Crane Wilbur, 1959
Starring: Vincent Price, Agnes Moorhead, Gavin Gordon, Lenita Lane
"When it flies, someone dies!"
A mystery writer, Cornelia Van Gorder, is renting a spooky old house called “the Oaks” in a small town. Afraid of the house, all her servants but one flee, and a killer known as the Bat stalks the town. The Bat is said to have no face and rips out people’s throats with his claws. Meanwhile, a million dollars is discovered missing at the local bank and the young bank manager is wrongly imprisoned. His new wife is determined to help clear his name. The real culprit is hiding in the woods and plans to fake his own death, but the town physician, Dr. Wells, has other ideas.
Someone prowls the Oaks at night and Cornelia and her maid, Lizzy, lock themselves in, but Lizzy is bitten by a bat set loose in the house. It becomes a popular idea that maybe the missing million is hidden in the Oaks and the women hear strange sounds at night. Cornelia has a number of house guests, but the Bat murders them one by one until she decides to use her mystery writing skills to solve the crimes on her own.
Though The Bat seems an anachronistic choice for 1959, it was likely inspired by the success of William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill, another old dark house film with Vincent Price. Based on Mary Roberts Rinehart’s novel The Circular Staircase, which Rinehart turned into a popular play, this version is the third cinematic adaptation of The Bat after the 1926 version and The Bat Whispers (1930). These were both released in the heyday of old dark house horror alongside films like The Old Dark House and The Cat and the Canary.
Director and writer Crane Wilbur (House of Wax) definitely improved on previous versions of The Bat by excising much of the grating comedy and stretching the film’s timeline out to make a little more sense. On the other hand, this is essentially a zany episode of Murder She Wrote with a spooky old house full of dark shadows and secret passageways, rabid bats, a faceless killer with razor sharp claws, and a plethora of characters with something to hide. If you enjoy older mystery films - this was somewhat falsely advertised as a horror movie - The Bat can be a lot of fun. It would have been nice to see the Bat in action more, as he is known for slashing people’s throats with his razor sharp claws. Mysteriously, there is not a drop of blood or gore to be found.
Vincent Price is not in the film nearly as much as he should be, but steals every scene he is in and is fittingly sinister and debonair in equal measures. Agnes Moorehead (Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte) is excellent as mystery writer Cornelia Van Gorder. She and Price carry the film and Cornelia is fortunately a strong, compelling character not afraid to walk around the house armed or go in search for the killer herself. Her maid, played by Lenita Lane, is less annoying than previous incarnations of the character and amusingly, Lane played essentially the same character as Moorehead in previous Vincent Price vehicle The Mad Magician. John Sutton (Tower of London, again with Price) is also likable as Warner, Cornelia’s mysterious chauffeur who has a few things up his sleeve.
The Bat isn’t really a great film and should only be sought out by devoted Price fans or mystery lovers. Most of the beloved tropes are there and there is a fair amount of murder, crime, and corruption. There are a number of red herrings, though not all of these succeed. There are two characters in particular that we are made to believe might be the Bat, but the films tries a little too hard on this account and makes it obvious that the conclusion will point somewhere else.