As nature’s only flying mammal, the bat might have been honoured as one of mankind’s warm-blooded allies. Instead, these winged denizens of the night have long been objects of fear, linked to the foreboding of nightfall and the mythology of the vampire. The vampire bat common in South and Central America has given the many hundreds of other bat varieties a bad name. Something about their erratic, indirect flight and their squat, fanged faces sends shivers through our collective consciousness.
Between vampire movies and haunted house pictures, cinema has played no small part in this fearsome mythology. An image of bats on the wing against a full moon or clustered in the rafters of some dread mansion is enough to strike terror into cinemagoing hearts. When the Hammer version of Dracula (1958) plays during our Monster Weekend on the forecourt of the British Museum, don’t underestimate the frisson of fright that seeing this vampire classic outside and in the dark may bring.
International Bat Night, which took place the night of 25 August this year, is all about helping us get over our dyed-in-the-wool bat aversion. Bat walks and other events hosted by parks and community groups aim to aid greater understanding of our fanged friends, which are becoming increasingly endangered as they are shooed out from their nesting spots in barns and houses.
Let’s not, however, hold our breath for the day when we see some benevolent bats on screen. Instead, dim the lights and cover your hair for our 10-film trek into bat country.
Le Manior du diable (1896)
Director: Georges Méliès
Here we are at the dawn of cinema, nearly 120 years ago, with what is often considered the first horror movie ever made. And what is the very first image in the very first horror film? A giant bat hovering in a gothic castle.
French pioneer Georges Méliès was cinema’s first great illusionist, harnessing the power of editing to stage on-screen conjuring tricks. Within seconds, the bat has transformed into the figure of Mephistopheles (played by Méliès himself), who then proceeds to summon a cauldron and an assistant out of thin air. He terrifies two cavaliers with all manner of illusions, including a skeleton which, with two simple cuts, turns into the bat, then back into Mephistopheles. The purpose of Méliès’ film was less to petrify the audience than to dazzle with his cinematic sleight of hand – but bats in cinema were here to stay. Their reign of terror in the dark was just beginning.
The Lost Weekend (1945)
Director: Billy Wilder
After working with Raymond Chandler, then a recovering alcoholic, on the screenplay for Double Indemnity (1944), director Billy Wilder decided to broach the subject of alcoholism on screen. The result stars Ray Milland as Don Birnam, a New York-based writer struggling to stay on the wagon. During an especially desperate four-day binge, Birnam’s addiction plumbs terrifying depths as, alone in his apartment with a bottle of whiskey, he hallucinates first a mouse appearing out of a crack in his wall, then a huge bat hovering in to kill it.
Even outside the realm of gothic horror, bats in film are objects of fright and foreboding, not least as this one’s flight is accompanied by an uncanny score by Miklós Rózsa which makes early use of the theremin. The Lost Weekend won that year’s Oscar for best picture, as well as the awards for best director, best actor and best screenplay.
Le Vampire (1945)
Director: Jean Painlevé
Straddling science and surrealism, French documentarist Jean Painlevé is famed for his film-portraits of seahorses, urchins, jellyfish, octopi and other creatures of the deep. For 1945’s Le Vampire, however, he turned his fascinated eye to the predatory rituals of the South American vampire bat, which survives on the blood of other animals. Painlevé includes footage from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) to illustrate the fearsome place that the vampire holds in European culture, before a disturbing scene in which a bat is seen delivering its lethal ‘kiss’ to a guinea pig.
Painlevé spent the Second World War in exile from occupied France and is said to have seen something of Hitler’s menace reflected in this disease-carrying scourge, not least in the mammal’s practise of extending its wing prior to sleep, which the filmmaker likened to the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute.
Les Amants (1958)
Director: Louis Malle
A bat only appears for a few seconds in Louis Malle’s controversial adultery drama Les Amants, but it makes a lasting impression.
Living in a big house in the provinces with her emotionally remote husband, Jeanne Tournier (Jeanne Moreau) lives for her regular trips to Paris, where she socialises with her friend Maggy (Judith Magre) and is enjoying a secret fling with suave polo player Raoul (José Luis de Vilallonga). But her newspaperman husband (Alain Cuny) calls her bluff by inviting her city friends to dinner with them – an occasion that Jeanne is sure will be cripplingly awkward. And indeed it is, until a bat suddenly flies in through the dining-room window, momentarily shattering the stilted mood. Blink and you’ll miss it, for the Tourniers’ butler is quick to dim the lights and usher the bat back out using the light from a candlestick. Still, casting darting shadows along the walls, the creature’s short, crazed flight around the room lingers in the mind, a strange incursion of the wild and instinctual into a buttoned-down scene of manners and formality.
The Kiss of the Vampire (1962)
Director: Don Sharp
Originally intended as the third in Hammer’s Dracula series, The Kiss of the Vampire ended up not featuring the famous count but instead the sinister Dr Ravna (Noel Willman), the patriarch of a family of vampires living a decadent life in a remote mansion in early 20th-century Bavaria.
Into this lonely stretch of central Europe come honeymooning newlyweds Gerald and Marianne Harcourt (Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel), who at first relish the opportunity for some cultivated dining hosts before realising that Ravna and his family are only after their blood. Though the young lovers make for rather wooden protagonists, there’s plenty of imagination-stoking compensation here: an atmospherically shot prelude at a funeral, a masqued ball scene that foreshadows both The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and Roman Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires (1967), and – last but not least – a climactic invasion of bats, conjured from the fires of hell by occultist Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans). This memorable finale actually delayed the release of the film, as distributors thought it too similar to scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Director: Robert Fuest
Left disfigured and bereaved of his wife after a car accident, flamboyant genius Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) sets out to take revenge on incompetent doctors. With help from his silent assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North), he begins a murderous vendetta inspired by the 10 plagues that beleaguered Egypt in the Old Testament. A series of despicably inventive killings includes deaths by frogs, rats, locusts and the like… but first up is bats.
As Dr Dunwoody sleeps soundly in his bed, Vulnavia lowers a shrouded cage down through his skylight. When she withdraws it, the cage is empty, its door ominously open, and Dunwoody awakens to hear the rustle of wings in his room, as fleeting silhouettes chase over the walls. The doctor’s subsequent mauling by giant bat is the stuff of nightmares for anyone who dreads waking to find something unsuspected on the pillow next to them.
Director: Dario Argento
That old fear about bats getting caught up in long hair is exploited to shudder-inducing effect in Dario Argento’s 1977 giallo horror Suspiria, in which young American ballet dancer Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) is viciously attacked by a huge bat that’s flown in through her bathroom window. As she twists and turns to escape, the creature clings to her hair and flaps around her face, its jaws resting eagerly open.
It’s one hellish moment in a film that sustains the mood of a heightened nightmare for its duration. Suzy has arrived in Germany to attend an exclusive dance academy, but quickly gets wind of some very sinister goings on at her new lodgings, discovering the academy is home to a coven of witches. The garish, red-dominated colour scheme, expressionistic set design and spooky electronic score by Goblin add to the film’s uniquely delirious atmosphere. Once seen, Suspiria is impossible to shake from your memory.
The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Directors: Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener and John Musker
Animated bats are more likely to behave for a director than their real-world equivalents, so it’s not surprising that some of the species’ biggest roles in cinema – such as the comical fruit bat in FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992) or Rasputin’s albino bat minion in Anastasia (1997) – have been in cartoons.
Disney’s charming 1986 film The Great Mouse Detective is often seen as the first sign of the creative resurgence in the studio that would lead to the likes of The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991). It’s a mouse-centric spin on the Sherlock Holmes stories set in a fogbound turn-of-the-20th-century London, so what better beasts to play the villainous Professor Ratigan (voiced by Vincent Price) and his crony Fidget than a rat and a bat respectively? Few creatures are more feared and hated, more bound up with pestilence in the human imagination. With his peg leg and a crippled wing, the bumbling Fidget even suffers the indignity of not being able to fly.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Director: Terry Gilliam
A speeding red convertible screeches to a halt on a desert highway. In the passenger seat, Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) glances manically at the clear blue sky, pure fear in his drug-widened eyes. “Wait! We can’t stop here. This is bat country.”
With a trunk heaving with narcotics, Duke and his attorney Dr Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) have set off for Las Vegas, combining a work trip with a hallucinogen-fuelled odyssey across all known frontiers of human excess. Terry Gilliam’s bold film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s cult novel brings each of the pair’s vivid psychotropic episodes to life, with Depp’s performance colourfully recreating every twitch of paranoia and derangement in Thompson’s alter ego. After an early dip into their mescaline stash, Duke imagines a cloud of bats swarming around their car, which Gilliam shows only as reflections in his yellow-tinted aviators – an effective visualisation of his demented subjectivity. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, bat country is all around, and there’s no going back.
Batman Begins (2005)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) needs a symbol. He’s determined to live up to the memory of his incorruptible father by fighting the criminal elements that have their teeth into Gotham City, but he knows he can’t do it as a man. Instead, he needs an alter ego – “something elemental,” he muses, “something terrifying” – to strike fear into corrupt hearts.
In the opening moments of Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman franchise, the young Bruce falls into a cave disturbing a colony of bats – an experience which gives him a lasting fear of the creatures. Later, facing up to adult responsibility, he confronts his phobia by allowing the bats beneath his family mansion to swarm around him, channelling their nocturnal mystery to transform himself into Batman and begin a nighttime crusade against the forces of evil.
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