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At a remote country mansion called the Oaks, feisty mystery writer Cornelia Van Gorder (Agnes Moorehead) is dismissive of reports that her new summer home was once the stalking grounds for a mad killer known as the Bat, who slashed out the throats of his victims. Meanwhile at a nearby cabin, Dr. Wells (Vincent Price) is approached at gunpoint by his hunting companion, a bank president (and full-time owner of the Oaks), about a scheme to make off with a million dollars in stolen bonds. A convenient forest fire provides a distraction by which Wells kills the thief in self-defense before learning the location of the money. Along with a colorful assortment of characters, Dr. Wells ends up at the Oaks for a dark, spooky evening which finds the Bat returning to his old murderous habits. Or has he?
The fourth big-screen adaptation of the venerable old dark house novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Circular Staircase (and later adapted by the author and Avery Hopwood into a stage play), this middle-tier spooker is most fondly remembered for its pairing of two Hollywood scenery-chewers, Price and Moorehead. Price had already established himself as a reliable character actor, usually appearing as vaguely oily rascals with unfulfilled designs on the leading lady. Though Price had demonstrated a flair for both comedy (His Kind of Woman, 1951) and drama (Laura, 1944), the 1950s brought a dramatic career shift which would determine the fate of his entire career. Though he first did top-rung ghoul duty in 1953's House of Wax, it took a third-billed but unforgettable turn in 1958's The Fly to establish Price as a horror icon to a generation of impressionable matinee audiences. Shock-gimmick master William Castle immediately recognized Price's potential as a horror leading man par excellence and, despite Price's fears of typecasting (according to the director's autobiography, Step Right Up! I'm Going to Scare the Pants Off America), they collaborated on House on Haunted Hill (1959, featuring the memorable flying-skeleton gimmick, "Emergo"). Now a household name, Price appeared in an astonishing succession of horror favorites including another teaming with Castle (The Tingler, 1959), numerous Edgar Allan Poe adaptations by Roger Corman, and The Bat (1959), which allowed him to sink his teeth into a juicy thunderstorm-and-lightning chiller with theatricality to spare.
With a career extending back to the earliest days of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre Company, Moorehead never quite attained leading lady status but became a very familiar face due to frequent film and television appearances. Though most knew her for her bravura dramatic work, Moorehead had no hesitation plunging into tongue-in-cheek melodrama like this film (or the later Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, 1964) or even TV sitcoms, as she found enduring fame as sorceress mother-in-law Endora on Bewitched. Other notable cast members include reliable character actor Gavin Gordon (whose career in bit parts dates back to the earliest talkies including 1933's Mystery of the Wax Museum), frequent Price co-star Crane Wilbur (The Mad Magician, House of Wax), and the final on-screen appearance for Darla Hood, best known as Darla from The Little Rascals.
Second only to The Cat and the Canary as the most familiar of the twentieth century's "mad animal-like killer on the loose in an old house" yarns, The Bat first made its screen appearance in the sound era as 1930's The Bat Whispers. Shot in a very early experimental scope format, the first adaptation showcased some astonishing camera trickery to compensate for its creaky plot and stock characterizations. However, the 1950s version goes in the opposite direction by emphasizing the source material's antiquity; this is a nostalgia piece from top to bottom, and the cast virtually drips with greasepaint conjuring up the atmosphere of an intimate stage with a killer lurking just beyond the curtain. Such an approach proved mild in a decade filled with an increasing reliance on rampaging aliens and sinister ghouls, but time has been kind to the film; its public domain status (with the inevitable wide number of television and home video appearances) has further cemented its longevity after many of its contemporaries have been long forgotten.
Producer: C.J. Tevlin
Director: Crane Wilbur
Screenplay: Avery Hopwood (novel), Mary Roberts Rinehart (novel), Crane Wilbur
Cinematography: Joseph Biroc
Film Editing: William Austin
Art Direction: Dave Milton
Music: Louis Forbes
Cast: Vincent Price (Dr. Malcolm Wells), Agnes Moorehead (Cornelia van Gorder), Gavin Gordon (Lt. Andy Anderson), John Sutton (Warner), Lenita Lane (Lizzie Allen), Elaine Edwards (Dale Bailey).
by Nathaniel Thompson