastiness to the movie alongside this. The sense of a romp is apparent throughout its narrative, particularly its obsession with secret rooms and levers that's a reoccurring trend in the plot, and the red herrings that have an absurdity to them, such as Cornelia's chauffer/butler being immediately suspects by the police lieutenant on the case, but there's still a lot of nefarious and downright violent material as a suspense film too. Gruesome backstabbing immediately takes place to set up the narrative arch, by way of a confrontation in a forest hut, and alongside at least two cases of things being set on fire, there's deaths that while only a handful are dealt with suddenly and abruptly.

The Bat is mostly a good, solid film in production, even when the version most will find is a muddy public domain version. Mainly restricted to a limited number of sets, evoking the theatrical origins of this version of the story's source, it thankfully doesn't descend into the issue of insipid amounts (and badly written) exposition despite its heavy amounts of dialogue. An interesting, if ultimately not radical change to the storytelling, but worth mentioning is how it depicts its finale in retrospect, within the bookends of after the events that tie up the film, a different way to tell the story which doesn't drastically change things but is interesting to note.

A large portion why the film is of worth to readers of the blog is Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead who raise The Bat a notch higher in quality. Price, in only a small role, is appropriately sinister and charismatic as he always is, even if most of his character's appearances are just to enter a scene to check on someone who's been killed. Moorehead more so stands out in the centre; interestingly, while the other characters are frankly to make up numbers, the film is surprising in how many women in the story there are, its source materials (the novel and play) written by women but also evoking a proto-giallo/thriller moment of later decades when four women are in the house at night, suspecting the Bat is in there with them trying to acquire something. Moorehead herself does show the talent she showed in major films in his career, a step above even Price in honesty in just how serious she takes the role. This in itself is more than enough to give The Bat some meat to its bones of enjoyment.


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