Home Video Hovel: The Bat, by West Anthony
If and when Joel Hodgson’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 makes its return, he could hardly do worse than riff on The Bat, Crane Wilbur’s absurd, overwritten 1959 thriller that plays like a Murder, She Wrote episode written by Tommy Wiseau crossed with Panic Room if David Fincher had been whacked in the head with a shovel. From the opening shot of a transparently miniature mansion, to Wilbur’s dull TV staging and chewy mouthfuls of exposition, to Agnes Moorehead’s overwrought arm movements that seem as though she is literally trying to fly away from the movie, it could be easily believed that The Bat fell into the public domain simply because nobody wanted to admit responsibility for it. And yet it is hilariously entertaining, specifically because it falls right into that MST3K sweet spot of being enjoyably bad without tipping over into excruciatingly bad.
Nearly everything surrounding this film is more fascinating than the film itself. The story started out as a mystery novel titled The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart, which is noted for being the first to employ the fragrant literary device “Had I But Known,” which I’m sure English Lit students are mocking somewhere at this very moment. Rinehart later turned the novel into a Broadway play where it first became known as The Bat; this became a 1926 silent film by director Roland West (no relation) featuring Mary Pickford’s kid brother. Four years later West remade it as a talkie called The Bat Whispers, which comic book fans may recognize as an acknowledged inspiration for artist Bob Kane when he cooked up the Batman. However, one would be hard put to detect any traces of The Dark Knight in this property by the time Crane Wilbur got his mitts on it. A writer of some very good films (Crime Wave, He Walked By Night) as well as some ham-handed bullshit (I Was A Communist For The FBI), Wilbur seems to have forgotten that he has a camera at his disposal, preferring instead to write and direct as though for radio, stating things that don’t need to be stated when they could simply be shown instead.
Agnes Moorehead stars as Cornelia Van Gorder, a famous mystery author who moves into a big creepy estate that is supposedly being terrorized by “The Bat”, a mysterious faceless maniac who tears out people’s throats with his ghastly claws. Vincent Price co-stars as an amoral doctor who’s after a fortune in embezzled loot that’s hidden in the estate. Joining them are a cast of annoying B-grade actors (among them Darla Hood of The Little Rascals, in her final screen role) who portray numerous red herrings as everyone tries to get to the bottom of this Bat business without getting their throats ripped out. The subpar acting and ludicrous dialogue make it impossible to care who the hell this Bat guy turns out to be; there is way too much reading from newspapers to fill in expository blanks for the audience, while other scenes are so ineptly written as to make viewers laugh out loud. Here’s Vincent Price commenting on the seemingly cursed estate:
“It’s been a tragic place for anyone who ever lived in it. Well, good night.”
A vast chasm of morbid anecdotes resides between those two sentences, yet it doesn’t occur to Wilbur to put audiences on the edge of their seats by throwing us a bone with one of them. Here’s the butler, seeing a shrouded corpse being carried through the living room:
“Has there been an accident?”
Dude, really? I still can’t decide if that’s supposed to be some of that dry, understated British wit that Oscar Wilde and the Gallagher Brothers did so well. There are so many similar moments of poorly-conceived storytelling and slipshod filmmaking that, if you are so inclined to turn off your brain and just go with it, The Bat becomes a rollicking, blundering joyride. The new Film Detective blu-ray is perhaps a questionable use of such advanced home video technology (and the appellation “Restored Classics”? Um…), but for fifteen bucks I don’t think we should complain. Price purrs his unwieldy lines with customary aplomb; Agnes Moorehead, who has certainly been better elsewhere (The Magnificent Ambersons, Dark Passage), tries gamely to make up for the fact that she has almost no worthwhile dialogue at all with a histrionic performance featuring gestures that are now being used to guide planes on airport runways. But dammit, it’s FUN! I find most so-called “so bad it’s good” movies – Troll 2, for instance – to be no kind of good, but rather regrettable, time-wasting piffles. The Bat is a piffle, but I didn’t regret a minute of it, and neither should you. Push the button, Frank!