Horror icon Bela Lugosi had some superb acting roles. Count Dracula. Murder Legendre. The broken-necked Ygor. And….Dr, Paul Caruthers in THE DEVIL BAT? What, you ask? Have I gone as looney as some of Bela’s mad scientists? I know, THE DEVIL BAT is pure hokum, with a lousy script and a ludicrous premise. But that’s my point: the only reason to watch this bottom-of-the-barrel nonsense is Lugosi’s performance. The actor, despite all the ridiculous goings-on, gives it his all and makes the picture work.
The town of Heathville is rocked by a string of murders committed by a (yes) giant bat! Intrepid reporters Johnny Layton and shutterbug One-Shot McGuire are sent by editor Joe McGinty to investigate. The prominent Heath and Morton families have been targeted. Kindly Dr. Caruthers harbors a long-time grudge against them for making them rich at his own expense. So he creates a “devil bat”, using radiation to enlarge bats and trains them to attack. He’s invented a “shaving lotion” using a “strange Oriental fragrance” found only in Tibet that triggers the fiend to kill. The reporters get fired for rigging a phony picture of the bat (clearly marked “Made in Japan”), but stick around and solve the not-so-mysterious mystery. Caruthers is killed by his own creation, and Johnny and young Mary Heath live happily ever after.
Lugosi is more restrained here than in his later Monogram vehicles, like THE APE MAN and VOODOO MAN. When he performs his soliloquy in the film’s opening scene, alone in his lab except for that goofy bat, he convinces the viewer he’s dead serious. Not easy to do when your acting partner is a rubber prop! Bela’s self-mocking voiceover, berating himself for “selling out” to the Heaths and Mortons, is well done, except for the pronouniation of “formula” as “formoola”. He gets all the best lines, too, gleefully telling victims to take the lotion and “rub it on the tender part of your neck. Soothing, isn’t it?” Listening to a radio broadcaster discredit the notion of a “devil bat”, he growls, “imbecile…bombastic ignoramus”. And of course, there’s the famous (or infamous) inflections of the words “Good-BYE” to his next victims. Bela Lugosi shows us why he was indeed a great actor. Even stuck with a lemon like THE DEVIL BAT, he manages to give us lemonade.
The rest of the cast is non-descript with a few exceptions. Dave O’Brien (Johnny) is best known as the deranged pothead in the exploitation classic REEFER MADNESS. O’Brien also portrayed CAPTAIN MIDINGHT in the Republic serial of the same name, and starred in a series of MGM Pete Smith comedy shorts. Speaking of shorts, Suzanne Kaaren (Mary) worked in three with the Three Stooges, including playing Gail Tempest in their DISORDER IN THE COURT. Miss Kaaren gained notoriety in the 1990’s when she refused to leave her rent-controlled apartment after the building was bought by one Donald J. Trump! She won the case in court (shades of Gail Tempest!) and continued living there until her death. The actor playing editor McGinty may not look familiar, but you’ll definitely recognize his voice. He’s Arthur Q.Bryan, who for decades voiced the arch-nemesis of that “wascally wabbit” Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd!
But it’s Lugosi’s show all the way, and he doesn’t disappoint. Getting no help from director Jean Yarborough (who had success as director of Abbott & Costello’s TV show), Bela Lugosi does wonders with an inane screenplay, lesser actors, and virtually no budget. Perhaps Bela thought doing a good job would lead to more prominent acting roles. Sadly, he spent the rest of his career toiling on Poverty Row, ending up in Ed Wood’s epics. THE DEVIL BAT is fun to watch for Bela fans, as he rises above the material once again to give another memorable performance.
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