The Devil Bat (1940) – By Duane L. Martin

Dr. Paul Carruthers (Bela Lugosi) is a scientist who is loved by everyone in his town. Unfortunately, as much as he’s loved, it does nothing to ease the bitterness which has overtaken his life. See, he’s the type of a scientist who invents new products and processes, and back in the day, he created a product that was taken to market by some local investors who started a company based on that product and made millions. They (the Morton family) had offered to let him in on the ground floor of it, but he settled for a flat sum payment instead, and was thereby left out of the fortune that his product had generated, and afterward, was relegated to simply creating new products for flat sums just to make money. The sums were large enough, but nothing compared to the fortune that should have been his. Now he’s created a new product. It’s an after shave lotion that he gives to the various members of the Morton family, as well as others that he wants to see dead to try out. When they put it on, it attracts a giant bat that he’s created in his laboratory through glandular stimulation, and the bat goes for the throat (where the after shave is applied) and kills the person wearing it. It would have all gone as planned, except for the interference of a reporter named Johnny Layton (Dave O’Brien) and his photographer sidekick who are sent to report on the murders, and end up assisting the local police in the investigation. Now Dr. Carruthers has to figure out a way to get rid of Layton and his pal before his plans are ruined.

Bela Lugosi is a screen legend who didn’t exactly meet the most dignified of endings. I only wish he could have known how his body of work found a resurgence in popularity with the advent of DVD and blu-ray releases of his films.

What I really love about this film is that Lugosi isn’t playing a villain specifically. The face he shows to everyone is the kindly, country doctor who takes care of their ills and who spends the rest of his time hidden away in his laboratory doing research and developing new products, while on the flip side, he’s the dark, mad scientist who comes up a diabolical means of getting revenge upon those who’ve wronged him. This plan comes complete with a room full of electrical gizmos where he hangs one of his bats and exposes it to the electrical energy to stimulate a glandular response that causes it to become enormous. The set design in his laboratory, and his house in general is about what you’d expect to see in a classic b-movie, and really creates a feel for the character that exists within it.

The film balances out the heaviness of the revenge murders in the film with the lightness of the reporter and his photographer sidekick. The reporter is a nice guy who falls for the daughter of the Morton family. Somehow, even though he’s only been there a short time and her brothers have all been murdered, the two of them find love, while the sidekick ends up falling in love with the French maid, even to the point where he says he’s going to marry her. This is literally after like a few days of knowing these girls.

There’s something else amusing in this film, and it’s something that apparently other people have noticed, but it was something that I had never paid much attention to. Oddly enough, when I saw it this time around, it slapped me right in the face, and made me laugh. There’s a scene where Lugosi gives the new "after shave" formula to test, and he backs away in terror when the lotion splashes as the guy’s putting it on. Obviously he wouldn’t want any on him, especially when he’s handling the giant bat and has it living in a secret room in his house along with a bunch of other bats. But then, as soon as the guy has the lotion on and he’s leaving, he shakes hands with the doctor…with the same hand he had poured the lotion in, and the doctor just shakes his hand, thinks nothing of it and then goes off to release the bat. It’s so obvious, I can’t believe I didn’t notice it in my previous viewings of the film. To be honest, I felt kind of dense for not seeing it before.

Most of the film seems to take place at night, which again, really adds to the creepy atmosphere of it. I can’t say the bloated stuffed bat flying through the trees to attack its victims who apparently lack any and all ability to knock away something flying through the air right at their faces, honestly isn’t all that impressive looking, but is both cool and fun nonetheless. You see that here and there in classic b-movies. Monsters that may not look all that impressive, but man they’re just so much fun anyway.

I’ve owned The Devil Bat for a long time now. The release I had was from Alpha, and while it was a passable release, as most of their releases are, there was nothing special about it. Now Kino Lorber has done an amazing new release of this excellent film on blu-ray, mastered in HD from archival film elements and with audio commentary from film historian, Richard Harland Smith. This literally is the cleanest, best looking copy of this film you’re ever going to see. They’ve done just a wonderful job with it, and it’s a must have for your collection if you’re a fan of classic b-movies in general, or Bela Lugosi in particular.

If you’d like to find out more about this film, you can check out its page on the Kino Lorber website here, and if you’d like to pick up a copy of the blu-ray for yourself, you can get it from Amazon, or from any of the other usual outlets.