Directed By: Jean Yarborough
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Suzanne Kaaren, Dave O'Brien
Tag line: "Sharp Fanged Blood Sucking DEATH Dives from MIDNIGHT SKIES!"
Trivia: This low-budget thriller, boosted by Bela Lugosi, was one of the biggest successes for the poverty row Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC)
Being a Bela Lugosi fan, I always look forward to the time I spend watching his movies. They’re a sort of cinematic “comfort food” for me, films that, even if they aren’t the greatest, will undoubtedly contain at least one interesting performance. 1940’s The Devil Bat is a perfect example.
Bela stars as Doctor Paul Carruthers, a beloved physician who, unbeknownst to the citizens of Heathville, is breeding a colony of enormous bats, which he’s trained to do his bidding. You see, Dr. Carruthers developed the formula for a best-selling cosmetic product, which he then turned over to Martin Heath (Edmund Mortimer) and Henry Morton (Guy Usher), who proceeded to make a fortune off of it. Outwardly, Dr. Carruthers appears to bear no ill will towards his former partners, who, in a show of gratitude, just cut him a bonus check for $5,000. Privately, though, the good doctor is a very bitter man, and his newest concoction, a shaving lotion, will be the tool by which he gets his revenge.
Having conditioned the bats to attack whenever they smell the new lotion, Dr. Carruthers gives a sample to Roy, (John Ellis), a son of Martin Heath’s, who’s mauled to death soon after. Hoping for an exclusive story on the recent killing, newspaper editor Joe McGinty (Arthur Q. Bryan) sends beat reporter Johnny Layton (Dave O’Brien) and photographer ‘One-Shot’ McGuire (Donald Kerr) to Heathville, where, with the help of the deceased’s sister, Mary Heath (Suzanne Kaaren), they set to work trying to figure out what’s going on. But how many more will die before this bizarre case is solved?
While it certainly doesn’t rank as one of Bela Lugosi’s finest, The Devil Bat is far from a terrible movie. The story it tells is intriguing, and the titular creatures, though clearly fake, don’t look as bad you you’d expect when swooping through the air (shots of the phony bats are occasionally interspersed with close-up footage of actual ones). Topping all this, however, is another fine performance by the great Lugosi, who’s perfectly convincing as both a mild-mannered physician and a revenge-crazed madman. After giving the lotion to Roy Heath, Dr. Carruthers shakes his hand, at which point Roy, who’s heading home, bids the doctor a good night. “Good BYE, Roy” is Carruthers cryptic reply, a hint of sadness in his voice at the realization this young man, who he’s known since he was a child, is about to become his first victim.
Where The Devil Bat falters is in the scenes featuring the reporter and his photographer sidekick, many of which are played for laughs. It’s not that the actors are bad, per se; in fact, there are times when the two are kinda funny (having promised their boss a picture of the bat, they decide to photograph a stuffed one and pass it off as the real thing, only to be exposed as frauds when a noted researcher examines the picture and notices a tag on the creature’s wing that says “Made in Japan”). But the dialogue in The Devil Bat isn’t particularly well-written, which becomes obvious when anyone other than Lugosi tries to deliver it. As he’s done many times before, Bela Lugosi brings an air of respectability to a film that, without him, would have quickly drifted into obscurity.