Jean Yarbrough, 1940
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Suzanne Kaaren, Dave O’Brien, Guy Usher
A chemist, Dr. Carruthers, is driven mad by years of being cheated by his wealthy employers who have used his perfume formulas to get rich. In revenge, he creates a giant devil bat and a corresponding shaving lotion that will draw the bat to its wearer, so the giant winged creature can attack and kill. Carruthers manages to murder a few of his partners (and their family members) before attracting the attention of a local reporter, who is determined to get to the bottom of things with this help of a photographer.
PRC, Producers’ Releasing Corporation is a prime example of what became known as “poverty row,” a series of studios making absolutely bottom of the barrel films. The Devil Bat is probably the best of these and all the poverty row characteristics are in place. The primary actors were normally extras or, at most, given bit parts in other films, with the exception of one fading star, in this case Lugosi. The effects and sets are laughably cheap - though the bat's screaming is pretty amazing - but it gives the whole thing an undeniable sort of charm, at least if you love cheap and trashy genre films. To give you a better idea, this is basically two steps away from being an Ed Wood film and he was no doubt inspired by the horror films of poverty row. If you’re interested, you can learn more in Tom Weavers’ book Poverty Row Horror!
This is definitely a so-bad-it’s-good affair and will only be enjoyed by a certain audience. There is a lot of painful padding, such as numerous scenes between the reporter and his boss, many shots of newspaper headlines, and a significant amount of time spent with Lugosi playing around in his lab, not doing anything in particular.
Lugosi is of course the reason to bother seeing The Devil Bat and gives some truly hilarious speeches dripping with some terrible, yet enjoyable jokes. My favorite moment is when he listens to another scientist ramble on during a radio broadcast about the recently killed first devil bat. He calls the man a “bombastic ignoramus” when he guesses incorrectly that the creature is a surviving relic of prehistoric life, rather than a laboratory experiment. And this is only a taste of what he has to offer in The Devil Bat. This is also probably the only film he has ever appeared in where his character did not unmercilessly creep on a young woman, usually the female protagonist.
The rest of the cast is forgettable. The reporter is played by David O’Brien, a regular in low budget genre films like The Ghost Creeps (1940) and Spooks Run Wild (1941). His photographer side kick, the unfortunate comic relief, is played by the wildly prolific Donald Kerr (Cat People). Suzanne Kaaren (Miracles for Sale), though lovely, is one of the worst actors in the film and delivers dialogue so flat you can almost image someone out of frame holding up a cue card. Yolande Donlan (wife of Hammer horror director Val Guest) makes a nice appearance as a flirtatious French maid.
Director Jean Yarbrough worked regularly, but is known for little outside of a few lesser Universal horror efforts such as She Wolf of London (1946), a murder mystery not remotely about a werewolf, and the stylish if dumb Rondo Hatton double feature House of Horrors (1946) and The Brute Man (1946). He also directed Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967) with Lon Chaney, Jr., Basil Rathbone, and John Carradine. The plot is so ludicrous that I may have to see it just to confirm it is real and not made up by the internet.
Though The Devil Bat has been making the rounds online and on cheap DVDs for years, as it is in the public domain, all the existing prints so far have been atrocious. Kino has done a great job restoring this to a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.32:1. It’s an understatement to say that the film has never looked this good, despite the fact that Kino doesn’t do in depth restorations for their Blu-ray releases. There is a lot of age damage - scratches, specks, moments of sudden brightness - but they are far less distracting here than in the previous prints of the film. Though it could have used a little more clean up, it is unlikely any company other than Kino will ever make the effort and I doubt there will ever be a better looking release of this neglected film.
There is an uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0 English mono track that sounds decent, though, as with the print, is age damaged. There is some mild hissing throughout, as well as frequent crackling. The dialogue is still easy to hear and there aren’t any major issues. No subtitles are included.
Outside of a trailer for White Zombie, another enjoyable, low budget Bela Lugosi film, the only real extra is an informative commentary from film historian Richard Harlan Smith. I’m a sucker for commentary tracks and Smith does an excellent job delivering equal amounts of information, humor, and enthusiasm for both the film and the time period. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Lugosi or ‘30s and ‘40s horror.
The Devil Bat is so much fun that I can’t help but recommend it, though it is definitely an acquired taste and anyone expecting sophistication or a lavish budget need not apply. I’ve been watching a lot of classic American horror lately and it’s refreshing to see this minor camp gem rescued from relative obscurity and restored to Blu-ray. Kino Lorber has done an honorable job, as always, though it would be nice to have a few more extras. Hopefully we’ll see some more lesser known Lugosi titles from them in the future.