Label: Anchor Bay
Region: 1 (NTSC)
Released: July 11, 2000
Genre: Thriller / Horror / Whodunnit
Synopsis: A serial killer with claw-tipped black gloves taunts a mansion’s inhabitants while searching for a hidden loot of $1 million in cash.
Special Features: Theatrical Trailer.
The third film version of Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood’s 1920 Broadway play was heavily upgraded by writer-director Crane Wilbur with a lumpy structure that tried to update the material for 1950s audiences, perhaps tailoring Vincent Price’s pre-existing screen persona as a likeable villain, having appeared in two prior Wilbur-penned 3D blockbusters, House of Wax (1953) and The Mad Magician (1953).
Wilbur’s redo is also harmed by an opening cabin-in-the-woods scene with dialogue that’s utterly tone deaf. The set-up is designed to introduce Price as one of several villains within the story, as well as the mystery involving $1 million in cash which a bank founder gradually converted from stolen bearer bonds.
Within a few minutes, the banker’s out of the film, and Dr. Malcolm Wells (Price) is now a murderer, hungry to find the loot that may be stashed at an estate currently leased by mystery writer Cornelia van Gorder (Agnes Moorehead, stealing the film from the rest of the cast). Wilbur’s conversion of Gorder from wealthy spinster to mystery writer isn’t new or unique: in Magician, actress (and Wilbur’s wife) Lenita Lane played a mystery writer who becomes involved with the film’s serial murder mystery. Moorehead’s version of a successful novelist is equally strong, but The Bat uses her in a faux wraparound in which the author sets up the isolated, stately locale and wraps up the picture as her final dictated words to an assistant (which are quite banal) signal the end of her latest novel’s writing.
Wilbur’s plotting tightens only when the characters are trapped in the house and the eponymous killer, a long-coated, fedora-tipped killer wearing a black mask and metal-nailed gloves, stalks and slashes his way through victims until he finds the location of stolen funds. The back & forth maneuverings between characters is cleanly divided between women and possibly aggressive (but definitely suspect) men, making The Bat feel less of an Old Dark House (1932) riff than a primordial slasher film, if not an Italian giallo.
As Mario Bava and later Dario Argento would extrapolate the killer’s physical design in their respective classics The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Bat is important as a forgotten attempt to update a creaky whodunnit long past its prime. Like a classic giallo, the killer’s identity is unknown until the final reveal, and by then we’ve seen suspects disappear and pop up maimed or dead, and seen maidens traumatized, with at least one dying horribly.
What Wilbur couldn’t show onscreen is hinted early on in descriptions of victims whose throats were found torn open, and the killer’s customized gloves look nasty, predating Freddy Kruger’s more skeletal, long-tipped gloves in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Also successful is the variety of suspects, which include Wells, Lt. Andy Anderson (Gavin Gordon), and former chauffeur / van Gorder’s bulter Warner (John Sutton). Gordon’s performance is uneven, often characterizing the town’s lead cop as a rude bully, whereas Sutton (excellent as the sadistic villain in Captain from Castile) is strong in the rare scenes he’s allowed to interact at length with others.
As a director, Wilbur wasn’t the most adept at camera placement – early scenes in the back have awkward blocking, and the odd edit points leave too much dead space between characters, leaving theatrical pauses that deaden the energy of what’s supposed to be a vital scene. The same goes for Price’s opening cabin scene, where Wells’ reaction to Fleming’s weirdly casual admission to theft and setting up the bank manager as the chief patsy is akin to a talk about unusual lawn care. Wilbur’s intention may have been to keep the tone monochrome so Wells’ sudden action comes as a big shock, but the end result is an act that’s disjointed.
Little oddities pepper the rest of the script, and although the film’s first shot shows a Big House, the drama occurs in a more most home which never infers there’s a vast set of unused wings where the Bat is plotting his next maneuver – something better dramatized in the 1930 film version.
Alvino Rey’s credited with composing the rockabilly Bat theme with big band and twanging guitar, while Louis Forbes fashioned a more traditional orchestral score that adds a quick guitar twang whenever the Bat pops up or is referenced.
Joseph Biroc’s cinematography is workmanlike in the aforementioned cabin and bank scenes – maybe these were reshoots done with a lesser DOP – but once the tension begins in the mansion, the lighting is dimmed, and Biroc crafts some gorgeous shadowy images which have the killer often seen in silhouette or shadow.
Although released by Allied Artists and seen in a new transfer when Lorimar owned the catalogue and licensed films to TV, The Bat’s tumbling into public domain’s ensured there’s no definitive edition. Anchor Bay’s 2000 DVD sports a 1.33:1 transfer that’s clean but shows its age and compression in grey levels, and there’s the 2015 Blu-ray from Film Detective that sports a matted 1.85:1 transfer that’s supposedly faithful to the film’s original widescreen exhibition. (An A/B comparison shows the matted version crops the image’s top and bottom, but offers a sliver of peripheral information.)
In an ideal world, The Bat should exist on Blu in both ratios, sporting an isolated score track, and commentary by a film historian (David Del Valle, perhaps?) familiar with Price, Wilbur, and the source material, sorting through the stage and screen versions, and the film’s release in a market that became increasingly aimed at younger audiences teased with aliens and bug-eyed monsters instead of black-gloved killers.
The Bat has been filmed in 1920, as The Bat Whispers in1930 (shot simultaneously in 1.33:1 and the early 65mm widescreen process Magnifilm), and 1959. Rinehart and Hopwood’s play was also adapted for TV in 1953 for Broadway Television Theatre.
© 2017 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review