Friday, September 16, 2011

Guilty Pleasures Movie Blogathton: The Devil Bat

Would you use a bottle of shaving lotion given to you by Bela Lugosi, especially after he recommends you “rub it on the tender part of your neck?”

Of course you wouldn’t, but there are quite a few characters in “The Devil Bat” (1940) who do accept the lotion, the scent of which attracts the title creature, created in a lab by the “kindly” Dr. Carruthers (Lugosi), and wind up dead with their throats torn out.

“The Devil Bat” (1940) is Bela Lugosi’s finest hour on Poverty Row (OK, make that 69 minutes). In his only film for PRC Studios, Lugosi delivers one of his most enthusiastic portrayals as he uses his giant bat to gleefully kill off members of two families he feels have cheated him out of profits for a successful cold cream formula.

No, I’m not making this up.

“The Devil Bat” is set in fictional Heathville, IL. However, one of the characters does mention going to a house on Cottage Grove Avenue, which does exist and is a main thoroughfare through the South Side and south suburbs of Chicago. This is my old stomping grounds, so I like to think I used to live in an area where a giant devil bat flew overhead in search of victims.

Dr. Carruthers feels he was cheated out of profits from his cold cream formula made rich by businessmen Henry Morton (Guy Usher) and Martin Heath (Edward Mortimer).

Never mind that Dr. Carruthers did agree to a cash payment up front and meager royalty payments, instead of waiting for the product to become successful. No, Carruthers feels he’s been cheated out of millions of dollars in profits and is ready to exact his vengeance.

The sons of the Heath and Morton families are found dead with their throats torn out, but no one knows by who or why. Chicago Daily Register Editor Joe McGinty assigns reporter Johnny Layton (Dave O’Brien) and photographer “One Shot” McGuire (Donald Kerr) to the story.

McGinty is played by Arthur Q. Bryan, the voice of Elmer Fudd. Can this film get any better?

I’m jumping ahead with the story a bit, because the film actually opens with Lugosi in his lab, wearing goggles, watching through a window as electricity surges through the upside-down-hanging giant bat. These are intercut with stock footage close-up scenes of a real bat head. Ick!.

Director Jean Yarbrough toiled in the “B” movie arena most of his career to intermittent effect. He did direct one of Monogram’s most enjoyable horror films “King of the Zombies” (1941), but that’s due more to Mantan Moreland’s comedy than any chills generated.

He can also lay claim to directing one of the best Bowery Boys outings, “Master Minds” (1949) co-starring Glenn Strange and Alan Napier.

Unfortunately Yarbrough’s name graces Universal’s dullest horror film, “She-Wolf of London” (1946), though even James Whale couldn’t have saved that turkey.

But he does an OK job with “The Devil Bat.” The scenes of the bat attacking its victims are actually pretty well staged, especially since the bat is accompanied by a high-pitched scream. However, Yarbrough should have left an attack or two for the end and instead teased us with the earlier attacks.

After all, there’s only so much variety to be had in an attacking giant bat, especially on a Poverty Row budget. You’ve seen one devil bat attack you’ve seen them all, no matter how well they’re staged.

But this was PRC and in his book, “Poverty Row Horrors!” (McFarland & Company, 1992), Tom Weaver brings up a great point about the appeal of Poverty Row horror movies, and PRC in particular:

Like most of PRC’s horrors, The Devil Bat plunges headlong into the plot. The film opens as Lugosi enlarges one of his bats, then (to let us know what’s going on) floridly describes his evil plans to the bat (!). PRC’s films often began at the point of creation of the monster (The Devil Bat, The Mad Monster), or with the monster already in existence (Dead Men Walk, Strangler of the Swamp, The Flying Serpent). Most would probably find this a lazy or juvenile device, but there’s something to be said for movies that know just what their audiences want, that skip all the worn-out yap and jump right into the meat of their stories. By its halfway point, the werewolf in The Mad Monster is already hip-deep in murder and mayhem; at the halfway point of Universal’s The Wolf Man, Lon Chaney has yet to show even a trace of five o’clock shadow. This is not to say that The Mad Monster is a better movie than The Wolf Man, but just that some studios made horror films that had a lot of build up while the folks at PRC, who liked zip in their pictures, relied more on action.

Bela Lugosi was one of the most magnetic performers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and as Dracula, added millions of Depression-era dollars into Universal’s coffers.

But he was a lousy businessman and had even worst representation, and in the late 1930s and 1940s found himself on Poverty Row. While Universal wasted Lugosi in butler or manservant roles, Poverty Row at least gave Lugosi the lead role in their horror movies. It may be Poverty Row, but at Monogram or PRC, Lugosi was king.

Poverty Row was a term given to studios that specialized in “B” product and if you weren’t a major studio you were on Poverty Row.

Republic Pictures may have been considered a Poverty Row studio, but they were the M-G-M of Poverty Row, as their films had good production values and often attracted name stars from other studios. Certainly the stunt work and miniatures at Republic for their serials and westerns were every bit as good, if not better, than similar work at the major studios.

Below Republic was Monogram Studios and below Monogram was PRC. PRC stood for Producers Releasing Corporation (not Pretty Rotten Crap, as some wags would suggest). Making a movie at Monogram or PRC meant you were either on your way up or on your way down.

“The Devil Bat” was Lugosi’s one and only outing at PRC, and it’s probably the best horror film he made for a Poverty Row studio. What it lacks in logic it makes up for in enthusiasm.

Audiences who went to see a movie called “The Devil Bat” got their money’s worth as there are about half a dozen bat attacks. No gore, of course, but the devil bat is one of the more unusual monsters of 1940s horror filmdom.

An acting job at PRC meant no time for wardrobe changes. O’Brien wears the same suit throughout most of the movie. I noticed this because he wears the same tie, which features a large question mark in the middle, like something Frank Gorshin’s Riddler character would wear. I was greatly relieved when O’Brien wore a new suit coat and tie in the film’s final scenes.

“The Devil Bat” made gobs of money for PRC, and the studio was not going to let a quality prop like that go to waste. In 1944, The Devil Bat chased Buster Crabbe through a cave in one of his Billy Carson westerns, “Wild Horse Phantom” (1944).

PRC re-made (kind of) “The Devil Bat” as “The Flying Serpent” in 1945. In that one, George Zucco uses the flying serpent, found in an Aztec monument, to kill off victims of an archaeological expedition he feels cheated him out of recognition of his findings.

“The Devil Bat” even earned a sequel, a rarity on Poverty Row, with one of the most awkwardly titled movies of all time, “Devil Bat’s Daughter” (1946).

It’s one of the dullest flicks ever made, as we follow Dr. Carruthers’ daughter (Rosemary LaPlanche) who thinks she’s a vampire. By the end of the movie, the daughter has also cleared her father of the bat attacks from the first film!

As Tom Weaver says, “One hopes that no theater ever double-billed the two films.”

(My favorite example of Poverty Row illogic comes courtesy of Monogram Pictures. In 1943, Bela Lugosi starred in “The Ape Man.” A year later, he starred in “Return of the Ape Man.” Story-wise, the two films have absolutely nothing in common. Such is the happy land of Monogram.)

Leading lady Suzanne Kaaren had an interesting career, and was arguably Donald Trump’s least favorite actress.

Three Stooges fans know Suzanne Kaaren as Gail Tempest, the dancer who strips to her dancing clothes in a courtroom and performs a routine in one of their best shorts “Disorder in the Court” (1936). She toiled in “B” movies and in 1943 married Sidney Blackmer, a well-regarded actor best known for playing the warlock Roman Castevet in “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968). They stayed married until his death in 1973. They had two sons, Jonathan and Brewster. Gee, I wonder what their favorite play was?

In the 1980s Donald Trump wanted to purchase the New York apartment building she was living in and convert it into condos. She refused to leave and he threatened to evict her. They went to court and after a vicious legal battle, the court ruled in her favor. In 1998, however, the decision was overturned and The Donald was finally able to turn the building into condos. Kaaren, however, did receive $750,000 in compensation. She died in 2004.

“The Devil Bat” is a great favorite of horror fans and is one of the easiest Lugosi films to see. Since it slipped into public domain status, it has been released on VHS and DVD countless times, often in less than desirable prints. Regardless of print quality, it remains a very entertaining 69 minutes and gives Bela Lugosi one of his most gloriously sinister roles, alongside one of 1940s horrordom’s most unusual monsters. What’s not to like?


Page said...

Bats make me very uncomfortable but that's okay, there's Bela who makes me smile and excited! As you know I'm a huge fan of Bela and these insanely bad films. They're such fun to snark on so I'm a fan of you doing a review on one that I haven't yet seen. I love the title of the film since a 'devil bat' does seem more terrifying that a regular ole cave dwelling bat. Bela really was a trooper and it's rather endearing that he appeared in so many of these campy 'horror' films that have such a following today.

Classic Film Boy told me awhile back that I should write on every Bela film with my own twist on each one. Well I won't be including The Devil Bat, since your review can't be topped.

And who wouldn't choose this film as their Guilty Pleasure when it was so excellent that it spawned " Devil Bats Daughter"? (Might have to pass on that one)

For your safety I really hope there isn't a Devil Bat flying about your neighborhood but in case you find yourself out on a late night stroll face to face with one please let it be 1)more realistic than the one in the film, not as hairy and 2)not so terrifying that you can keep your composure long enough to get a good quality picture of it.

Another enjoyable review Kevin.

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

What's not to like indeed? Really, I think Criterion should do a deluxe edition of THE DEVIL BAT, because this flick has its fans! This is one of your finest reviews, Kevin--funny, affectionate, and insightful. I love Weaver's quote because a lot of movies could skip "the yap" and get down to what matters. I saw DEVIL BAT as a kid and am still drawn to it whenever it's on. Bela was at his best when he wasn't really trying to act--just being Bela was enough. I am concerned, though, that you may have grown up with a devil bat flying around your neighborhood!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I love this: "Audiences who went to see a movie called “The Devil Bat” got their money’s worth as there are about half a dozen bat attacks."

I've not seen this film, Kevin, but I enjoyed your post, and the background info on Suzanne Kaaren, who I remember from that Stooges short.

Brandie said...

I've never seen this one, but good Lord, it sounds like a camp-fest. Classic horror always has that element of camp, but this sounds like it takes it to a completely different level. Must see this one for myself now!

whistlingypsy said...

Kevin, thank you for your entertaining and informative review of a film that is entirely new to me. The Devil Bat sounds like one of those guilty pleasure gems. I can imagine discovering this as a kid on a late night or early Saturday morning movie show and becoming a fan for life. I don’t generally watch horror film, although I love Lon Chaney, Sr. in all of his silent films, but this sounds perfect for a Halloween lineup. Do you know, by chance, if this film is aired on TCM with any regularity?

FlickChick said...

Me likey this post! It doesn't get much guiltier than this kooky pleasure! It was a pleasure reading your post!

ClassicBecky said...

Very entertaining, Kevin. You are so right -- the premise for The Devil Bat, the cold cream scheme, has to be one of the lamest reasons for somebody to go postal that I ever heard. Lugosi is fun in this one, and the bat is really bizarre. The history you presented is very interesting -- I did not know there was actually a sequel, The Devil Bat's Daughter. You are right, what a clumsy name. Does that mean she is the duaghter of the bat, or the bat creator? LOL! Good stuff, Kevin.

KimWilson said...

Oh, this sounds like a really bad film. I haven't seen it, but your description of the film just leads me in that direction of thought. Loved your line: "This is my old stomping grounds, so I like to think I used to live in an area where a giant devil bat flew overhead in search of victims." Interesting choice...Poverty Row Films always seem to end up being guilty pleasures or cult classics.

Caftan Woman said...

"What it lacks in logic it makes up for in enthusiasm." Yep, that's it. That is also the only way to really enjoy "The Devil Bat" and other Poverty Row flicks that find their way into our hearts.

Loved the article.

Kevin Deany said...

I do thank everyone for their nice comments. I do find myself returning to some of these Poverty Row efforts more than some of the titles from the majors. You can't beat Glenn Strange in "The Mad Monster" in werewolf make up and jean overalls.

Whistling Gypsy, "The Devil Bat" is scheduled to be shown on TCM on October 10 at 5:00 EST. It will be followed by another PRC horror film, the vampire flick "Dead Men Walk" with George Zucco and Dwight Frye in one of his last films.

I do apologize for all the white spaces. Don't know what happened. It looked fine in the preview, but when it posted there were those spaces between paragraphs. Need to find out what happened. I was out pretty much the whole day and evening and didn't have time to fix it.

Kevin Deany said...

I fixed the spaces between the paragraphs.

The Lady Eve said...

I love this post. I think I must've seen "The Devil Bat" on TV at some point early in life - the bat attack with high pitched shriek sounds all too familiar. I'm sure it scared me to death. I was always terrified by Lugosi and Karloff's horror movies.

Interesting background to on the Poverty Row studios, which I know not much about. And...I love the fact that Suzanne Kaaren managed to thwart The Donald's condo plans for nearly 20 years and, though she lost in the end, managed to get 3/4 million $ out of him...

Anonymous said...

Kevin, - PRC is the guilty pleasure capital of the world and THE DEVIL BAT fits right in. An entertaining article and a great job.


Classicfilmboy said...

Wow, Kevin, what a fascinating story on this film. You gave a guilty pleasure its due with plenty of tidbits and some nice history on how PRC knew what its audiences wanted. I may not see this film, but I doubt a finer article will be written about it.

Grand Old Movies said...

I just love Bela in his Poverty Row efforts, and 'Devil Bat' is one of his best. Your line about how Bela's character in this film accepts "cash payment up front and meager royalty payments" could, unfortunately, describe his career. 'The Flying Serpent' remake is also one of my faves, and it stars the great George Zucco to boot. Thanks for such a terrific post!

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Republic Pictures may have been considered a Poverty Row studio, but they were the M-G-M of Poverty Row

Very nice. For some odd reason, I can't help but think of Paul Terry's declaration that "Disney is the Tiffany's of this business and I am the Woolworth's" when referring to his cartoon empire.

My BBFF Stacia talked me into recording this one the last time TCM ran it on Halloween -- I only got to see the first 10-20 minutes before someone made demands on my time and clearly I need to return to it when the opportunity presents itself. I always enjoyed how Bela's characters invented these monstrosities (killer robots, giant bats) only because he felt he had been screwed by capitalist swine.

And speaking of swine...for taking on Donald Trump, Suzanne Kaaren has become my new hero. (Swing it, Gail!)

Dave the Movie Guy said...

Kevin - Great post. I love all those Poverty Row films, and Lugosi is one of my all time favorites. I'd still rather sit down and watch one those PRC, Monogram, or Republic films or shorts than most of the crap that passes for entertainment nowadays ...

Kevin Deany said...

Dave, truer words were never posted on the Internet. Thanks for writing.

Dawn said...

I have not seen film, "The Devil Bat" but, because of your scary review, I plan on watching it next month when it comes on TCM. I can not wait.