Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 01 October 2005
Source Alpha Video DVD
Features: 31 Days of Horror
Haunted house movies may be a dime a dozen now, but when director Roland West’s silent classic The Bat unspooled in 1926, they were still something of a novelty. Nearly 80 years later, the film evokes more laughter than screams, but its plot, characters and themes have stood the test of time, popping up in everything from Scooby Doo to The Haunting to Batman (the title character even uses a bat signal identical to the one displayed by Bruce Wayne).
Bolstered by the inventive art direction of William Cameron Menzies, who made his mark with The Thief of Baghdad and would go on to work on such films as The Iron Mask and Gone With the Wind, the house in question retains a dark, angular feel that enhances the spooky atmosphere. The film is rumored to have been shot exclusively at night, which is fitting given its subject, a mysterious criminal who dresses up as a bat (which, incidentally, bears an uncanny resemblance to the rabbit in Donnie Darko) in order to drive out the inhabitants of a rented mansion.
Based on a stage play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood, the action that follows is a mix of unexpectedly fresh slapstick and disappointingly muddled suspense. After hearing strange noises around the house, Miss Cornelia Van Gorder, the wealthy spinster renting the mansion, discovers that its previous owner was a recently-deceased bank president whose $200,000 fortune has gone missing. Surrounded by a local detective, her hysterical maid, her mysterious Japanese butler (who finds himself the brunt of several racist jibes), her doctor, her wide-eyed niece, and her niece’s fiancée (played by Jack Pickford, in a bland performance that betrays neither his family lineage or notoriety he would later gain for gambling, drug abuse and womanizing), Cornelia sets out to get to investigate the strange goings-on. As it turns out, The Bat is not the only threat that lies in her midst.
Just as Alfred Hitchcock asked theater owners not to admit late patrons into screenings of Psycho so as not to spoil the surprise, the opening title card of The Bat pleads with audience members not to reveal the identity of its title character to those who haven’t yet seen the film. Although the dramatic unveiling that eventually unfolds might strike modern audiences as resolutely anti-climactic, it seems it was sufficiently intriguing to justify talkie remakes in 1930 (entitled The Bat Whispers, and also directed by West) and 1959. More significantly, Bob Kane cited The Bat Whispers as one of the chief inspirations for his Batman comics.
While the film never quite lives up to the creepy potential of its premise, the plot moves along swiftly, its pacing only slightly marred by the coma-inducing score that appears on the Alpha Video DVD. The characters gathered may be a collection of clichés, but the wit and verve they bring to their respective roles gives them an edge over many of the countless copycats they inspired.