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In the early 1960s we boomer kids knew Bela Lugosi's The Devil Bat through Forrest Ackerman's Famous Monsters magazine. Having stuffed our little heads full of Universal horror photos, Forry's idea of exotica was to trot out 1,001 photos from the anemic monster romps of Poverty Row, or close to it: Monogram and PRC each turned out several horror titles yearly. His career in the doldrums, Bela Lugosi maintained star billing in these cheapies. Yes, Boris Karloff was doing far better overall, but he took work in repetitive Columbia cheapies, and did his share of Poverty Row pictures too. The difference was that Karloff got to play a halfway dignified role in 1940's The Ape, while Bela found himself wearing a furry face in 1943's The Ape Man. With a different nose, Bela would have fit right into John Chambers' Planet of the Apes menagerie.
The Devil Bat is an amusing entry in the B-pic horror subgenre. Its concept at least makes a modicum of sense, even if the storytelling is predictable and the characters undeveloped. As kids we looked forward to the scenes of the giant killer bat emitting an odd metallic screaming noise as it zoomed across the screen like Rocky the Flying Squirrel. As the bat doesn't flap its wings, it looks like a tiny Stealth Bomber. Or maybe the bat is holding itself so stiffly because someone shoved a small rocket up its rear end.
As we got older and learned more about Lugosi, we began to appreciate The Devil Bat a little more. Bela is the whole show. He has plenty of dialogue and he delivers it well. And he makes the screenplay's 'stabs' at pun humor very amusing indeed.
Respected and beloved by his community, Dr. Carruthers (Bela Lugosi) harbors a secret grudge against Morton and Heath (Guy Usher & Edward Mortimer), whose cosmetics company is a going concern thanks to Carruthers' chemical formulas. As Carruthers isn't sharing in the wealth, he gets payback by breeding and training oversized bats in his secret lab. The 'devil bats' swoop from the sky to slash the throat of anyone wearing a particular scent -- which Carruthers gives to prospective victims in the form of aftershave. Various Morton and Heath heirs fall victim to this diabolical murder scheme until an ad hoc investigation by adventurous reporters Johnny Layton and 'One Shot' Maguire (Dave O'Brien & Donald Kerr) connects the dots between the bats, the aftershave and the doctor. But before one can sing, "a little dab'll do ya", Carruthers has put the reporters on his enemies list, along with beautiful young Mary Heath (Suzanne Kaaren).
Older issues of Famous Monsters featured recurring 'Mad Lab' articles, and the cramped workspace of Dr. Carruthers was a frequent subject for photo spreads. Made of concrete bricks, it's hidden behind two carefully disguised secret doors (secret except for the visible hinges) and is outfitted with castoff electrical doodads from Frankenstein's lab. A general lack of design and the rather dusty-looking monster props make The Devil Bat look a decade out of date. The upside-down hanging bat doesn't match the rigid flying bat prop, but that's okay because neither of them match the frequent cutaways to a live, slobbering real fruit bat, a toothy but non-demonic flying fox.
As adult viewers we realized just how skillfully Bela Lugosi keeps The Devil Bat from falling on its face. In too many of his pictures Lugosi seems to not have been let in on the joke. 1 Here his "kindly" doctor gets to offer his victims sick humor along with his samples of aftershave:
Prospective Victim: "Hey, this stuff feels great!"
Prospective Victim: "Goodnight, Dr. Carruthers!"
No clumsy deliveries here -- Lugosi is right on the money, arching his eyebrows and giving his victims his big, oddly toothless smiles. We almost expect someone to feed Dr. Carruthers the famous joke setup line: "Hey, these Girl Scout Cookies are great! What's in them?"
True, for a lot of the film we watch innocuous dithering among the cast, with the overly confident reporter giving his boss grief. The various younger actors show up mostly to be killed off. A bit of superfluous fun is provided by cute Yolande Mallot as a French maid. She has a couple of teasing lines and shows a bit of leg in one scene. Ms. Mallot is actually the talented actress Yolande Donlan. A number of us American Cinematheque attendees met her about ten years ago when she accompanied her English husband director Val Guest for a series of his films at the Egyptian Theater. I remember her friendly smile.
The above shortcomings aside, The Devil Bat doesn't scrimp on sets and is competently lit and photographed. It's far more accomplished than some of the really dire PRC epics from the war years. I noticed only two things worth pointing out. During a struggle on the garden lawn, the squares of fake stage grass under the fighters become disarranged, to humorous effect. And several cutaway inserts to newspapers heralding more Devil Bat killings use the same dummy articles around the featured text headlines. Keep looking on the left column and the work 'Dink' keeps popping up, in the same place. The only real sign of incompetence is in the main titles ... PRC can't even spell its director's name correctly.
The Devil Bat is more or less Bela Lugosi's entrance into the sub-'B' realm of Hollywood moviemaking. Although exceptions abound, an average name personality would find it difficult to work for the majors again, after 'slumming'. By the time that Val Lewton's RKO unit wanted to hire Lugosi for a horror-mystery film, he was taking anything that came along. The actor would have more opportunities to shine, such as his very effective return to the Dracula role for the Abbott and Costello movie, but for Lugosi it must have felt like a steady descent.
Thus it's particularly gratifying to see Bela get big laughs for the right reasons. When a "prospective" victim splashes some of Carruthers' aftershave goop on his chin, the Doctor offers helpful advice: "Over the jugular, please!"
Kino Classics' Blu-ray of The Devil Bat is a great restoration of this PRC film from 1940. Good printing elements for many PRC films from this era can be tough, as most Poverty Row film libraries changed hands several times when companies folded and their films were sold to television. For many titles the expensive-to-store nitrate original elements were discarded after 16mm printing elements were created for TV use. On this disc, the majority of The Devil Bat is prime-quality, with a sharp and rich B&W image and good sound. Some speckles remain here and there, but the image has not been softened or distorted with automatic digital tools.
That such a good copy of The Devil Bat exists is due to collector - film expert Bob Furmanek, of the 3D Film Archive. His copy of the film carries a perfect Producers' Releasing Corporation logo. It's a nice touch, as original logos were ordinarily hacked off for TV release. In 2008 Furmanek offered this explanation of the film's rescue:
"Yes, I did provide the film elements for The Devil Bat. Around eighteen years ago I located a 35mm dupe nitrate picture negative and separate track negative. They were created in the late 1940s for a theatrical re-issue by Astor. The materials were in excellent shape but reel three of the picture negative was missing. I created a new composite, preservation 35mm wet gate positive print and utilized that element for a laser disc release through Lumivision. It was the first time that 35mm elements on the film had been utilized for any distribution since the late '40s theatrical re-issue. I was never able to locate the original camera negative and doubt that it survives today. The dupe nitrate negative was created dry and had quite a bit of printed-in dirt and artifacts. Wet gate printing did not exist in the 1940's."
Kino's disc producer Bret Wood has assembled an image gallery and a full audio commentary. Writer Richard Harland Smith contributes an entertaining, polished track that mixes hard information, thoughtful analysis and non-snarky biographies of the various players. We learn quite a bit about a prolific cast member who also played in Reefer Madness. Richard also points out the odd fact that Dr. Carruthers is killing people that actually did him no wrong. His grudge is invalid -- he accepted a payment of $5,000 for his formulas, but now feels cheated anyway. Why the filmmakers would include this detail, without further comment, is a mystery. RH Smith offers a nice appraisal of some of the problems of early horror fan criticism and mentions the Famous Monsters connection as well. He says he started collecting the magazine with issue number 86. Hah! Why I (cough, cough) started with issue #32! You know, back when all of Forry's articles had only been recycled twice each. Had my father found my stash of FMs he would surely have thrown them out. And I also had to walk to school, uphill.
With its superior commentary, Kino's disc of the beloved turnip The Devil Bat is a welcome Blu-ray title.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Devil Bat Blu-ray rates:
1. The best explanation of this 'joke' is a backstage story reported from the set of Airplane. Actor Lloyd Bridges "didn't get" the script and asked Robert Stack what the joke was with the screwed up non-humor. Stack's answer: "We're the joke -- the joke is US." In The Devil Bat Lugosi seems very happy to put a comic edge on his character -- the joke's on the genre itself.
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T'was Ever Thus.