Friday, 14 August 2009

The Devil Bat

1940
Dir. Jean Yarbrough

Dr Paul Carruthers (Bela Lugosi) devises a plan to extract revenge on his employers, the owners of a cosmetics company, who he believes have exploited him and become rich as the result of a product he created. Concocting a new aftershave (!), he offers it to the sons of his employers and then releases an electrically enlarged bat, trained to hone in on the distinct aftershave (!!), and slaughter its wearer. The series of mysterious deaths sparks the interest of roving reporter Johnny Layton (David O’Brien) and his loyal sidekick and photographer, One-Shot McGuire. The two set out to investigate the murders and put a stop to the diabolical mastermind orchestrating them, before they too become victims of the ‘death-diving’ giant bat.

The Devil Bat was produced by PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), one of the more modest production studios of Hollywood’s ‘Poverty Row.’ PRC produced mainly low budget B-movies, particularly horror films, westerns and melodramas.

The film comprises of scenes in which Lugosi dips stuff in lotions, stirs potions, cackles evilly to himself, hangs a bat on a coat hanger and through the power of cross-fade editing, enlarges stock-footage bats to gigantic proportions. He then persuades his various victims, the shockingly dim sons of his employers, to try out his new aftershave; before releasing his giant death-bat to track them down and rip out their throats. Repeat, ad-nauseam. This all goes according to plan, strangely enough, until our intrepid reporter Layton catches a whiff of something sinister and jumps on the case. He and his sidekick, One-Shot McGuire, bulk out the rest of the story as they try to solve the case. In one scene they attempt to drum up some interest in the sensational story by faking a photo of a giant bat. Cue montage of spinning newspaper headlines. They are rumbled by a giant bat-expert on the local radio station however, when said expert examines the photo and notices a ‘made-in-Japan’ label on the fake bat…



The Devil Bat is one of the many poverty row films that Bela Lugosi starred in during the downward spiral his career experienced after the international success of Dracula. The film is competently made, and whilst neither really good nor really bad, hovers somewhere in the beige department and proves to be an entertaining if somewhat forgettable experience. Which is perfectly fine. The tragic actor obviously relished playing the oddly sympathetic, yet utterly cuckoo Dr Carruthers, and delivers his lines with the sort of fiendish aplomb we know and love him for. Unfortunately, once the murder investigation begins, Lugosi doesn’t feature onscreen much, but when he does, he exudes all the charm, dark elegance and over-zealous eyebrow-acting you would expect him to. We are also privy to his inner monologues, as he bitterly waxes lyrical about his disdain and disgust for his employers, who he believes have paid him a measly amount of money for his contribution to their cosmetics company. This serves to vaguely flesh out an otherwise typical ‘mad-doctor’ character and imbue him with the faintest touch of pathos.

Director, Jean Yarbrough - who would later go on to direct the likes of King of the Zombies, She-Wolf of London and several episodes of The Addams Family – handles his duties with rudimentary competence. The film is overtly silly, yet highly enjoyable, and often wanders into bizarre comedic territory – intentional and indeed otherwise. The only moments of genuine creepiness come as the bat is released from its attic dwelling-place and, as some day-for-night stock footage of a large bat flying past the same trees over and over again plays out, the bat omits a chilling scream that proves genuinely unnerving. The scenes featuring the bat ‘death-diving’ its victims have to be seen to be believed. Never before have such a gaggle of stiff-upper-lipped young men waved their arms around so much while a giant rubber bat falls on them from above. Great stuff.



A random and pretty irrelevant exchange between Johnny Layton and his boss reveals that Johnny is a bachelor, who ‘took a girl out once’ but didn’t think much of it. Now, this might be the wine talking, or my over-active ‘sub-textual’ readings of cheap B-movies, but I could swear there was the mildest hint of ‘queer’ subtext lurking in this aspect of the story. Adding credence to my hypothesis is the fact that Layton doesn’t get together with the film’s token female character Mary Heath (Suzanne Kaaren), the daughter of one of Carruther’s employers. In fact, I found myself wondering what this character was for. She doesn’t appear to do much in the film except narrowly avoid falling victim to Carruther’s hair-brained revenge ploy when she decides to not wear some new perfume that mysteriously appears on her dresser. Character such as her’s usually only appeared as a love interest for the All-American protagonist or to be rescued by him. Or both. She performs neither function. And whilst this might be refreshing had she actually served some other relevance to the plot, alas, she does not. At the film’s climax, she and Johnny hug each other platonically (as opposed to the usual stiff embrace of 40’s era B-movie lovers) and just as it seems he might give her a playful punch in the arm, the end titles roll. Let’s not forget the handsome but dim sons of the company owners; all single, all immaculately groomed and preened and unable to say no to a splash of exotic cologne. All visit the similarly single creator of colognes and perfumes, Carruthers, who lavishes them with gifts of top of the range man-scent – albeit so he can dispatch his trained killer bat to rip their delicate throats out. No? Ok, must be the wine talking. Moving swiftly on. Some viewers may very well recognise David O’Brien from his roles in such classics as Spooks Run Wild (also starring Lugosi) and Reefer Madness – he’s the guy who implores Mae to play her piano ‘faster! Faster!’ and orders her to ‘Bring me some reefers!’

The Devil Bat is in the same league as the likes of The Vampire Bat, though it doesn't seem to take itself so seriously. Whilst thoroughly ludicrous, it is also pretty solid entertainment and, at a skimpy 72 minutes, far from outstays its welcome. It is best enjoyed on a Sunday afternoon whilst draped across your couch, surrounded by the remnants of the night before. Endearing hokum.

13 comments:

Matthew Coniam said...

Yes. You're right. Every word.
And yet, on the other hand, there will always be a part of me that says: this is the greatest work of art ever created by humans.

Have you seen Devil Bat's Daughter, the sequel that completely exonerates Lugosi's character of all responsibility for the devil bat killings (!) ?
They make for quite the double-bill.

James said...

Alas, Matthew, I have not seen Devil Bat's Daughter... But by the sounds of it, I should make it my life's mission to track down a copy. Sounds like a dreamy double bill.

I know what you mean about a little part of you thinking that this is perhaps the greatest work of art ever created by humans. Well, this and Dunston Checks In, of course.

As always Matthew - thanks for stopping by - enjoy your weekend. :)

Mykal said...

James: Great post and I agree with Matthew - there is something in Devil Bat that far exceeds the Poverty Row dustbin it is often tossed in (although, as you might imagine, I love Poverty Row stuff down to my cheap bones. In fact, I once considered doing my blog on Poverty Row movies from the 1930s, but went the atomic age B movie route instead).

Loved the "dark elegance" description of Lugosi. Perfect turn of phrase. Had not noticed the gay subtext, but now that you mention it . . The lead female is pointedly ignored and all the gentlemen do work for a cosmetics company, which I always thought was an odd an interesting point in the film. I mean, to have the mad scientist in the film made so by shabby treatment from a cosmetics company is downright fascinating.

Interesting. I will have to have a few beers some evening soon (my mood enhancer of choice) and explore this wine-induced hypothesis of yours. Any chance to re-watch the great Devil Bat.

Another good one, James. -- Mykal

panavia999 said...

I love your review. "Endearing Hokum" says it all. I got "Devil Bat" as part of a Mill Creek 50 DVD megapack. (I love those things!) Maybe I'm naive but I thought the victims interest in the cologne samples was purely professional; not a gay subtext. I definitely see the point now. I just thought it was a cheesy plot device to sic giant bats on specific victims. After all, I can't think of a better way to train giant mutant bats. But that's why you write the clever blog and I just read and appreciate.

James said...

Mykal - thanks for stopping by - always good to hear from you. Yes, the whole cosmetics thing was indeed odd and interesting. I would love to read your take on the film when you eventually revisit it with several bottles of mood enhancers. :)

panavia999 - thanks for your comment - good to hear from you. I must emphasise that my hypothesis was, as Mykal so elegantly put it, wine-induced. I picked up on one throw-away comment and ran with it - a little too tenuously perhaps! I guess I was looking for something interestig to throw into the mix. That Mill Creek 50 DVD megapack sounds awesome - have you watched much of it?
Thanks for stopping by - don't be a stranger. :)

panavia999 said...

Here is a link to the dvd megapacks
http://store.dvdmegapacks.com

I really like 1930's and 40's B movies; I purchased Dark Crimes, Crime Classics, Mystery Classics, Horror Classics, Jack Benny, 50 Musicals and Max Fleischer Cartoons and Victory at Sea. It's all public domain stuff so the picture quality can be mediocre but for the prices, I am not complaining!
They offer quite a variety ranging from the crappiest slasher flicks to wholesome family fare.

James said...

Hey - thanks so much for the link... My birthday is coming up in September... I shall put the word out!
I know what you mean about many of these old public domain films having mediocre (at best) picture quality. I picked up a pile of DVDs a while ago that were all public domain - there are three 'classic horrors of the silver screen' on each disc and the quality is extremley poor. still though, each disc was only £1. I was very pleased with that. :)

panavia999 said...

I grew up in a rural area with poor TV reception. I am quite used to mediocre black and white picture quality, so those public domain discs never bother me.
Last night I had dinner with a friend. At dusk we walked several blocks returning to our cars discussing 30's gangster films. I re-enacted the last lines of some classics: "Mother of Mercy! Is this the end of Rico?" Etc, Etc. As I was wearing a silk blouse, I stopped short of lying in the gutter but I grabbed lamp posts, staggered and dramatized. Since it was still fresh on my mind, I proffered a 90 second re-enactment of the Devil Bat. I must have looked a fool but plenty of laughter. I'd only had two drinks!

James said...

I know what you mean panavia. Sometimes the poor quality somehow adds to the nostalgia factor.

A 90 second re-enactment of the Devil Bat!? How utterly marvellous. Oh to have been a fly on one of those lamp posts you staggered around! Sounds like you guys had a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
As always - good to hear from you - thanks for stopping by. :)

Mykal said...

Panavia999: Loved the image of anyone doing a re-enactment of Devil Bat, particularily with on two drinks down, so I popped over to your blog. Liked it, sought your "follower" section to find there is none.

Might you consider adding one? I really liked the hamster in a cup. -- Mykal

James said...

Same here. Anyone who keeps a hamster in a cup and likes to re-enact Devil Bat is someone I'd like to follow. But not in a weird stalker way. Obviously. :P

panavia999 said...

Gentlemen, Thank you for your kind comments. I have enabled following on my blog - lower right hand corner.

Mykal said...

Pavavia99: I'm there! - Mykal