Directed by Jean Yarbrough in 1940 for Producers Releasing Company, The Devil Bat has the prestigious honor of being the only movie where you can see Dracula interacting with Porky Pig and the crazy piano guy from Reefer Madness. That alone should make it worth a watch for most cult fans but its public domain status has resulted in a slew of fairly horrible transfers over the years. With the movie now bowing onto Blu-ray for the first time, maybe it'll win a few more fans because it really is a lot of good, goofy fun.
The movie tells us the horrifying tale of a small town resident named Doctor Paul Carruthers (Bela Lugosi) who sold the rights to one of his creations to his business partners, Martin Heath (Edmund Mortimer) and Henry Morton (Guy Usher). They got rich off it, he did not and as such he bares them some pretty serious ill will, only he hides it well. On the outside at least, Carruthers seems like a nice enough guy, but behind the hidden door to his secret laboratory he has used the power of electricity to grow some bats to dangerously large proportions. From there, he conditions them to go into a deadly rage any time they get close to a specific perfume. Once he has his victims come into contact with that perfume, he releases the giant killer bat which will inevitably swoop down on its unsuspecting prey with predictably dire results.
Unfortunately for Carruthers, a nosey reporter named Johnny Layton (Dave O'Brien) has been snooping around trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle that is the rash of bat murders sending the town into a panic. The more he starts to look into things, the more he realizes what Carruthers has really been up to…
The movie is ridiculous, let there be no doubt, but Lugosi is good in the lead role. While he hadn't had the star power he once held during his glory days for some time when this picture was made, he does a decent job in the role and shows some enthusiasm for the part. The bat attack sequences are ridiculous, the monster itself looks like it was made with scraps picked off the floor of the local arts and crafts club, but the filmmakers get points for at least staging them somewhat creatively. The movie is at its zany best when Lugosi is in the lab cooing away to his pets. The set design here actually isn't half bad, we get some neat tesla coils and plenty of beakers and burners and nifty lab gadgets scattered about while our lead struts around wearing some really odd looking safety goggles. It's goofy, but you can't help but love it, particularly when Bela doesn't appear to be dismissing the material as beneath him. The supporting cast doesn't do quite so well, but O'Brien is at least energetic in his role as the reporter. There's some bad comic relief here and there, and he does occasionally play a role in this, but he's fun to watch. A supporting performance form the beautiful Suzanne Kaaren as one of the Heath descendants doesn't hurt things either.
The movie doesn't overstay its welcome, it's paced reasonably well and it features enough giant bat carnage to satisfy. It's fun to see who pops up in this and what they do and, if like some of us, the very idea of Bela Lugosi exacting revenge with electrically modified giant bats is enough to peak your interest, then by all means, check it out. Those who lack an affinity for the charms of older low budget poverty row pictures won't find much to appreciate here, this won't change anyone's mind in that regard but all in all, The Devil Bat delivers pretty much exactly what it promises.
Kino presents The Devil Bat in an AVC encoded fullframe transfer taken from archival 35mm materials that, while far from perfect, are in considerably better shape than what we've seen on previous home video releases. The print damage is hard to ignore, it's present throughout and there's no way that you won't notice it, but contrast looks good and the whole experience sort of amounts to watching a tattered print, it has a nice film like quality to it. You can know actually see what's going in on this night time sequences and while emulsion defects, specks and scratches are present throughout, this is more than watchable.
The English language LPCM Mono track shows its age and features some noticeable hiss and audible popping here and there but it is at least fairly well balanced. Depth is minimal, this is definitely a product of its time but you won't have any trouble understanding the dialogue. The crackling of the laboratory equipment in the background of a few scenes sounds good and the score does as well. It's a simple mix, but it's on par with the video in that it's definitely better than the previous DVD and VHS releases that this reviewer has seen over the years.
The main extra on the disc is a really enjoyable commentary track courtesy of film historian and author Richard Harlan Smith who delivers a solid mix of facts, trivia and opinion in an exceedingly listenable manner. He mixes in healthy doses of humor without ever coming across as disrespectful to the movie, in fact there are plenty of spots here where he sticks up for it. The track begins with a good overview of what the term ‘poverty row' means, where that term came from and which studios it applied to. From there we learn about the different credits that many of the players on both sides of the camera had a hand in. He spends a good bit of time talking about how this movie predates a lot of the formulaic ‘meet a cast and watch them get killed off' formulas that popped up in later slasher movies and of course, he speaks at length about how this movie fits in with the bigger picture of Bela Lugosi's career, offering up some interesting biographical details and inspired criticism along the way. A very solid track overall, and if you've seen the movie a few times, this is a good way to revisit it and very likely learn something along the way.
Outside of that we get a trailer for White Zombie (another poverty row horror film starring Lugosi previously released through Kino), a still gallery of color and black and white promo images, menus and chapter selection.
Is The Devil Bat the first movie that comes to mind when talking about Bela Lugosi? No, it's not, but it is a pretty enjoyable low budget horror picture. While very much a product of its time and budget it may suffer from some pretty goofy effects work but it makes up for that with a fun cast and some inspired moments of creativity. Kino's Blu-ray does a decent job with some rough elements but offers a nice boost in detail and clarity in the black and white image over previous DVDs and the commentary is a nice touch as well. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.