Outside the lonely foreboding mansion, thunder booms and lightning flashes in the sky. The approaching storm illuminates the large, time-worn building where inside the heroine is about to enter a secret staircase. The door slides ominously open, revealing a staircase down into the neither regions of the house. She steps forward toward the opening-only to have a hand reach out and slam the door closed. The house is not ready to reveal its secrets quite yet. Such is a moment of dread from THE BAT WHISPERS (1930), directed by Roland West, which set the stage for all the haunted house horrors to come.
Pictures made in the style of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE CONJURING, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL or THE SHINING have been a staple of the horror film since Charles Ogle first shuffled forth as the creature in FRANKENSTEIN (1910). House based ghoulish goings on have been around longer than that in the theatre. Its heyday was during the 1920’s and continued up to what some would say the zenith in the play Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring. The source material for THE BAT WHISPERS was the very successful stage play THE BAT written by Mary Roberta Rinehart, a mystery writer and Avery Hopwood, whose forte was farce. The result was a mixture of thrills, red herrings, murders, inept policemen and witty dialogue all with a dash of slapstick comedy to relieve the tension. Moments of horror punctuated with lighter scenes is still a cardinal writing rule in horror film today as you build to the next shock.
THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) was a remake of the silent version by the same director. Why would you remake a three year old film? The answer is the same today as yesterday because there is different technology and you already own the property. The main difference is that THE BAT WHISPERS was on the cutting edge of technology for its time. Roland West filmed THE BAT WHISPERS in not one but three different versions. The first was the standard 35 mm version aka flat screen. This was the dawn of talking pictures. Many directors as well as actors were finding their way through the new systems. Actors could not move around frantically as much as they could in the silent days, and directors were discovering camera movement such as ‘tracking shots’ on dollies. You no longer had to have the camera locked in one position yet the early cameras were still cumbersome. It was exciting times as experimentation was the vogue.
THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) Enjoy some silent moments as the use of sound was not fully discovered in storytelling.
The second version of THE BAT WHISPERS was photographed in widescreen 65 mm format, shot by a separate camera person, Robert Planck. The picture also featured innovative use of miniatures which may seem trite today but in 1930 they were used spectacularly; particularly the opening dive down the face of skyscraper to the street below only to pull up at the last moment to the front door of a building. Later on there is the quintessential shot of the corridors of the house featuring the wind billowing curtains, dark rooms on either side as the camera passes by, establishing what would become one of the fundamental images of the language of horror -the old house where evil deeds are done. This was essential as it was the first time the camera traveled down the corridors by itself showing the atmosphere of dread.
The third most effective piece of camera work was a moving shot from the garden to the front door of the mansion at night from the outside. The same angle can be seen in the odious Francis Ford Coppola’s version of Dracula (which had no relation to Bram Stoker’s novel)
THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) is also landmark in that it has no opening music. In fact, there is very little music heard at all as the film makers were not yet using music as a tool. It is also a monetary consideration in that you did not have to pay someone to use their music or compose an original piece. Todd Browning’s 1931 DRACULA, with Bela Lugosi, featured a movement from SWAN LAKE as its opening theme for dramatic purposes. This piece of music was in the public domain plus the audience would recognize it.
Another landmark moment in THE BAT WHISPERS is really a non-moment in that the on screen shriek of a menaced heroine is not heard. This is not because it was deemed too frightening for a 1930s audience but that it was not part of the horror lexicon. Sound was a new tool to tell a story. The heroine in this case when menaced lets out a muffled sound and runs, pounding her fists into a door. Once again Todd Browning’s DRACULA features the famous Lugosi muffled sound as he is staked. James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931) featured an original music score plus Mae Clarke’s and other people’s shrieks. This follows the horror axiom of the 30s and some of the best examples today that the most terrifying scenes are played in silence. Interesting to note that both DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN are produced one year ahead of THE BAT WHISPERS.
The third version of THE BAT WHISPERS was a special edition for the foreign market, said to be made of alternate takes of scenes. All were directed and produced by one Roland West.
The 65 mm format version is important in that it foreshadowed the coming of Cinemascope, later Cinerama and Todd O formats which were so strong in the fifties and sixties as the motion picture industry was seeking a way to combat the monster of television. THE BAT WHISPERS had limited distribution in its large format as it required special projectors and screens in a theatre which in many cases had just paid for the conversion to sound. The early John Wayne picture THE BIG TRAIL (1930) by Raoul Walsh was another example of a film made in large format and flat screen that also suffered from distribution problems.
The plot of THE BAT WHISPERS in not important plus it would detract if some would like to view it on their own. The ending features an epilogue by one of the film stars Chester Morris speaking directly to the audience, asking the patrons not to reveal the ending to their friends after leaving the theatre. This is similar to the Lugosi audience speech at the end of the performance of the play Dracula (1927) and Edward Van Sloan’s prologue to James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN.
Urban Legend says that fellow named Bob Kane attended a screening of this film. Kane was thrilled with the imagery of the mysterious Bat in human form that he went on to create The Batman for Detective Comics Issue number 27.
Director Roland West made a number of pictures in a similar style such as THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927), later remade with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in 1939. THE BAT WHISPERS was remade in 1959 with Vincent Price, Agnes Moorhead, and Darla Hood (Darla from the Our Gang Comedies). West only made 13 films in total, yet his fame (infamy?) comes from being the lover of popular film comedienne, party girl Thelma Todd who was found slumped over dead in her car.
Todd had bruises, a broken nose, chipped teeth and three cracked ribs yet her death was ruled a suicide by LAPD due to carbon monoxide poisoning. The real life crime was one of Hollywood’s great mysteries. Other suspects included Todd’s ex-husband, Pat DiCicco, Charles Smith, treasurer of a restaurant co-owned by Todd and West and none other than Charles “Lucky” Luciano. West remained a prime suspect for fifty years. On his deathbed, delirious, he “confessed” to murdering Thelma Todd.
THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) set the pattern for all the coming horrors in a house. Everything has to have a beginning and with daring technical innovations, an eye to experiment, to push the envelope of the medium of film ….the language of the horror film is that much richer.