Grade:  B-/C+
Not rated (would be PG)

Another release timed for Halloween is The Bat (1959), which is in the public domain and widely available for free . . . in blurred versions that are no better than VHS tapes (remember those?). The way to watch, if you’re a fan, is on hi-def Blu-ray from The Film Detective, which becomes available on October 25. Transfer purists might wince at a few compression artifacts, but this print is still plenty sharp and a major improvement over the free stuff.

Don’t let the title, tagline (“When it flies . . . Someone Dies”) or star fool you. The Bat isn’t a horror film. With Vincent Price onboard and cover art reminiscent of The Pit and the Pendulum, you’d certainly think as much, but when I watched this film for the first time a single thought kept popping into my head:  the old “Shadow” radio serials.

With a radio mystery feel to it, The Bat has more in common with Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories than it does his tales of the macabre. And while Price gets top billing, Agnes Moorehead (Samantha’s mom on the old Bewitched TV series) has the most screen time and is also more engaging. She plays a mystery writer who rents a mansion that has a sketchy past and rumors of hauntings and crazy people, just so she can get ideas for her next book.

Men in Plaid

Sleeping in a haunted house all alone except for a terrified female assistant (Lanita Lane)? No problem. Cornelia van Gorder is more like her sleuth heroes than the typical writer immersed in a real-life adventure that we encounter in movies. Nothing seems to faze her, this creation of Mary Roberts Rinehart, who in 1920 based her three-act play The Bat on her 1908 novel, The Circular Staircase, and lived long enough to see two Hollywood adaptations. She died a year before this faithful adaptation was released on a B-movie twin bill with the 1959 Hammer version of The Mummy. But based on a play, it feels like a play.

The radio whodunit quality of the film is underscored by nine exclusive archival radio re-broadcast episodes featuring Price that are included among the bonus features. There’s not much violence or gore in this film, and not even much in the way of jump scares. But there is a decent mystery here for fans of the genre. Rinehart coined the expression “The Butler did it,” and the culprit is far from obvious in this film adaptation, which has gotten mixed reviews over the years. When it was first in theaters, The New York Times praised the mystery elements and Moorehead’s “good, snappy performance,” but since then it has settled into the good-but-not-great range of 6 out of 10 or 2.5 stars out of 4 because it doesn’t have the crackling energy of the scary films that were coming out at the time—quite literally in The Tingler, which had seats rigged to give patrons mild shocks at just the right time.

Price isn’t as hammy as he tends to be in his horror films, when melodrama adds to the campy experience for fans that love to be scared and then laugh at themselves for being afraid. Unlike the scientists and doctors he played in earlier outings such as The Tingler or The Fly, Price’s character in this mystery is an Average Joe who “roughs it” with a buddy in a hunting cabin and wears an apron rather than a lab coat. He seems more comfortable with a tea kettle than fussing with beakers and test tubes and questions of good vs. evil. It’s almost jarring to first see Price in a plaid shirt, seemingly cast against type as a vacationing Dr. Malcolm Wells. The plot, an easy-going sort of paradox that’s gently twisted yet easy to follow—is set in motion when his banker friend and hunting buddy casually remarks that he embezzled over a million dollars and offers to split the money with the doctor if he’ll help him fake his death.

Beware the Freddy Krueger precursor?

In town, meanwhile, a masked murderer who slashes the throats of his victims with steel claws (nothing very graphic ever shown) has been dubbed “The Bat” because he plays with mechanical ones and sometimes releases real critters that may or may not have rabies. Everyone is afraid, and by the time mystery writer van Gorder shows up to begin residency in her rental, nearly the whole staff has left. Only the chauffeur remains, so, uh, the butler can’t be the culprit. And on a dark and stormy night, everyone is suspect. If this were a horror picture, the pressing question would be, “Who will die next?” But this is a mystery, so the main question is instead, “Who is The Bat?” Whodunit, darn it, and who continues to do it?

Fans of the old Bewitched series will relish seeing Moorehead in a semi-serious role because her character is seriously nonplussed. Her room could be on fire and she’d still be taking mental notes for her next novel and wondering whether the fire was accidental or deliberate. Moorehead is flat-out fun to watch if you’ve only seen her as the witch Endora. Likewise, fans of the old Our Gang serials might enjoy seeing Darla Hood, who played Cookie on those comedy shorts, as an adult bank employee in The Bat—what would turn out to be her final performance as an actor.

Moorehead (left) and Price, with Lane looking on

But it’s the twists and turns that make this film worth watching. I pride myself on figuring things out way before the clues are planted, and Rinehart’s plot still surprised. Yet, when all was revealed, it all made sense. Surprise is the gold standard for this genre, and while The Bat isn’t as frightening or full of crackling energy as the horror flicks that experienced a resurgence from 1958-1967, The Bat does offer credible mystery. And like any good mystery, it’s more of an intellectual exercise with the added tension of an old house, missing staff, lurking crazies, and greedy people than it is the strictly emotional experience of a thriller. Some people prefer that, and this Film Detective Special Edition is for them.

Entire family:  No (3rd grade and older)
Run time:  80 min. Black-and-White
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS 2.0 Mono
Studio/Distributor:  Liberty Pictures/The Film Detective
Bonus features:  B
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for peril and some frightening scenes)

Language:  0/10—Nothing objectionable

Sex:  1/10—Nary a thing, unless you count cleavage

Violence:  2/10—Mostly it’s the threat of violence, with very little shown onscreen: just several deaths by shooting and slashing, quick and bloodless

Adult situations:  0/10—You’d think a haunted house would call for a stiff drink, but I didn’t catch anything

Takeaway:  Fans of Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead will enjoy seeing them as different characters than they’re used to; mystery fans while enjoy the mental exercise; and young children who aren’t permitted to see any of today’s truly frightening horror flicks might get the parental nod to start with this milder film, where the bad guy kind of feels, at times, like a Scooby-Doo villain just begging to be unmasked