Thursday, March 24, 2011

Bela Lugosi and The Devil Bat

The Devil Bat

The Devil Bat, 1941, Producers Releasing Corporation, directed by Jean Yarbrough. Starring Bela Lugosi, Suzaane Kaaren, Dave O’Brien, Guy Usher, Hal Price. Sixty-nine minutes. Schlock-Meter Rating: 10 stars out of 10 stars. Note: Once sold on some video labels as Killer Bats.
By Doug Gibson
Okay, I know that the plot of Devil Bat is silly. I know the budget is a $1.89. I know the special effects are ridiculous with rubber bats swooping down to victims’ necks. I’m aware that many critics, including John Stanley (whom I respect) consider Devil Bat an example of Lugosi’s slow side to oblivion, and Ed Wood movies. But Stanley is wrong, wrong, wrong!

Nevertheless, I love this film. It is a great cult movie because it has heart. Lugosi -- and the rest of the cast -- take their job seriously. They take a sow’s ear and turn it into a silk purse. The plot is as follows: A seemingly kindly scientist (Lugosi) has toiled his entire life for a perfume company. The scientist’s discoveries had made millions for the firm’s family, but he remains a salaried employee. For that he is bitter and angry, and has harvested killer bats that will attack the scent of a perfume. Of course, Lugosi gives the perfume to the rich family members, and murders occur. By the end, nosy reporters (including great 40s genre star Dave O'Brien, and cops uncover Lugosi’s crime and he is killed at the end. Of course, as was PRC’s and other minor 40s film companies’ wont, there is also a love story mixed in this thriller between O'Brien's reporter and starlet Suzanne Kaaren's heiress.

Bela Lugosi’s greatest talent was providing an excellent performance no matter the subject matter. His performance as a brooding scientist, bitter, angry, feeling underappreciated, is a masterpiece. There is a scene at the beginning of Devil Bat where the family members of the firm -- who really seem to love the scientist -- throw him an appreciation testimonial and provide him with a $25,000 gift. Lugosi’s scientist is all decorum in this scene, and it’s chilling when he’s alone and the mad, angry, bitter murderer is revealed. It’s an effective contrast, which I don’t think other 40 chiller stars George Zucco or John Carradine could have pulled off.

By all means, rent Devil Bat (I recommend you buy it) and lose yourself in a great actor making the most of a simple story. Lugosi on screen can hypnotize a viewer. One ignores the plot flaws and poor special effects and appreciates a master actor in a great performance.

Devil Bat is now available in a colorized version, and it's a lot of fun to watch. The public domain film can be seen for free on the Internet. I used the UEN Sci-Fi Friday version of the film, along with the educational podcast, in my beginning newswriting class in the University of Utah. It helped the students learn how to write a news feature story.

Star O'Brien was a low-budget western star for most of the 40s but also acted in 40s low-budget Lugosi thrillers, Bowery at Midnight and Spooks Run Wild, a farce with the Bowery Boys. Director Jean Yarbrough was a reliable low-budget film director, making the cult film The Brute Man with Rondo Hatton. He also directed the strange country music western film "Hillbillys in a Haunted House" with John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr. and Basil Rathbone. Kaaren made about 40 mostly low-budget films between 1934 and 1942. She came out of retirement in 1982 for a role in the big-budget "The Cotton Club." Kaaren died in 2004 at age 92!

No comments: