Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Devil Bat (PRC, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I had just received the copy of Devil Bat’s Daughter (no definite article at the beginning of the title) I’d ordered from and decided to double-bill it with the original The Devil Bat (that movie begins with “The”!) and see how the two films worked together. There’s no doubt that the original The Devil Bat is far superior; it’s better written, better directed, has a plot that (within the admittedly loose conventions of science-fiction) actually makes sense, and above all it has Bela Lugosi in full cry as the star.

It begins with a quirky written foreword — “All Heathville loved Paul Carruthers, their kindly village doctor. No one suspected that in his home laboratory on a hillside overlooking the magnificent estate of Martin Heath, the doctor found time to conduct certain private experiments — weird, terrifying experiments” — and while it’s even harder to believe that any set of townspeople, even the usual dolts that inhabit small towns in “B” movies, could have ever thought of Bela Lugosi as “kindly” and lovable than it is to believe that a Lugosi character could have as blandly Anglo a name as “Paul Carruthers,” this movie (written by John Thomas Neville from an “original” story by George Bricker) manages for a low-budget Lugosi vehicle to work pretty well.

After the foreword it begins in medias res, with Lugosi in a secret laboratory (behind two secret doors!) applying electrical energy to a bat suspended upside-down in a wire rack hanging from his ceiling. He’s already blown up the bat to about twice its normal size and now he’s making it even bigger (an effect which PRC’s special-effects people seem to have achieved simply by making a balloon of a bat and filling it with air on camera) so he can turn it into a murder machine. The people he means to murder are his employers, Martin Heath (Edward Mortimer) and Henry Morton (Guy Usher), and all the members of their families, and his gripe with them is that years before they bought a formula for a cold cream from him, paid him $10,000 and used their profits to built a cosmetics company that has made them both millionaires. When he’s tried to complain about this in the normal fashion he’s received patronizing lectures — “You’re a dreamer, and too much money is bad for dreamers” — and token payments like the $5,000 bonus Heath and Morton offer him at the beginning of the film.

So he’s worked out a way to make his giant bat ultra-sensitive to a rare Tibetan scent he’s incorporated in a new shaving lotion he’s developed, and he gives experimental samples of this stuff to everyone he wants to off; once they’re outside, he lets out the devil bat (oddly, he opens the attic window of his lab and each time he does so a number of normal-sized bats — which we haven’t seen at any other point in the film — fly out and then the Devil Bat follows them) and the bat, attracted to the scent of the lotion on the soft, fleshy part of the neck, dive-bombs its prey and takes out whoever is next on Lugosi’s list of people who never will be missed. It’s an obvious attempt to tap into the Dracula iconography — Lugosi, the bat, the puncture wounds to the neck and the loss of the victim’s blood — even though the story is science-fiction and not fantasy.

PRC’s fabled cheapness is much in evidence — they shot the devil-bat in action once and then reused that footage throughout the film wherever it was needed — and there’s an interestingly ironic sequence in which the two Chicago Register reporters on the trail of the killer, Johnny Layton (Dave O’Brien) and his photographer “One Shot” McGuire (Donald Kerr), rig up their own stuffed bat on wires to fake a picture of the “Devil Bat” in action: the joke being that their attempt is probably as sophisticated as the “real” work of the PRC effects crew behind the scenes staging the “real” bat attacks. (At the same time, as Charles and I joked to each other, in a modern movie the killer bats would be unconvincing digital creations instead of unconvincing models moved on wires.)

But director Jean Yarborough (a boy named Jean, a native of Marianna, Arkansas who started as a prop man in the silent days and worked up first to assistant director and then to director) keeps it moving quickly, O’Brien and Kerr are quite a bit more appealing than the usual “B” horror leads and comic-relief roles (Kerr actually sounds at times like he’s heard of dry wit, a foreign concept to most of the comic-relief players in Hollywood at the time), the reporters-feuding-with-their-irascible-editor bits (though hackneyed) add to the energy level, and above all it has Lugosi, playing a character with a more understandable motivation than usual (he may be a psycho killer, but at least he’s targeting people who genuinely wronged him rather than picking folks out of the blue, and he’s acting from recognizable human motives rather than a mad desire to rule the world), appearing in surprisingly few scenes (my guess is that “B” producers kept down Lugosi’s footage because they didn’t want to wait for him to learn too much dialogue phonetically — he never learned more than the simplest English and always memorized his scripts phonetically — though actor Gene O’Donnell told Tom Weaver that “the less [Lugosi] had to say, the happier he was,” so maybe he anticipated Steve McQueen in his insistence that he was a more powerful screen presence reacting than acting) but still dominating the picture.

The print we were watching — the one TCM showed on Hallowe’en as part of an unusually quirky horror marathon — was by far the best I’ve ever seen on this film: though there were a few white specks on some frames (probably the result of dust on the negative when the source print was struck), the movie was otherwise quite good photographically, doing full justice to Arthur Martinelli’s cinematography (rivaling George Robinson’s at Universal for atmosphere despite the cheapness of the sets he had to photograph — one really quirky trademark of PRC was that virtually all their interior sets had ornate and horribly ugly wallpaper), and the sound was also clear, bright and quite listenable — while the bits and pieces of stock music David Chudnow put together for a score generally work quite well except for one cue (the Devil Bat beating itself, Dracula-like, against the window of the heroine, Mary Heath, played by Suzanne Kaaren with a quiet dignity that should have marked her for biggers and betters), in which Chudnow uses an agitato action-horror theme instead of something slower and more suspenseful. All in all, The Devil Bat is a surprisingly good movie, not a world-beater (and not at the level of Murders in the Rue Morgue or White Zombie as a Lugosi vehicle) but made with real talent and flair, an enjoyable 68-minute time-filler even if it’s lost its power to scare.