(1940) Directed by: Jean Yarbrough; Written by John T. Neville; Story by George Bricker; Starring: Bela Lugosi, Suzanne Kaaren, Dave O’Brien, Donald Kerr, Yolande Mallott (Donlan) and Guy Usher; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Note: This review is an expanded version of a capsule review from October 2015.
“Formula. That’s but child’s play for a great scientist. Your brain is too feeble to conceive what I accomplished in the realm of science.” – Dr. Paul Carruthers (Bela Lugosi)
After a career high point with Dracula (1931), Bela Lugosi experienced a slow career decline, migrating from Universal to third-tier, so-called “Poverty Row” studios (including Monogram and PRC). But that doesn’t mean he didn’t appear in some notable features along the way. Lugosi portrayed more than a few mad scientists throughout his filmography, ranging from serious (The Raven) to bordering on self-parody (Bride of the Monster). He found the sweet spot, however, as the curiously named Paul Carruthers in PRC’s The Devil Bat.
Dr. Carruthers lives a second life that he conceals from prying eyes. Adjacent to his formal lab is a secret lab, sequestered behind a panel, where the real work takes place (which in turn leads to a dungeon-like enclosure, housing his specially bred bats). He concocts an elaborate scheme for exacting revenge against business partners Henry Morton (Guy Usher) and Martin Heath (Edward Mortimer) along with their progeny, involving said bats and a special aftershave. Being a gifted chemist, you think he’d cut out the middleman with the bats, and create some kind of fast-acting, albeit undetectable poison. Then again, where’s the fun in that? After convincing his intended victims to wear his killer bat-attracting concoction, he sits back and enjoys the handiwork of the murderous flying mammals, as they swoop down on their unsuspecting prey, tearing out the victims’ aftershave-slathered throats.
Enter go-getting Chicago Register* reporter Johnny Layton (Dave O’Brien) and his overly enthusiastic (Okay, how about obnoxious?) photographer, “One-Shot” McGuire (Donald Kerr). When he’s not snapping pics, he’s harassing the Heath’s French maid, Maxine (Yolande Donlan),** who somehow falls for him anyway (apparently in 1940, you didn’t need charisma to woo the ladies, just a load of chutzpah). Layton also likes to mix his business with pleasure. Although he’s determined to get the scoop on the murders, he’s never too busy to sweet talk rich heiress Mary Heath (Suzanne Kaaren).***
* Fun Fact #1: Johnny’s boss, chief editor Joe McGinty, played by Arthur Q. Bryan, was known primarily for his voice talent. He was probably best known for providing the original voice for Elmer Fudd in the Warner Brothers cartoons.
** Fun Fact #2: After winning a beauty contest, she wasn’t terribly keen on doing the movie. Per an interview, Donlan commented, “…I wasn’t even interested in it then! I wasn’t interested in being in a picture of that kind at the time.”
*** Not-So-Fun Fact: Besides being an actress, co-star Kaaren was also an inventor. One of her most notable inventions was a pop-top can, which was appropriated by the Continental Can Company for a whopping $1.20.
Lugosi is obviously having a blast with his role as the duplicitous Dr. Carruthers. Considering his tumultuous career, typified by grossly underpaid roles, relative to his co-stars, I can’t help but think his performance was at least semi-autobiographical. It must have been cathartic to channel his frustrations about those he believed had wronged him over the years. One of the film’s conceits is that Carruthers is such a genteel, kindly individual, no one would ever suspect him of any skullduggery (despite the fact that he has a clear motive for the murders). All the while, Lugosi seems to be winking at the audience with lines like: “I don’t think you’ll use anything else,” and “I want to try it out on several people first, and see if it works” (Mwah, ha, ha!).
Carruthers’ fuzzy science is never explained. Instead, we take it on face value that he can create giant bats simply by charging them with electricity, which somehow makes them increase in size (insert shots of real fruit bats). Yep, not only is he a chemical genius, but a wiz at bioengineering as well (unlike the lazy specialists depicted nowadays, those old-timey scientists did it all). The titular creature doesn’t disappoint. As it swoops in for the kill, the giant bloodthirsty bat shrieks like an enraged Muppet.
In one scene, in which Carruthers confronts Henry Morton, the company head replies with the patronizing comment, “You’re a dreamer, doc. Too much money is bad for dreamers.” In his DVD commentary, film historian Richard Harland Smith pointed out that most critics leave out the fact that Carruthers willingly sold out, so there wasn’t any wrongdoing on the part of the company. Despite this “gotcha,” something doesn’t sit right. The audience is missing some information that a few lines of exposition can’t provide. We don’t know if he was coerced to sell his cold cream formula for such a pittance or if it was simply a moment of poor judgment. Whichever reason was Carruther’s motivation for selling, it’s hard to have sympathy for a couple of businessmen that, in good conscience, lowballed the scientist and significantly profited off his invention. Does that mean Carruthers is justified in bumping off the cosmetics company family members one by one? Nope, but they certainly could have coughed up a little extra dough for the good doctor (Or perhaps he should have hired a good lawyer? Although I’d take killer bats over a court procedural any day.). It’s also worth noting that the Heaths and the Mortons are a pretty cold bunch. Mary Heath (Suzanne Kaaren) doesn’t seem particularly distressed about the fact that her brother was just viciously murdered, but seems to enjoy Layton’s flirting.
· If you can’t have fun with your revenge plot, don’t do it at all.
· Don’t upset a chemist, you never know what they’ll concoct next.
· The more irritating you are, the more appealing you appear to the object of your affections.
· A few pesky murders can’t thwart Cupid’s arrow.
The Devil Bat was ravaged by reviewers of the time, including one from Variety who dismissed it as “pretty terrible,” with “Acting, directing, photography – all poor.” But I think that misguided critic and their like-minded colleagues missed the point. Is it a self-conscious dark comedy or a naïve revenge thriller? Does it really matter? Considering the multiple one-liners that Carruthers employs in his send-offs, I suggest it would be the former. The Devil Bat may not have won many accolades, but it made me smile. Taken in the proper light, hopefully it will do the same for you.
Sources for this article: Kino DVD commentary by Richard Harland Smith; Poverty Row Horrors! by Tom Weaver (1993)