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Monday, May 4, 2015

The Devil Bat

Bela Lugosi starred in a low-B grade film in 1940 titled The Devil Bat (TDB). Given his cultural association with Dracula, it was a title and marquee. Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) was one of the more notable Poverty Row studios. Most of what they turned out (very quickly and cheaply) were westerns (Billy the Kid series) or crime dramas. TDB was, at a nominal level, a crime story with a hint of sci-fi.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Carruthers (Lugosi) was the disgruntled chemist for a cosmetics company. His discoveries had made the owners of Heath Enterprises very rich. Carruthers felt the two partners, Martin Heath and Henry Morton, had bamboozled him out of his fair share of the wealth. To extract his revenge, Carruthers developed a fragrance which a species of bats hate. He then experimented with ways to grow little bats into big eagle-sized bats. He gives Roy Heath a new aftershave he had been working on, then releases his giant bat. The bat kills Roy. The police are stumped. The death draw media attention. Reporter Johnny Layton and his photographer, “One Shot” are sent to investigate. Martin’s other son, Tommy, also gets a sample of aftershave and is likewise killed. Don Morton succumbs to the Devil Bat too. Johnny begins a romantic attraction to the lovely daughter, Mary Heath. Henry Morton begins to suspect that Doc is behind the killings, but on his way to the Heath mansion, is attacked by the bat and dies. Later, Mary wonders why her going-to-bed perfume smells different, but dismisses it. That night, the big bat tried to get into her room. Doc is called to tend to the pretending-to-be-upset Mary, while Johnny searches Doc’s house. He finds the lab, the aftershave and the attic full of bats. Johnny slips away, returns, and convinces Doc to watch for the bat. Doc agreed because Johnny put on some of the aftershave. While they watch, the bat screeches as it attacks. Johnny throws some aftershave on Doc, who is then attacked by the bat. With the mad scientist and his bat dead, Mary can rest her head on tall Johnny’s shoulder. Fade to black, The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Bela’s animated acting makes this film. Without him, TDB would be quite forgettable. Still, with Bela keeping things lively, TDB has a certain super-cheap B-movie charm. The room full of sparky things in which Carruthers ‘grows’ his bats, is classic old world charm.

Cultural Connection
Good, Cheap, Fun — Despite the growing war in Europe, or perhaps because of it, there was an eager market for movie entertainment. With the ‘double bill’ formula for distributing films, there was a strong demand for quick, cheap B movies. While this B movie market thrived, margins were thin. To be profitable, a Poverty Row studio had to crank out a feature film in a matter of days, with little set, costume or talent costs. As such, the bread and butter of these studios were westerns and crime dramas. Sci-fi, typically, required more money for special effects or props. Movie audiences in the late 30s, 40s and early 50s, had more forgiving expectations for their entertainment. Cheap sets and no-name actors were okay, as long as there was some fighting, some shooting and a few women’s screams.

Bela’s Decline — Bela Lugosi never was able to rise above his big famous role as Dracula in 1931. He played the mad scientists or villains in a string of medium-grade films for the rest of the 1930s. Treatment an old war wound (manifest as sciatica) led to him becoming addicted to opiates. While Lugosi remained popular with audiences, his desirability to the studios was limited. Appearing Poverty Row films was a descent he was never able to rise above.

That’s Science! — The thin connection TDB has to sci-fi appears in the opening minutes of the film. The first, and weakest connection, is Doc’s work as a chemist to have brewed up his aftershave potion that dives bats to kill. That’s something. The more classic sci-fi, is Doc using sparky electrical things to grow his giant bats from ordinary bats. Perhaps it was a slightly flubbed line, which as a Poverty Row film, was not worth correcting, but Doc tells his bat that he has mastered “glandular stimulation through electric improcess.” This has, at least a hint of Frankenstein to it. The rest of the story is a more pedestrian crime drama.

Why aim? — An amusing bit of Hollywood-ism is how freely Johnny Layton brandishes and uses his snub-nosed .38 revolver. When the bat appears, he fires several shots at the fleeing bat, from the hip! Now, a snub-nosed .38 is not a particularly accurate gun in the first place, but aiming helps. Nonetheless, hero Johnny is able to hit the fast flying bat with his third shot. Heroes are good that way.

Milking the Turnip — PRC cranked out dozens of films in the 40s. In 1946 they sought to wring just a few more bucks from The Devil Bat by producing a sequel. This might suggest that TDB actually did fairly well for a cheap B film. The sequel: Devil Bat's Daughter had no sci-fi element to it all, but was a plain crime drama. While DBD purported to be a continuation, even using some TDB footage as flashback nightmares for Doc’s daughter, the plot continuity was highly flawed. This suggests that PRC had a draft script for a mediocre crime drama. (Sinister psychologist convinces sick woman that she’s a killer, in order to cover the murder of his wife.) With a little rewriting and inserting old footage, the script could almost work as a sequel to TDB. Almost. Yet, the sequel lacked any of the gravitas that Lugosi brought.

Bottom line? Viewers with a fondness for old B-movies, or Bela Lugosi, will find TDB mildly entertaining. Viewers with high standards or fussy tastes in films, will likely find TDB boring or dumb. TDB isn’t high art, by any means, but with a forgiving attitude, it can be good cheap fun.


Randall Landers said...

I enjoyed catching this flick on TCM some time ago. Boris saves the movie.

And I can't believe your verification now has me identifying which dishes are pasta, LOL

Darci said...

This plot was reused in PRC's 1948 "The Flying Serpent". In it, George Zucco took the mad doctor role. I hope you get a chance to compare them.

Darci said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bilim Kurgu Filmleri said...

its classic for true, btw nice blog keep it up ^^