The Devil Bat

The Devil Bat. Producers Releasing Corporation 1940.

Before watching the movie:

Aside from what amounts to silent stock footage in Plan 9 From Outer Space and clips from Dracula movies that I must have seen, I don’t think I’ve actually seen any of Bela Lugosi’s work. I ought to track down good copies of the classic monster movies.

A mad scientist creating a substance that can drive bats to kill is one thing, but I’m curious about the summary I saw describing it as an aftershave lotion. It would be interesting to see the scientist try to create an aftershave lotion and slowly go mad with power on realizing he can use it to make bats get people out of his way for him. But with the quality of many summaries I’ve seen, I think it’s more likely that he passes it off as an aftershave lotion once or twice to get it past skeptical people.

After watching the movie:

Dr. Paul Carruthers sold a formula for a greaseless cold cream to his employers a few years ago for cash up front, $10,000 (almost $200K today), and the discovery turned out to be the foundation of a great cosmetics empire, embittering the doctor that his invention had built the wealth of these businessmen who would consider a $5,000 bonus an appropriate token of their appreciation. While the entire town sees Dr. Carruthers as the sweetest old man around, secretly he has been performing experiments in growing a bat to monstrous size through electrical gland stimulation. Further, he’s trained it to viciously attack anything marked with a pungent scent he’s mixed into an “experimental aftershave lotion” that he begins asking the beneficiaries of the company’s fortune, the Heaths and the Mortons, to sample for “testing”, then releasing his “Devil Bat” to slaughter them. A young Chicago reporter, Johnny Layton, gets assigned to cover the story for the Register, and finds himself drawn to the Heath daughter Mary. As the death toll grows, Layton’s photographer One-Shot McGuire gets the idea to illustrate the story with a fake bat, and gets them both fired, which only strengthens Layton’s determination to get to the bottom of the case.

This is a really cheaply made movie, but for the most part it handles well as a stage piece put to film. The lines and acting can be a bit off sometimes, and I’m sure there’s a fascinating explanation for how a man named Carruthers got an Eastern European accent, but that’s all easily forgiven for the time. Sometimes however, there are some bat scenes that are completely hilarious. Whenever the doctor has to interact with the bat, really time the bat is seen that we get a sense of its size, it’s absurdly obvious it’s a stuffed model. This is particularly silly when Carruthers is holding its perch at it hangs from it completely motionless. It adds a shade of entertainment that was definitely not intended by the filmmakers.

The plot is fairly straightforward, nearly procedural to me. The first act leans a bit heavily on narration and soliloquys to deliver the backstory, but they were working quickly and cheaply. The only real surprise was when the good guys shot down the bat surprisingly early, only for the doctor to make another one the next day.

Bela Lugosi looks and plays in such an avuncular manner it’s hard to see him as a monster star of horror. Certainly, a central trait of Dracula and of Doctor Carruthers is that he’s too much of a gentleman to be suspected, but seeing him in action, I can’t really imagine audiences seeing him and saying, “oh, he must be the villain” without recognizing him as being known to play that type.

This is quick, direct, and limited, but comical, sometimes even intentionally. I didn’t find it to have any amount of tension, but it’s a fun monster movie on a budget I’d recommend to B-movie fans, and a story that has real potential to be done in a compelling way in a remake.

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