Monday, 13 February 2012

Movies: The Bat (1959)

Before I begin my review of the slightly predictable but nevertheless enjoyable, “The Bat”, I have to point out that I love classic horror movies. Admittedly I don’t love them all, but if I had to bet on whether I’d like a new release or something from fifty plus years ago, the oldie would be my pick every time. There’s just something about the combination of horror, elegance and slight ridiculousness, of which I’ve always been fond.

So if I don’t criticize how silly the prop bat being shoved in through the window looks, or how some of the furniture apparently moves of its own accord from shot to shot, or how his steal claws and the bizarre posing make him look more like Freddy Krueger’s Cat than “The Bat”, then that fondness is why. Besides, I’d rather see a fake-looking prop and somewhat comical characterization than badly done CGI and characters devoid of any kind of personality at all.

Anyway, before this turns into even more of a tangential rant, on with the review! Starring horror legend Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead (best known for her role as Endora in ‘Bewitched’) and directed by Crane Wilbur, ‘The Bat’ is a 1959 adaptation of the Avery Hopwood/Mary Roberts Rinehart Broadway play of the same name. There were also two earlier film adaptations: “The Bat” (1926) and “The Bat Whispers” (1930), both directed by Roland West, but having seen neither, I'm unsure whether or not this version takes anything from those predecessors. I’m helpful like that.

The main plot centres on Agnes Moorehead, who plays a reclusive mystery writer, Cornelia Van Gorder, living in a town under threat from a serial killer known as “The Bat”. The mysterious murderer, described as a “man with no face”, which actually means that he wears a mask, kills his victims by ripping out their throats with steel claws. An outbreak of rabies in the town is also believed to be connected to the bats the killer releases at the scenes of his crimes. When Miss Van Gorder’s maid, Lizzie Allen (Lenita Lane), is bitten by one of the bats, following a break in by the steel-clawed menace, Dr Wells, who just happens to be conducting research on bats, is called to take a look.

As well as the slayings, everyone is looking for a million dollars-worth of recently stolen bank assets, which Dr. Wells (Vincent Price) believes is hidden in the Van Gorder house. Of course, he has very good reason to think that, as the thief tells him where it is earlier in the movie. After being threatened by the said money grabber, Wells then proceeds to shoot him, intending to retrieve the loot for himself instead. Lesson learned – threatening Vincent Price in a horror movie never ends well.

However, “The Bat” wants that stolen money too, which is why he was at the Van Gorder house. I didn’t really understand why a serial killer, who had previously just seemed to get his jollies killing women, suddenly wanted to become a millionaire thief, but perhaps it’s some logical progression in the criminal world, of which I’m simply ignorant. That sudden change and the excessive number of red herring suspects were, in my opinion, the somewhat disappointing aspects of the movie. Having said that, they weren’t bad enough to ruin the plot, which was for the most part entertaining and largely free of irritating characters.

The acting was also fairly solid from the whole cast, save for Agnes Moorehead’s somewhat changeable portrayal of Van Gorder; flitting between strong and intelligent, to needy and overemotional several times. Overall however, she gave a good performance and her interactions with Lenita Lane were believable as that of an employer and a maid who’ve known each other so long that they’re almost like family.

Then there’s the Dr Wells character, which brings a huge amount of charisma to the picture in the form of Vincent Price. He does overplay the role at times, but those are balanced out well with the subtle looks and gestures. His somewhat strange science lab (complete with test tubes, a microscope and a random giant light-up bat behind a curtain, of course!) also makes him the movie’s resident eccentric, which no self-respecting classic horror should be without.

I’m still not entirely sure what that bat was there for though…

Whilst both the plot and acting were decent, if I had to choose one thing to give this movie five out of five for, it would be the visuals. The use of lighting is superb, creating some really impressive and mildly creepy shadows and silhouettes of the doors, windows and even The Bat. I adore the striking contrast between the monochromatic tones caused by the hard lighting used. I can’t think of many movies today that utilize shadows so effectively. Maybe it’s because of the black and white film used, but Dario Argento managed that kind of effect in color in ‘Suspiria’, so I suspect not.

If all of the above isn’t enough for you, and you’re thinking “but where’s the blood and the gore from this serial murderer??”, well, there isn’t any. Sorry. However, quite unusually for a 1950’s flick, they do show one of The Bat’s killings in its entirety. It was pretty brutal for back then and, for me, one of the reasons why this is a horror rather than a film noir or mystery. Maybe along with the lighting…and that giant bat.

Overall, I have no real complaints about “The Bat” and it was absolutely worth seeing if you like older horrors. The ending could have been better and less predictable, but it didn’t ruin the whole film, thankfully. Definitely one to watch alone on a dark stormy night, or alternatively, watch with friends and have fun chuckling at the silly bits!


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