Sunday, November 10, 2013

DVD Review: The Devil Bat (1940)

The Devil Bat (1940)

Released: September 10, 2013 by Kino Classics

Another looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

Summary:  Death by…  Shaving Lotion?  Yes, really!


Once upon a time there were two rich families, the Heaths and the Mortons, who became richer still on chemical cosmetic formulas concocted by Dr. Paul Carruthers (Bela Lugosi), who accepted a cash payment for his initial efforts rather than a stake in Heath and Morton’s operation.  While this benefited Carruthers in the short run, it made him bitter and vengeful over time. 

But, let’s kick it over to the on-screen text “Foreword” that opens the picture: 

All Heathville loved Paul Carruthers, their kindly village doctor.  No one suspected that, in his home laboratory, on a hillside overlooking the magnificent estate of Martin Heath, the doctor found time to conduct certain private experiments – weird, terrifying experiments!”   
Did you read that?  They LOVE me! 

Now, Dr. Carruthers didn’t really have it so bad on the whole.  He worked in a laboratory, and with materials, apparently supplied by Heath and, presumably, drew a salary – or, at least existed on a stipend – that would ensure his continued services. He’s even presented with a bonus check for his continued good work by one of Heath’s sons…

…But, when you remain a wage-slave while those around you continue to amass great wealth, it’s not hard to understand why resentment creeps in, even if the situation results from your own ill-advised choices. 

What IS a bit hard to understand (at least outside the context of horror movies), is why you’d want to grow giant killer bats and use them as the instruments of your revenge. 

On the other hand, if the Heaths and Mortons were just a tad less “dickish” (if you will) in their dealings with Dr. Carruthers, continually reminding him of their “deal” – and maybe shared a little piece of the pie with the man upon whose work said “pie” came into existence in the first place – perhaps none of this would have happened… and there’d be no movie, no DVD to review, and I’d probably be posting on THE WALKING DEAD, LOST IN SPACE, or some old comic book, instead!

Caught between "The Devil Bat" and the "Deep Blue Zombies"!

But, never expect the mad genius of Dr. Paul Carruthers (or Bela Lugosi, for that matter) to let you down, especially when there’s a buck at stake, or a “dickish” family member to be offed! 


In a secret room in his (actually Heath’s) lab, Carruthers has enhanced ordinary bats, using Universal Pictures “Frankenstein-era” type sparking and sizzling equipment, to grow several times their size, and several times as fierce!  And, to boot, trained them to zero-in on the scent of a particular type of new shaving lotion Carruthers developed, and to kill anyone carrying its scent!  And, succeed at this he does, bringing about the deaths of several Heaths and Mortons by “Devil Bat Attack”! 

Lugosi, as Carruthers, clearly relishes each successive slaying, laying ironic comments on each victim as they depart after sampling the shaving lotion, such as: 
The Shaving Lotion of Death!

ROY HEATH (Victim): “Good Night, Doctor!”



CARRUTHERS: (in reference to the new brand of shaving lotion): “I don’t think you’ll EVER use ANYTHING ELSE!” 

 …And, Dr. Carruthers would have succeeded, too, if not for “those meddling kids from SCOOBY-DOO” – no wait, I mean “Johnny Layton” and “One-Shot McGuire”, a meddling newspaper reporter and his meddling photographer. 
"Who's on first... Bat's on second... I don't know's on third!

 Despite throwing-off a distinct “Abbott and Costello vibe” (perhaps because “The Devil Bat’s” director, Jean Yarbrough, was later known for working with the legendary comedy team?) , Layton and McGuire, working with heiress-to-be “Mary Heath”, eventually turn the tables on Carruthers, ridding the world of Devil Bats once and for all. 

NO!  No, not ME!  Noooo!

Once again, it seems Bela Lugosi was done in by a newspaper reporter, just as he was HERE! 

That does it!  I must CANCEL my newspaper subscription at once!
The Devil Bat” was produced by Producer’s Releasing Corp. (est. 1939), and is 01:08: 27 worth of pure “Poverty Row” goodness, and the delightful “pluses and minuses” that come with that are evident throughout.  

For instance, the “Devil Bat” itself was nothing more than a stuffed prop, which glides on the expected wires.  Yet, even in this nicely cleaned-up version of the film, the wires are nowhere near as evident as they might be in other productions of this (or even later) vintage, indicating some extra care on the part of the special effects crew. 
Shhhh!  Perhaps it's SLEEPING!

Unless it was in flight, the Devil Bat never moved, but hung motionless and upside-down on a perch, even when that perch was carried around by Dr. Carruthers.  The only “spark of life” ever exhibited by the Devil Bat was in extreme CLOSE-UP, when a REAL snarling bat’s face was intercut with the “still ‘n’ stuffed” dummy.  At least, the “live bat’s” face and expression WAS scary by 1940 standards, if not still by today’s.  Bats are just scary – PERIOD, regardless of what century you’re living in!  BRRRR! 

Carruthers kept both the Devil Bat, and its normal-sized brethren, in a top-floor room of his lab building.  Whenever he’d unleash the beast, he’d… er, “go upstairs to the bat-room”, pull a rope that would open the room’s lone window, and out would fly the bats.  First, a few normal ones, followed by the Devil Bat.  But, each time Carruthers would target another victim, we were treated to the same stock-shot of mass Bat-exodus!  You’d see it several times, over the course of the picture! 
Here we go... AGAIN and AGAIN!
Ironically, watching all those BATS exit in exactly the same way every time, sorta reminded me of the weekly, recurring stock-shot of the BATMOBILE, exiting the Batcave and traveling the “14 miles” to Gotham City, to begin the BATMAN 1966 TV SHOW every week! 

Movies like this give BATS a bad name, Old Chum!
 …Ah, there’s nothing like “Poverty Row” pics!  
Oh, and there’s one additional casting selection of note!  Arthur Q. Bryan, best known as the voice of Elmer Fudd, is seen in a rare on-camera role as (the comedy team of) Layton and McGuire’s harried newspaper editor! 
"A Wild Hare" (1940)

 Both “The Devil Bat” and the Tex Avery directed Warner Bros. cartoon “A Wild Hare” (which marked the FIRST “vewy, vewy, quiet” hunting-encounter between Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd) were released in 1940.  I don’t know which one was released first, but it’s interesting to think about WHO may have actually had the more successful career going forward… Bela Lugosi or Arthur Q. Bryan.

Arthur Q. Bryan
Imagine ME... meeting Bewwa Wugosi!  Unbeweevable!

As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.  

No Theatrical Trailer for “The Devil Bat”:  As the DVD market has changed; I’ve lowered my standards of what is an acceptable package for a movie DVD.  Formerly, those standards required the inclusion of a theatrical trailer for the film, a commentary track, and a "making-of" featurette.  Today, I'm somewhat satisfied with only a theatrical trailer,  And, alas, this version of The Devil Bat” fails to include one. 

No Subtitles:  More and more, on older films, I find myself engaging the subtitle option because the sound quality on such films is often less then it could be.  The Devil Bat” offers no English subtitles; however, the audio has been cleaned-up to such an extent that the option is not required for the best enjoyment of the film.  Still, the lack of subtitles is noted here.  


 It’s Bela Lugosi:  The American cinema’s first truly enduring master of horror, in a delightfully fiendish role.  Sure, he’s campy sometimes.  But who wouldn’t be, in a picture like this!  Lugosi never fails to light-up the screen whenever he’s on! 

It’s “Poverty Row”:  These supposedly “lesser” films are a wonder unto themselves!  I’ve grown to love the product of these smaller independent studios more and more, every time I see one!

Picture Quality:  The picture quality is fantastic for a film of this vintage.  Bela Lugosi films that did not originate with major studios like Universal and Columbia usually suffer in overall quality, but Kino Classics is to be commended for its superb restoration efforts.  (Images used here are from the Internet, and not necessarily indicative of the great restoration work that his been done on this film!)

You don't need GOGGLES like these to see the great picture quality!
The Extra Features: As noted above, Extra Features are no longer what they used to be for older films.  And, even with no theatrical trailer for The Devil Bat”, Kino Classics has made more of an effort in this area than I’ve come to expect of late.

Theatrical Trailer for “White Zombie”:  (02:47) I suppose, if you could not include a theatrical trailer for Bela Lugosi in The Devil Bat”, the next best thing would be to offer a theatrical trailer for Bela Lugosi in White Zombie”. 
Funny thing is, neither the narration, in both voice and tone, and the superimposed text graphics, in their style, would seem to be authentic to a film released in 1932 – so I’ll not quote any of it.  See it for yourself, and decide.  Cross-checking with my DVD of “White Zombie”, it COULD be from a reissue trailer of 1952 – but it doesn’t even feel contemporary with THAT year, and more like something altered in recent times.  We may never know. 
One thing we DO know is that legendary Donald Duck comic book writer and artist Carl Barks drew upon “White Zombie” as his inspiration for the great Donald Duck comic book classic tale “Voodoo Hoodoo”, published in 1949.  See “The Carl Barks Library of Walt Disney’s Donald Duck Volume II” Pages 7–15 for more detail. 

Image Gallery:  An array of theatrical posters, lobby cards, and stills from “The Devil Bat”.  The “slideshow” is user-controlled, allowing you to savor each artifact (or move on to the next) at the viewer’s own pace. 

 Commentary Track:  Film historian Richard Harland Smith offers a lively and informative commentary for the 01:08:27 length of the film.  This sort of feature should be a part of EVERY movie package (…and pretty much once WAS!), and should exist for at least selected episodes of every TV series package.  Unfortunately, such tracks appear less and less these days.  Again, kudos to Kino Classics for this! 
Smith’s observations include: 
Dr. Carruthers’ glowing and sparking lab machinery was courtesy of Kenneth Strickfaden, who created, or otherwise furnished similar props for Universal’s “Frankenstein” series of films – all the way up through ‘60s TV favorite THE MUNSTERSSmith adds:  This is one thing modern horror movies no longer do – CRACKLE!”  And, “You can’t hear a TESLA COIL over the buzz of a CHAINSAW!” 

Oh, Lily?  There was this Dr. Carruthers... and did he ever have a GREAT yard sale!

Ever wonder what became of the physical sites of the Poverty Row studios?  I know *I* do.  Smith informs us that the last production to be filmed at the site where “The Devil Bat” was shot was the BAT (appropriately?) MASTERSON western TV series, that starred Gene Barry.   A Trader Joe’s now stands at the location.  (If only it was a place that sold “shaving lotion”!)   
At least the property remained in the "Bat" family!

Smith describes “The Devil Bat” as both a “Mad Scientist Film” and a “Revenge Thriller”. 
He also regards “The Devil Bat” as “…One of the early Body Count Movies – the grandfathers of 'Halloween' and 'Friday the 13 th', in which you are introduced to a cast of victims and asked to attend their murders – one by one.  [JOE’S NOTE: Sure makes me think of THIS personal favorite Vincent Price effort!]   

And, in perhaps the greatest “Life Imitates Art Irony” of all, Smith tells us that “The Devil Bat’s” lead actress, Suzanne Kaaren (“Mary Heath”), is said to have invented / originated the concept of the “Pop-Top Can”, took it to the Continental Can Co., and received a payment of only $1.20! 

…Perhaps she should have asked Bela Lugosi if he had any of those Devil Bats left over!   

"Now, my winged friend... We're going to kick some CAN!"

On the Bela Lugosi Scale, “The Devil Bat” falls somewhere between Tod Browning and Universal’s horror classic “Dracula” (1931) and the fun, but somewhat bizarre, Poverty Row artifact “Murder By Television  (1935).  If pressed, I’d move it up closer in “Dracula’s” direction, and away from more standard Poverty Row fare. 

More THIS...
...than THIS!

The restoration effort by Kino Classics is magnificent for a film of this vintage.  I purchased the Standard Definition version, and I can only imagine how great the Blu-ray must look! 

Kino Classics includes a nice selection of Extra Features for “The Devil Bat”, at a time when such things seem headed toward extinction.  

The Devil Bat” is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in horror films of the period.  It’s probably more likely to make you smile (or even laugh) than it is to actually scare you, but that’s the great charm of a film like this.  Just sit back and watch Bela Lugosi “chew up some scenery”, while his mad-scientifically augmented Devil Bats “chew up some necks”! 

Give “The Devil Bat” extra points if you like Bela Lugosi… or bats – or if you’re just plain old “Bats for Bela”! 


Anonymous said...

This movie is good fun, in a campy sort of way. And I keep thinking that maybe Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegal, Jack Kirby, and Dan DeCarlo should have given some bottles of shaving lotion to their publishers. :) -TC

Joe Torcivia said...

I think we’ve all had an employer, along the way, that deserved a “close shave” – but, yes… Those guys in particular! And, even though he achieved fame in his own right later in life – add Carl Barks to the list – though with Disney, as opposed to Western Publishing. I’m sure no one in the room thought to bring up his name when they were creating DuckTales.

And, heck… Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson too. The latter two being particularly appropriate, as we’re discussing bats!