Starting off the season’s selections of spooky (if not necessarily scary) cinema, I opted for a short, older film. 1940’s The Devil Bat was a Producers Releasing Corporation production featuring Bela Lugosi as Dr. Carruthers, a well-liked physician, chemist, and inventor in the town of Heathville. But, as one might suspect by the actor playing the role, Dr. Carruthers isn’t quite as kindly as he seems. Heathville was founded by the Heath-Morton Cosmetics Company, and several years ago the company founders made their fortune off of a cosmetic Carruthers created, and which they paid him a relative pittance for. Though their relations have remained amicable, and they periodically buy other formulas from him, he has come to resent that they have become millionaires off of his work.
Enter the Devil Bat of the title.
The Devil Bat is the result of an experiment Dr. Carruthers has been working on. By using some unspecified chemicals and exposing an ordinary bat to ambient electricity, Dr. Carruthers has been able to cause the bat to grow to several times its original size (gotta love the science of 1940s fiction). By training it on a scent he then incorporates into his new shaving lotion, he plans to have the Devil Bat assassinate the families of the Heaths and Mortons in revenge.
Once the murders start, an out-of-town reporter named Johnny Layton and his photographer, “One-Shot” McGuire, arrive to investigate. With the permission of the chief of police, Johnny and One-Shot start nosing around the area trying to determine what is causing the killings, and who is responsible. It is fortunate for the Heaths and Mortons that Layton is around; Carruthers is so well-liked by everyone as to be above suspicion, and only the out-of-towners even consider the possibility that he may be a factor.
Being a simple and short monster story, the story plays out in a fairly straightforward and predictable manner. Carruthers gets a measure of revenge, Layton figures things out, Carruthers gets his karmic comeuppance, and Layton gets the girl. It’s a formula that’s essentially standardized for films of the genre and era, but if it’s familiar, it’s because it works. Because this is a low-budget production (as well as simply being quite old), there is some obvious use of stock footage, and the Devil Bat usually looks as stiff and unnatural as the stuffed bat One-Shot uses in a worked photo-shoot. Allowances have to be made, of course; nobody is going to go into this film expecting more than some cheesy entertainment, and that’s what’s delivered.
Also standard for a low-budget film such as this is that only one actor can truly be considered a star. Here, of course, that is Bela Lugosi, who delivers all of his lines with class and a charm that makes you feel like Dr. Carruthers really is a likeable fellow, despite all the casual murdering he’s doing. Johnny Layton is played by Dave O’Brien, who would go on to acquire some small fame as Ranger Tex Wyatt in a series of short western films. One-Shot McGuire is played by Donald Kerr, whose resume boasts a staggering 450 roles, but which are mostly minor roles and extras. It’s a shame, as Kerr imparted a great deal of energy into his part, and served as entertaining comic relief for the film.
Most of the other characters were similarly played by actors who would not be recognized by today’s audiences, and who mostly featured only in other small roles in small films. One small role that viewers will recognize though is that of newspaper editor Joe McGinty, who is played by Arthur Q. Bryan. Even if you don’t recognize the name, you will most assuredly recognize the voice, as Bryan provided the original voice for Elmer Fudd.
Come to think of it, he kind of looks like Fudd as well.
The Devil Bat isn’t going to go down in anybody’s list of the greatest films of all time, nor of the greatest horror films. But if you enjoy watching old slightly-cheesy movies, it’s a fun way to kill an hour, and Bela Lugosi’s acting adds significant charm to the work.
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