Béla Lugosi may be the star of 'The Devil Bat,' but it's the devil bat itself that steals the show in the end.
That's right! The legendary horror icon, beloved and cherished for giving horror cinema one of the most indelible portrayals of the vampire Dracula and introducing the world to the now-cliché hunchback in 'Son of Frankenstein,' is shockingly upstaged by a giant winged rodent on a string. It's wonderfully hilarious seeing the creature fly in the night sky and swoop down on its prey with an ear-piercing screech, the nylon fabric making up its wings glistening from the key lights. When it attacks victims, the flying mammal — a fact we apparently need reminding of on several occasions — remains perfectly still and doesn't wrap its longs arms around the head of people. Instead, actors noticeably hold the prop in place while screaming in supposed agony and falling to the ground.
The monster which audiences are meant to fear is only one of several unintentionally comical aspects to this surprisingly memorable B-horror movie. Directed by Jean Yarbrough, who went on to do a couple Abbott and Costello comedies and other cheesy horror features, like 'She-Wolf of London' and 'House of Horrors,' the movie was produced by mildly successful Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), a short-lived Poverty Row studio of very low-rent B-features. This is significant because the company was notorious for cranking out the most conventional, formulaic material on an extremely tight budget. This little picture, which has steadily grown in cult status over the decades, clearly shows the result of making a movie cheaply and speedily, long before the days of Roger Corman.
The mention of PRC is also important because it reveals a good deal about Lugosi's career at that the time, a sad and lamentable tale about the damage typecasting can do to an actor much too long for the allotted space here. But to summarize it as succinctly as possible, Lugosi's screen popularity was on a rapid decline by the end of the 1930s and going into the 40s, he took pretty much any role producers offered him so that he had a steady paycheck that often went to paying mounting medical bills. Although not particularly memorable, his performance as the villainous mad-scientist Dr. Carruthers demonstrates the gentleman that he was in real-life, not allowing his personal issues to interfere with his acting.
Lugosi chews up the scenery with awesome professionalism and in all seriousness, treating his character as genuinely wicked rather than the stock caricature we'd expect from the often goofy dialogue. His Carruthers switches from hospitable, guiltless man of science, a genius at developing popular fragrances for perfumes and lotions, to scheming evildoer in an instant. He concocts an elaborately bizarre plot to murder the wealthy Heath and Morton family, owners of the cosmetic company that became successful from his inventions, by breeding and training giant bats to kill those wearing a specific after shave. It's the first and only time that I'm aware of in which a flying rodent is also some sort of serial killer.
If that's not enough to tickle your funny bone, the filmmakers decide to throw in some comic relief via the intrepid, meddlesome, big-city reporter Johnny Layden (Dave O'Brien of 'Reefer Madness') and his fast-talking, wannabe-womanizer sidekick of a photographer "One-Shot" McGuire (Donald Kerr). The pair is a bit on the strange side as they blunder things a couple times but somehow, they're also smart enough to figure out the sinister plot when the police fail miserably. Still, this is Lugosi's show, and the actor does marvelously at maintaining our attention. On the other hand, the silly-looking bat prop comes out on top, delivering the best laughs and excitement, almost to the point of having me begging for more.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Classics brings 'The Devil Bat' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD25 disc inside the standard blue keepcase. At startup, viewers are taken directly to a static main menu with music.
Although this is arguably the best presentation of the B-horror classic, 'The Devil Bat' swoops in for the kill on Blu-ray with a mediocre and slightly disappointing 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Doubtful this comes from the restoration of the original 35mm negative done by by Bob Furmanek in the 90s, the picture doesn't show any signs of having been carefully remastered for this presentation. The video is littered with white specks throughout and can sometimes be distractingly thick, and there are also some minor instances of scratches. Contrast tends to run a bit hot for most of the runtime, blooming the highlights and fading much of the image. Black levels are surprisingly stable and fairly deep, but shadow delineation is rather weak. The finer details are pretty sharp and plainly visible in many areas, but overall, the high-def transfer is average.
The uncompressed PCM mono soundtrack is also a step up from previous home video editions, but it, too, has its minor drawbacks worth mentioning. Like the video, it's clear the original design has not been remastered, as hissing, mild noise, popping, cracking and air are continuously heard in the background. The hissing is most part when characters talk, which is a lot, especially for horror icon Béla Lugosi, though the good part is that vocals are well-prioritized in the center and intelligible. There's not much bass heard, not even in the musical score, which could be an issue in the source and not the codec. While dynamics feel limited and flat with acoustical details that tend to clip, imaging is impressively wide with an appreciable sense of presence, giving this lossless mix at least something worth admiring and remembering.
It's strange, it's bizarre, and it's all around goofy. It's 'The Devil Bat,' a cheesy but comically entertaining low-budget horror flick from a small period of time when B-movies were quite popular and mildly successful. Starring legendary horror icon Béla Lugosi as a mad scientist bent on twisted revenge, the film can be quite silly at times, but Lugosi's performances keeps things afloat, upstaged only by the unintentionally hilarious giant bat prop. The Blu-ray arrives with a mildly disappointing audio and video presentation and a weak set of supplements, but for devoted enthusiasts of cult classic B-material, this is an upgrade.