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Devil Bat (1940)

by on 2010/10/04

Through film I’ve encountered at least two distinct views of the role of science in the mid-20th century.  One saw it as all that was new, inhuman, and dangerous; the other, a necessary standard in guiding younger generations to their inevitable future.  These views need not be mutually exclusive though, and it is interesting that the slow deprecation of “the scientist as villain” stereotype should coincide with the failure of science to lure new practitioners.  Perhaps we need our sexy test tube bad boys back.  Perhaps we need more Bela.

In 1940’s Devil Bat, Hungarian heart-throb Bela Lugosi stars as Doctor Paul Carruthers.  In the town of Heathville, outside Chicago, he serves as the local physician, forensics consultant, and universally beloved mad scientist.  As the movie begins the town is about to be set abuzz with his latest endeavour:  a new shaving lotion with an experimental fragrance and unprecedented smoothness.  The town’s central industry, you see, is cosmetics.  Unfortunately when prominent executives begin to suffer the violent attacks of a screeching flying monster, investigators discover they share an oddly similar scent.

Here is a movie steeped in melodrama.  The characters seem to feel that they are actors on a stage, stars in their own productions.  Every line is delivered with exuberance, significance, and even (often) ignorance.  Where such affectations have become a distraction in recent movies, here they are a part of the texture of life, delivered in earnest, if not always insight.  Could the giant Devil Bat actually be the lone survivor of our Neolithic — or “Stone” — Age?  Or is simply the recipient of glandular stimulation through electrical impulses?  One thing is for sure.  It must be stopped before it attacks anyone else wearing this strange Oriental fragrance!

For all the movie’s quaintness, it would doubtless rot forgotten without the presence of Bela Lugosi.  Like classic horror fellows Vincent Price and Christopher Lee he doesn’t so much elevate the material as he does take possession of it.  Which is only appropriate for the greatest embodier of Dracula.  I can’t imagine anyone else following him in the delivery of his lines:  his spastic acrobatics to avoid his own shaving products; his overt telegraphing in bidding each victim, “Good-BYE!”; his breathless mania in ordering, “Strike . . . to kill!”

Of course this B-movie has its issues, the same ones you could level at any similar pic: a hackneyed plot, lower-than-low production values, and performances unfamiliar with the very word “Academy”.  Even at mere minutes over an hour, the whole affair is padded.  Both the roguish male protagonist and the doe-eyed ingenue immediately find a future in each other from first glance.  Naturally their sidekicks are similarly paired up.  And another distracting subplot sees our heroes first fake — and then withhold — the Devil Bat story from the press.  To be fair, these conventions are part of the fun, an expected byproduct of their genre, budget, and times.  We’d be missing some of the fun without them.

In short this horror chestnut is infinitely less scary than amusing.  For what it is, it’s perfect.  In fact it reminded me a great deal of a later Roger Corman production, Wasp Woman, which also featured a cosmetics concern with a dangerous secret ingredient.  Pair it with Devil Bat and you’d have a great double bill.  Ed Wood fans would certainly find it alluring.  After all, when you’ve got that mad scientist Bela in a suit, a hat, and a cane . . . what else do you need?

* * *

Full movie (public domain) available here:

Not rated

68 minutes

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