“Sharp-Fanged Blood Sucking DEATH Dives From MIDNIGHT SKIES!”
By Paul Mavis
It’s Halloween time here in the autumnal Great Midwest, and for me, having grown up on the shadowy, snowy, far-away Channel Master delights of WKBD’s Sir Graves Ghastly and The Ghoul, nothing satisfies quite so much on a dark, windy Saturday night as an old-timey black and white spookums show. A few years ago, Kino Classics (yes, Kino…we know you’re suddenly ignoring us. Well, we’re bigger than that…) released The Devil Bat, the 1940 horror quickie from “Poverty Row’s” Producers Releasing Corporation, directed by Jean Yarbrough (PRC’s scrupulous attention to production details results in his name being misspelled in the opening credits), and starring Bela Lugosi, Suzanne Kaaren, Dave O’Brien (“Tonight’s Pete Smith Specialty: How to Have a Giant Bat Rip Out Your Throat!”), Donald Kerr, Yolande Donlan, Guy Usher, Edward Mortimer, Hal Price, and Arthur Q. Bryan.
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Sporting a consistently inept but at the same time weirdly satisfying mix of comedy and horror, The Devil Bat has a devoted following among Lugosi and early horror fans (like myself), who affectionately view the production glitches found in el cheapos like The Devil Bat not as drawbacks, but as the very elements that make such Grade Z moviemaking from this period so charming. And having made a recent upgrade to Kino’s Blu-ray transfer (from Bob Furmanek’s restored 35mm elements), those “drawbacks” never looked better.
In the quaint village of Heathville, “beloved” chemist Dr. Paul Carruthers (Bela Lugosi) is engaging in “weird, terrifying” experiments with bats…killer bats, that is. It seems the strangely European scientist, who, with his cosmetics formulas, has earned millions for the maquillages magnate Martin Heath (Edward Mortimer), holds a deadly grudge against the Heath family for what he now considers a bad deal: a flat fee for his work, rather than a share of the profits. To settle the score, homicidal psychotic Carruthers has proven his “theory of glandular stimulation through electrical…thingamagiggy or something” (Lugosi is a little garbled on that last word) by taking ordinary fruit bats, hooking them up to the electric fry pan (set on “extra crispy” rather than “original recipe”), and turning them into bald eagle-sized killers who home-in on a unique scent he has perfected.
Inviting his victims to try out his new shaving lotion (hint, hint), Carruthers unleashes his furry fanged friends and Heaths soon start dropping like flies. Enter wise-assed newspaper reporter Johnny Layton (Dave O’Brien), of he Chicago Register. Assigned to the Heath killings by grousing story editor Joe McGinty (Arthur Q. Bryan), Layton heads to Heathville with his photographer, even more wise-assed “One Shot” McGuire (Donald Kerr), who isn’t above faking a picture of the now-legendary “Devil Bat,” if need be to make a deadline. Will Johnny solve the riddle of the killer bat, before cosmetics heir Mary Heath (Suzanne Kaaren) is victim number whatever?
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You had to have grown up watching television prior to cable’s wide reach, I think, to really appreciate something like The Devil Bat (or even better…see it when it first came out, as some Saturday afternoon matinee). When regular television was still king of the time wasters, and it came completely free into your home via an aerial plunked down on your roof, the three network channels you received and maybe an independent station or two were it as far as the outside world was concerned. Back then, you had to catch everything on the fly. If you loved movies, you checked out TV Guide and you stayed home. It was work.
The pampered, spoiled ease with which we dial up our vintage movie fantasies via DVD/Blu-ray, 24-hour movie channels, and now effortless streaming, at our entitled convenience, is, if you will, the pussy’s way of becoming a movie fan (the notion of watching something on your phone while you wait in line at the supermarket or on the bus is the ultimate combination of self-indulgence and disrespect for the content). What came on the box, came on, and you raptly watched it no matter what it was, and then it was gone, like magic. And you better have remembered it, too. No rewinds, and it might never be shown again. To a little kid back then, movies like The Devil Bat seemed to come out of nowhere, with no context for the viewer other than remembering Lugosi from other movies (unless a soused, grousing Bill Kennedy deigned to answer your tremulously-voiced phone call).
Who made these movies, or what their box office gross was, or where they fit in some “film history” timeline (barf), was largely unknowable to the average viewer, unless you trekked down to your local library and checked out some general knowledge movie book (just becoming popular in the early 70s). For a kid back then, it was still possible to experience something like The Devil Bat on a pre-ironic, pre-sarcasm, truly one-on-one, direct connection basis. Just movie and viewer, with no preconceived notions.
If you watched The Devil Bat on some late, late movie show, all grainy and shadowy and mysterious and silly, the only thing that broke the illusion—unless Ron Sweed or Lawson J. Demming was making fun of it—was the occasional Popeill “Pocket Fisherman” and Ronco “Bedazzler” commercials. You didn’t know what the hell was going on with Lugosi’s career (or even that he was long dead) or PRC’s place on “Poverty Row”…or even that there were thousands of other kids out there watching the same thing at the same time. That wonderfully isolated, naive environment is all gone now in our media-saturated culture: everything is connected. Everyone knows everything about everything now (and aren’t we all the more miserable for that).
Watching this again after not having seen it for a few years, aside from Lugosi, of course, what I appreciated most about The Devil Bat was how everyone just got on with it all. These “Poverty Row” specials, to put it mildly, may not have had the best scripting or production values—although neither in The Devil Bat are too shabby—but they didn’t bore you, either. We jump right in, and the story moves for a quick 68 minutes, and it’s out. No big message. No fancy-schmancy visual statements. Just some thrills and some laughs hanging on a no-frills framework.
Scripter John T. Neville (Trader Horn, The Flying Serpent, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break), working from a story by George Bricker (King of the Underworld, She-Wolf of London, Roadblock) keeps coming up with amusing, cynical, noirish one-liners (Lugosi, passing out his lotion and stating, “I don’t think you’ll ever use anything else,” to one of his victims is good, but snide businessman Guy Usher’s, “You’re a dreamer…too much money is bad for a dreamer,” to loser Lugosi, is worthy of Cain or Chandler). And director Jean Yarbrough (A&C’s Here Come the Co-Eds and Lost in Alaska, or the fun Hillbillys in a Haunted House), while never a superior visual craftsman by any means, at least keeps the ball rolling here, never dallying too long at the expense of some snap.
O’Brien, his hat firmly in place in almost every scene (the toupee was probably a one-day rental), isn’t as funny as when he was deadpanning in all those Pete Smith Specialties, but he looks hilarious next to resolutely unfunny Kerr. As for Lugosi…what else, at this point, can someone add when discussing Lugosi? He’s an icon of the genre, as central to horror as Wayne was to the Western, Garland to the musical, and Bogart and Cagney to the gangster flick. I never get tired of watching him, regardless of the vehicle, but I’m not as willing as some other fans are in granting him ameliorating critical dispensations towards his later, riper turns…such as in The Devil Bat.
I don’t think it’s necessary to always describe him in terms of qualifiers: “Admittedly slumming Lugosi still manages to project dignity and bearing and nobility in this rotten cheapie.” Why can’t one just enjoy him for the wholly and completely original ham that he is in these one-week knockoffs? After all, you can’t truly be a “ham” unless you’ve got the acting chops in the first place. We already know he was a good actor, but even when he’s not “good,” he’s great (is that Mae West or Groucho?). When he delivers a line like, “Imbecile! Bombastic ignoramus!” and waggles his eyebrows while grotesquely grinning (tell me you don’t see more than a little of equally grotesque Robert DeNiro in those grins), I don’t need to excuse away his excess. I celebrate it.
The same goes for the horror elements in The Devil Bat. Yes, the bat looks like a flattened, moth-eaten raccoon with wings. Yes, it comes flying in on a wire. Yes, the story makes no sense when O’Brien should easily solve the mystery once Kerr is almost killed (he practically verbalizes it…and then it’s conveniently dropped). And yes, it makes no sense that a brilliant chemist like Lugosi couldn’t just conjure up an exotic poison to kill his enemies, rather than going through all the bat rigmarole (as much as all the victims comment on the high-end stink of that lotion, why don’t the bats just turn right around after going out that window and attack Bela? You’re telling me he and that place doesn’t reek of his shaving lotion?).
All that ridiculousness is true, and precisely for that reason, I enjoy The Devil Bat. When Lugosi lets off one of his perfectly-pitched, “Go000od-byes” to his victims, or when that phony bat comes screaming in like Rip Taylor with his wig snatched off, and the intended victim stands rooted in terror, joining in on that silly-yet-oddly-creepy shriek, that’s all The Devil Bat needs to do. And it does it quite badly…which means quite goodly, if you will.