Bela Lugosi's spiral into obscurity and drug addiction has been well documented over the years but it's still a sad story of an actor who helped define one of horror's classic monsters with his performance in 1931's Dracula that ended-up slumming in numerous poverty row productions before making one final, posthumous, appearance in Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space - a film that's considered one of the worst of all-time and where his scenes were intercut with footage of a double played by the chiropractor of Wood's wife. Which brings us to The Devil Bat, just one in a long-line of shoddy, quickly made cheapies that resides in the public domain giving any budget DVD company free reign to release it in whatever awful-looking form they choose. Thus making it a pleasant surprise to see Legend Films come along and apply some new spackle (including a colorized version) to a film that's really nothing more than a footnote.
Lugosi plays Dr. Paul Carruthers who, we're told in the film's text foreword, has been conducting "weird, terrifying experiments" in the village of Heathville. In fact, the good doctor has everything a good mad scientist needs to be successful including a lab with bubbling test tubes and a hidden lair. The residents have hired him on to create a shaving lotion and they think he's simply perfecting the formula up in his hillside manor little knowing that he's been using electrical currents to make your common bats gigantic and using the scent of his special lotion to attract our winged killers.
The reason behind his madness is simple. It seems the good folks of Heathville have decided that giving the doctor a simple bonus cheque for the amount of five-thousand-dollars will suffice for all his hard work - especially considering they're all getting quite rich from his formula. But Carruthers knows better and sets out for revenge while fedora sporting reporter Johnny Layton (Dave O'Brien) and his comic relief photographer buddy "One-Shot" (Donald Kerr) are sent in from the big city to investigate all the reports of missing persons coming from the area.
Truly a reflection of its time, The Devil Bat is filled to the brim with the soap operatic dialogue and overdone drama that was commonplace in the early 30s and 40s. This could signal the flick's death knell in regards to its entertainment factor but that's not the case here simply because Lugosi spends most of the film's brief 68 minutes emoting like crazy, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, and telling soon-to-be victims to "rub it on the tender part of your neck" as they cover themselves in his bat attracting shaving lotion. When you pair up his hammy performance with the silly, bargain-basement effects of our giant bats flying in for the kill (and the unintentionally funny blood-curdling shriek they make just before attacking) you're sure to get some amusement out of this.
What's even more amusing is that, with the exception of Kerr who gets to deliver a ton of droll lines as the film's only planned comedic character (really Lugosi is the funniest thing here), everyone else in the cast is dead serious in their roles. O'Brien tries his best to channel the gumshoes littering pulp magazines at the time while Suzanne Kaaren plays your standard "damsel in distress" type. It's another reason that this manages to be more endearing than it really should be.
If you're willing to keep low expectations and just go along with the craziness that is Lugosi, and you also happen to be a fan of the creaky genre pictures being made in these early decades of cinema, then you'll probably enjoy yourself. Director Jean Yarborough made a ton of poverty row films during the 1940s with such titles as She-Wolf of London, House of Horrors, and King of the Zombies (his resume sports over one-hundred credits!) before spending the last twenty years or so before his death in 1975 directing various television shows - if they're anything like this, I'm curious to check some of them out. There's also a sequel floating about out there, made six years later, called Devil Bat's Daughter. (Chris Hartley, 9/20/10)
Directed By: Jean Yarborough.
Written By: John Thomas Neville.
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Suzanne Kaaren, Dave O'Brien, Guy Usher.
Legend Films - October 21, 2008
Picture Ratio: Full Frame.
Picture Quality: Available on the disc in either a colorized version or a restored black & white version (which I prefer), The Devil Bat looks pretty good for a film that's seventy-years-old. With age comes the shimmering associated with it but the picture here looks pretty clean apart from a few rough spots. In regards to the colorization by Legend, it's a very muted endeavour and nowhere near being the over-the-top job they did, on purpose, with their release of Reefer Madness.
Extras: By no means is this the definitive version of The Devil Bat as the Lugosi estate issued a disc through RPH Productions in 2002 containing stills, a poster card, and commentary track featuring Lugosi's son - all we get here are trailers for other public domain films that have been given the colorization treatment by Legend (including Night of the Living Dead and the aforementioned Plan 9) but that's okay since the transfer is better than expected.
Visit Legend Films for more info.