Last year, when I was taking an interest in Old Dark House movies, I ran across this title. Based on a stage play, it’s the story of a killer dressed in a bat costume who terrorizes the inhabitants of an isolated country house. Sounded like just the sort of thing I was looking for! A silent version was made in the 1920s and another, presumably talkie version, in 1930. These earlier versions were not available on DVD, but since this 1959 remake starred Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead, I thought it was worth a look.
Moorehead plays Cornelia Van Gorder, a writer of murder mysteries who has rented a country house called the Oaks for the summer from the bank president of the nearest town. The bank president, Mr. Fleming, is away vacationing in a cabin in the woods with his friend, the local doctor. Miss Van Gorder just happens to be at the bank, meeting the nice young cashier who’s been left in charge and his nice young wife, when over a million dollars worth of bonds and negotiable securities are discovered missing.
Meanwhile up at the cabin in the woods, Mr. Fleming cheerfully confesses to Dr. Wells (Vincent Price) that he stole the securities. He’s already converted them to cash and has hidden them in a secret room at the Oaks. The nice young cashier will be blamed for the theft. Fleming wants the doctor to help him fake his own death, including providing a body in the form a recluse who lives in the woods. For his help, Dr. Wells can expect to receive half a million dollars; if he refuses, Fleming will kill him. When a fire breaks out near the cabin, however, Dr. Wells gets a better idea. He reports Fleming’s death as requested, but the body he brings back to town bears a more convincing resemblance to the late banker.
We catch up with Miss Van Gorter not long afterwards on a dark and stormy night. She and her comic-relief maid are discussing Fleming’s funeral, the arrest of Bailey the cashier–oh, and the murderer known as the Bat who’s been terrorizing the area. The Bat is said to be “faceless” and tears his victims’ throats with steel claws. The two women are made somewhat nervous by this conversation, not to mention the rising storm and a suit of armor that tumbles noisily down the main staircase. As they go around the house making sure that everything is locked up, a clawed hand reaches in through one window!
Miss Van Gorter does the sensible thing: phones the police and barricades herself and her maid in her bedroom. And a good thing too, since the next thing we see is the Bat cutting the glass on the front door to enter the house. He is outside the bedroom door on the landing when he hears Miss Van Gorter say that she has a gun and knows how to use it, and he retreats. He returns later that night to introduce a real bat (or at least a rubber one on a string) into the room where the two women are sleeping via the transom over the locked door. When the bat bites the maid, Dr. Wells is summoned in on an emergency house call. Dr. Wells, by the way, is conducting an experiment with bats (a real bat this time–an adorable big-eared, pug-nosed creature) when he receives the call. While he attends to the maid, Wells does his best to convince Miss Van Gorter to leave the Oaks.
Now, we know that Dr. Wells is after that hidden million… but is he the Bat? The local sheriff seems to think so, and certain circumstances make Wells look extremely suspicious. But the butler at the Oaks also behaves suspiciously. And what about the housekeeper? We observe the manly build of the masked figure roaming around the house at night and know that she can’t be the Bat herself, but she did work for Mr. Fleming for years and may be in cahoots with someone.
While I found most of this build-up entertaining and the resolution of the mystery satisfying, my overall impression of the film is “Well… it was okay.” Not bad, but disappointing in some respects.
The second night in the house, for example: Miss Van Gorter invites Mrs. Bailey, the nice young cashier’s wife, and another bank employee whose testimony may exonerate Bailey to stay with her. It’s here that the Bat claims his first victim at the Oaks, then his second. Now, this scenario–a group of women spending the night in a big, old house with a killer on the loose, suspects wandering around the grounds while the ladies explore strange noises and search for secret panels–should be the heart of any effective story of this type, yet the film doesn’t do as much with the situation as I felt it should. Then the story concludes on another night, later on. Splitting the action up over three separate nights (the three acts of the original play?) dissipates the tension needed to keep things suspenseful and interesting. A tauter narrative is needed.
The conceit of Moorehead’s character describing events as she turns her adventure into her next book is also not used as well as it might’ve been. The film opens with her introductory voice-over, then that’s the last we hear of it for over an hour. But the most disappointing aspect of all is that I was really looking forward to some sort of conflict between Moorehead’s and Price’s characters. A mature, resourceful, and no-nonsense lady, she would certainly be more than a match for his debonair and underhanded villainy… but it sadly never comes to that.