Monday, August 7, 2017

The Devil Bat (1940), by Jean Yarbrough

I technically talked about this before back in The Monogram Monograph, but it's more that I used imagery from it and that's about it. I wanted to keep elements of The Devil Bat loose in The Monogram Monograph because The Devil Bat is a Producers' Releasing Corporation movie rather than a Monogram one. The one commonality between this and the Monogram movies I've covered on the site is that this is a Bela Lugosi Poverty Row flick. It's a classic of the genre, and while there are plenty of reviews of this elsewhere online, I still wanted to talk about it here because there's a lot to love.

Bela Lugosi is Dr. Carruthers, the "kindly village doctor" of Heathville. At once we see that he is performing good old electrical stimulation experiments on bats, causing them to grow to the size of comically fake bat puppets. While stimulating his bats, he clenches his fist and makes a pouty face, like every scientist does in the midst of an experiment. He receives a phone call from his former coworkers at the local chemical factory, who are inviting him to a party where they intend to give him a $5,000 check as compensation for the success his formulas have bestowed on the company. Carruthers views this gift as an insult--apparently, they began using work of his they previously rejected after he left the company, and consequently made a mint. Carruthers' excuse for missing the party, that he is working on a new shaving lotion, is not a lie. However, he does not share with anyone the fact that he has trained his Devil Bat to kill people who wear this aftershave. "You will stuhrrrike!" he tells his Bat. " will stuhrrrike." One by one, Carruthers picks off the members of the cosmetics science team, all while being pursued by a reporter named Johnny Layton, played by Ralph from Reefer Madness, and his comic relief sidekick "One-Shot" McGuire. Will they crack the case before it's too late?

The appeal of this movie to me appears almost instantly, being built into the premise. Only in the 1940s could a theatrically released movie get away with featuring a mad scientist who takes revenge on his coworkers with perfume-powered giant bats. Stack that up with the fact that it's Bela Lugosi as the mad scientist, and of course bad movie fans are going to rave about it--it's one of Lugosi's best performances, too. The only other person who I can think of who'd do just as good of a job as Lugosi would be John Carradine. Lugosi is strangely gleeful in this role, being indeed rather kindly at first, before revealing himself to be a relentless and obsessive maniac. Of course, all of his rage is as campy as Bela ever made it. This is probably his second best role, with the first being, of course, his part in Glen or Glenda. After that it would be Dr. von Housen from Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. Lugosi's performance is perfectly suited for a movie about incredibly fake looking killer bats who sometimes turn into stock footage of bats when they're up close.

To examine it in detail: Carruthers is indeed kindly to the very last, almost never revealing his true nature to others. He even puts his life on the line to continue to prove his innocence, accompanying Johnny out into his garden to wait for the Devil Bat to arrive, unaware that Johnny intends to throw the lotion on him. Carruthers is an intelligent supervillain. He knows you get more flies with honey than with vinegar. Unlike an uncomfortable percentage of the American public, he is able to keep his vast and confounding rage under control long enough to complete his goals, or come very near to such. He vents by giving little ironic nods that we the audience will pick up on; there's a running gag of sorts where his victims, unaware of what they've just rubbed on their necks, wish the doctor good night. And he always responds with a resonant, "Goodbye," that only Lugosi could purr out. He also tells one of his victims, of the aftershave, "I don't think you'll ever use anything else." Bela clearly had the time of his life in this role, and it's good to see the old bastard happy after everything he went through in life.

Other than that, a lot of this stuff is par for the course as far as Poverty Row horror goes. It has the same stock library cues as many of the Monogram movies, and the screenwriter and cast never have any idea on how to end a scene. To be honest, my watch-through for this review made me think of one Monogram movie in particular, Lugosi's Black Dragons, which also features Lugosi running around killing people out of revenge. But unfortunately his performance in that is pretty terrible, even if I love the movie for its bizarro Monogram twists. I'm glad I've now seen so much of this guy's wartime output--even at its worst it's given me something to work with.

There's one other moment I wanted to mention before we wrap up...the moment where a scientist proclaims the Devil Bat to be the last survivor of a prehistoric species. did he come to that conclusion? Surely there was some sign that these were just electrically-engorged bats? I'm no scientist myself, so I don't know. I just know that this zany pseudoscientific bit reminded me of the conference rooms full of scientists spewing bullshit in the early Godzilla movies. It definitely improved the experience.

The Devil Bat is something like Bad Movie Elementary School, but truth be told I only found it last year. This is a Gateway Drug much like Plan 9 from Outer Space or I Eat Your Skin. Touch it, and it ignites like fire. Hold it in your palm. 

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