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.
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?