Thursday, January 15, 2009

Devil Bat’s Daughter (PRC, 1946)

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

The Devil Bat was such a success for PRC (even though they let Lugosi get away to Monogram for a series of nine films that, save for the 1942 Bowery at Midnight, sank to a level of desperate wretchedness that would mark most of the rest of Lugosi’s career) that they recycled the plot twice — in 1942 for The Mad Monster (Glenn Strange as a werewolf created as a super-weapon by mad scientist George Zucco) and in 1945 for The Flying Serpent (Zucco as a mad archaeologist who unearths the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl while on a dig in Mexico and sets it out to kill his enemies by planting its feathers on them) — and also did a direct sequel, Devil Bat’s Daughter, in 1946.

My copy of this film was from a company called Image Entertainment, but after the physical glories of the print of The Devil Bat this one was quite disappointing: the picture was grainy and the sound was uncomfortably distorted, just like what we’re all too used to in public-domain material. What’s more, the film is terrible — and not terrible in a campy, unwittingly entertaining way (like the Ed Wood movies), but simply dull. Screenwriter Griffin Jay couldn’t have been bothered with maintaining continuity with the film he was supposedly writing a sequel to — the name of the town has changed from Heathville to “Wardsley,” its location has moved from the Midwest to upstate New York, and in the most audacious stroke of all he writes in a bit of dialogue claiming that Dr. Paul Carruthers was innocent of the murders in the original film (“one hopes that no theatre ever double-billed the two films,” Tom Weaver wrote in his book Poverty Row Horrors!) — but that’s the least of the problems with Devil Bat’s Daughter.

An unknown woman is found one night wandering the streets of Wardsley in an attempt to get to the home of the late Dr. Paul Carruthers — which hasn’t been lived in, or even cleaned, since Carruthers’ death at the end of The Devil Bat, though someone must have been there immediately afterwards since the place contains an old newspaper with the banner headline announcing Carruthers’ demise — and she turns out to be Nina MacCarron (Rosemary LaPlanche, Miss America for 1941), whose mother was Scottish and whose father was, you guessed it, Dr. Paul Carruthers — though they broke up shortly after she was born and she grew up in Scotland with her mom and used her mom’s rather than her dad’s name. Freaked out by the sight of the old headline announcing her dad’s death, she goes into shock and is cared for by Dr. Elliot (Nolan Leary), who seems to have been Dr. Carruthers’ replacement as the kindly village doctor of Wardsley, née Heathville. Thinking that the case is beyond him, Dr. Elliot enlists the assistance of New York psychiatrist Dr. Clifton Morris (Michael Hale), who moves Nina into his house.

The film then turns into a cheap and abysmally dull reworking of Gaslight, as Nina is subjected to various abuses — including being given a magically disappearing tonic (several times she’s presented a glass of this stuff and freaks out when she wakes and the glass is either empty or half-empty even though she has no memory of ever having drunk it) and also being slipped a dream-inducing drug that gives her the impression of turning into a bat and flying through the air at night with her father, also a bat, as her companion. (This is represented by clips from The Devil Bat distorted to look like they were filmed through a TV screen coated with Vaseline.) The idea behind all this is to convince Nina that her dad was a vampire and she’s inherited his blood-lust, but — as we begin to suspect long before the end — the real villain is Dr. Morris, who midway through the movie kills his wife Ellen (Molly Lamont) so he can be with his mistress Myra (Monica Mars) and sets Nina up to take the fall.

The good guy who unravels the truth is Ellen’s son (presumably by a previous marriage), Ted Masters (John James), who makes his first entrance in a military uniform (signaling to 1946 audiences that he just got back from serving in World War II and therefore must be a good guy) and falls in love with Nina; determined to prove her innocence and spare her the indignity of being hauled into court and charged with vampirism as well as murder, he figures out the whole thing and there’s a final confrontation that’s only moderately less boring than the rest of the movie, in which Morris is killed trying to flee and our two lovebirds end up together. Tom Weaver’s withering assessment of Devil Bat’s Daughter in Poverty Row Horrors! is decidedly unfair to Rosemary LaPlanche — whose “normal” scenes are a bit stiff but who’s utterly convincing as a woman being driven mad and unsure of her own sanity (she even tosses off lines like, “Bats! Bats! My father!” and “I used to dream of [my father] as a bat, and I would be flying beside him,” as if they made sense) — but he’s right-on about the rest of the movie, and in particular about the surprisingly dull direction of Frank Wisbar.

A German expatriate, Wisbar has acquired a cult reputation for the film he did at PRC immediately before this one, Strangler of the Swamp (a remake of a film he’d made in German called Führmann Maria), and he actually gets in a few shots with a sense of the noir-ish atmosphere pioneered by the top German filmmakers of the Weimar era, but for the most part the talky script, played out mostly in dialogue scenes and all too often with the heroine in bed (apparently no one thought to warn these people that a film which mostly shows its central character asleep would be likely to have the same effect on an audience), utterly defeats him — and after the relative appeal of Dave O’Brien in The Devil Bat, John James hews closer to the usual run of PRC leading men: homely, effeminate and possessed of little or nothing in the way of acting skills. In the previous four years PRC’s producers at least had the excuse that all the good actors were away fighting World War II (the real one, not the phony one they’d actually let a nerd like John James near!) — that’s how mini-talents like John Carroll and James Craig got plum roles at MGM as wanna-be Clark Gables — but now that the war was over they no longer had that pretext for casting an actor this lame, in what was admittedly a pretty lame vehicle anyway.