Horror is a very broad genre. Horror by definition elicits fear and shock or, at the very least, attempts to elicit those emotions. Beyond that basic criterion, there is plenty of room for interpretation. Monsters, ghosts, and other supernatural elements are certainly ingrained in our idea of horror entertainment but they are not necessary components. The theatrical poster for The Bat (1959) with its ominous moonlit scene and menacing tagline appears to be promoting a horror story. But, is the film actually a horror? It certainly contains classic horror elements. There are damsels in distress. There is a faceless killer using steel claws to inflict mortal neck wounds. Bats play a part in the proceedings, including the threat of rabid bats. And, there is Vincent Price behaving at his inscrutable and conniving best. These factors are enough, for me at least, to classify the film as a horror and a quite enjoyable one. That said, it is hard to ignore that, at its core, The Bat is really a failed whodunit story.
Agnes Moorehead (mother-in-law Endora to the Darrins on Bewitched) portrays Cornelia Van Gorder, a writer of mystery novels who has rented a spacious summer home known as The Oaks just outside of the town of Zenith. Miss Van Gorder has brought with her Lizzie Allen (Lenita Lane), her loyal maid of twenty years; her new chauffeur, Warner (John Sutton); and a full complement of house staff that we never see but who walk out at the first sign of trouble anyway. The Oaks is owned by the local bank president and has been rented without his knowledge while he is away for the summer. Van Gorder has apparently leased the home fully aware that it was the site of multiple recent murders by the sinister, and still at large, villain known as The Bat.
In addition to the unsolved murders, it is soon revealed that The Oaks is also the epicentre of a second mystery. While Van Gorder is in town to do some banking, a theft of one million dollars in securities is discovered at the bank. Although young cashier, Victor Bailey (Mike Steele) will be charged with embezzling the funds, the prevailing assumption is that bank president, John Fleming (Harry Stephens), is actually responsible. This leads to further speculation that the loot is hidden somewhere at The Oaks. Fleming, as already mentioned, is away for the summer on a hunting trip in the company of his personal physician. Vincent Price plays Dr. Malcolm Wells, a character integral to the plot but, notwithstanding Price’s top billing, not the lead of the film (that honour goes to Agnes Moorehead). Despite having left with Fleming for an extended period, Dr. Wells is seemingly the only available doctor for the area. When he returns unexpectedly with news of Fleming’s death in a fire, Wells is called upon for every medical need and as coroner for any deaths.
Rounding out the cast and the suspects is Gavin Gordon as Detective Andy Anderson, Elaine Edwards as the bank cashier’s wife, and Darla Hood as Judy. Judy has information relevant to the embezzlement case. As the cashier’s secretary, Judy witnessed something that she implies is very significant and will clear the cashier. Unfortunately, the film never bothers to reveal that piece of information as Judy is forbidden to speak of it until the trial and the case never makes it to court. Detective Anderson is investigating the case of The Bat and is highly suspicious of everyone he comes in contact with including replacement housekeeper, Mrs. Patterson (Riza Royce). Anderson is also supposed to be protecting the women who, rather unwisely, have all decided to stay over at The Oaks while the mishaps and murders continue all around them. Anderson proves to be very poor at his job.
There is some justification for Detective Anderson’s mistrust of anyone and everyone. The inhabitants of Zenith seem to be an immoral bunch. The prevalent attitude in the town is that people will turn to crime and even murder if they think they can get away with it and the reward is high enough. Everyone, especially the men, acts a little shady. Warner, the chauffeur, lurks in hallways and peeks around corners. The real estate agent who leased The Oaks to Miss Van Gorder lets himself in and skulks around looking for a hidden closet. Detective Anderson himself roams the nearby woods when he is supposed to be protecting the women at The Oaks. And then there is Dr. Wells. During a conversation with bank president Fleming, Wells is very casual with the thought of embezzlement and murder. He is not ethically opposed to murder but finds it “too messy”. Vincent Price does a marvelous job casting suspicion on both his own character and others with every remark, every inflection, and every facial expression. In one scene when Miss Van Gorder hypothesizes as to the location of the stolen securities, you see Price’s eyelids flicker ever so slightly with growing interest. Price is capable of portraying a character as both cordial and devious at the exact same time. As a cackling madman in films like Theatre of Blood, Price is a delight. In The Bat, his performance is nuanced and subdued but no less enjoyable.
It doesn’t take a mystery author to deduce that the embezzlement case and The Bat are intertwined. And that is really the biggest problem with the film. In the tradition of Ellery Queen or, for a more recent example, Murder, She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher, Miss Van Gorder is the novelist who finds herself in the role of amateur detective. With her maid Lizzie as her naïve and excitable companion, Van Gorder is the unflappable, pragmatic investigator who uses her experience writing mysteries to put the clues together and solve the case. Or at least, the film is structured in that manner. In actual fact, Van Gorder does little besides visit with the other women and makes almost no progress on the case. The one discovery she does make, is a result of luck more than any detective work and it, combined with her own incompetence, almost results in her demise. The mystery is largely solved because they run out of suspects and Van Gorder is completely shocked by the resolution. Although Lizzie comes across as a bit of a ditz in need of the rational Van Gorder, she is just as often the reasonable one talking down a frazzled Van Gorder. An entire scene is devoted to Lizzie providing rational explanations for noises in the old house to a jumpy Van Gorder.
In Miss Van Gorder’s defence, we the viewers have no chance of solving the mystery either. Outside of an early scene that possibly gives us too much information, we have nothing to work with. There are no clues to spot, riddles to solve, or cryptic statements to decipher. Neither the identity of The Bat nor the whereabouts of the stolen securities can be deduced by a careful examination of the film. Half the fun of a mystery story is solving the puzzle yourself or at least understanding in hindsight how you might have solved it. The action in The Bat, not only fails to lead to a definitive conclusion, but often defies logic. The Bat has been committing these vicious murders since the preceding winter but the securities did not go missing until the summer. Are we to assume he is a serial killer that decided to put his skills to a more productive cause? At one point, The Bat releases an actual bat into the bedroom where Van Gorder and Lizzie are staying and Lizzie is bitten. There is no justification for the actions of either The Bat or the bat. There is also the matter of a very ineffective attempt by The Bat to cast suspicion elsewhere.
Ultimately, The Bat is a very poor mystery film. Things happen with hardly any rhyme or reason and, when the identity of The Bat is finally revealed, it is inconsequential. Fortunately, The Bat is a fine little horror film. Don’t expect edge of your seat frights, but The Bat delivers with an eerie atmosphere and a suitably dark and menacing villain. Add Vincent Price doing what Vincent Price does best and you can’t help enjoy the result. I suggest you view the film the same way Dr. Wells believes a victim of The Bat surrendered to his own murder. He knew what hit him. “But he didn’t have time to think about it.”
The Bat (1959) Directed by Crane Wilbur; Written by Crane Wilbur; Based on the novel The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart and the play The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart & Avery Hopwood; Starring Vincent Price, Agnes Moorehead, Gavin Gordon, John Sutton, Lenita Lane, Elaine Edwards, & Darla Hood; Not readily available on DVD or BluRay at the moment but can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video and tubi.
This is my contribution to The Vincent Price Blogathon. My enigmatic accomplice on this blog has also written an article for the blogathon here. Please check out some of the other contributors by clicking on the image below. Our thanks to Cinematic Catharsis and RealWeegieMidget Reviews for allowing us to share in the mystery.