The Devil Bat/Killer Bats (1940) -***
Believe it or not, there really were a couple of studios operating in Hollywood during the 30’s and 40’s that were even cheaper than Monogram. I know, it’s hard to swallow the idea that someone could spend less money than was sunk into producing The Corpse Vanishes while still actually making a movie, but the evidence is before us now. The Producers’ Releasing Corporation, or PRC, was so impoverished that the whole cast of The Devil Bat/Killer Bats— with one important exception— consisted of actors and actresses who otherwise spent practically their entire careers playing bit-parts and walk-ons. The huge rubber bats on display here are so shitty that their wings don’t even flap! And yet PRC was able to get one real star to appear in this amusing cinematic stink-bomb. Would you care to guess who it was? That’s right— Mr. “Hey, Man, I’ve Got a Habit to Support” himself, Bela Lugosi.
You know you’re in for a ride when a movie begins with, “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...” Carruthers, of course, is Bela Lugosi, and his “weird, terrifying” experiments involve using electrical impulses to stimulate the glands of bats. He hooks one of the bats he keeps in a hidden room in his attic up to a whole bunch of sparking crap of the sort made famous by Universal’s Frankenstein movies, and then watches through a window in the laboratory door as the “glandular stimulation” causes the bat to grow to enormous size— we’re talking about a wingspan of close to five feet, here. But unlike the mad doctors in certain other movies about killer bats that I could name, Dr. Carruthers actually has something like a reason for doing this. As we learn when the doctor’s boss, Martin Heath (Edmund Mortimer), calls him on the phone to invite him to a party at the home of Heath’s partner, Henry Morton (Guy Usher, from Buck Rogers and King of the Zombies), Carruthers has been royally screwed by his employers. You see, not only is Carruthers a physician and a biologist, he’s also a chemist in the employ of the Heath-Morton cosmetics empire. Indeed, neither Heath nor Morton would be the fat cats they are today had it not been for the doctor’s skill at devising perfumes and makeups. But Carruthers was foolish enough to sign a contract stipulating a flat cash fee for each of his cosmetological inventions, and thus he’s working two jobs while Heath and Morton make millions off of his talent. Carruthers is sick to death of this arrangement, and that’s where the humongous bat comes in. It is to be the instrument of the doctor’s revenge.
Heath doesn’t tell Carruthers this on the phone, but that party Morton is throwing is actually in the doctor’s honor. They intend to present him with a check for $5000 as a token of their gratitude for his role in their success. But despite his assurances to the contrary, Carruthers never shows, and instead hangs around his house working on his revenge scheme. When it becomes obvious that Carruthers isn’t coming, Heath’s son, Roy (Man-Made Monster’s John Ellis), agrees to run over to the doctor’s place to give him the check. Not a good idea there, Roy. Carruthers, though he tries hard to hide it, is disgusted at the condescension inherent in the men he made millionaires giving him a $5000 bonus check, and he gets to work on his revenge immediately. He talks Roy into trying a new aftershave lotion he’s been developing (“Rub it on the tender part of your neck...”), and after Roy has left for home, releases his giant bat. The bat, drawn by the scent of the aftershave, glides rigidly off in pursuit and tears Roy’s throat out. By the time Mary Heath (Suzanne Kaaren) and Don Morton (Gene O’Donnell, from The Ape and The Mad Ghoul)— who had been out in the Heaths’ garden talking about not getting married— respond to his screams, Roy is already dead, and the bat is long gone.
The Chicago Daily Register soon sends one of its reporters, Johnny Layton (Dave O’Brien, of Reefer Madness and The Bowery at Midnight), out to look into the killing in the company of “ace” photographer “One-Shot” McGuire (Donald Kerr, from Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars). Note the nickname, which, together with the fact that these men are journalists in a movie from the 40’s, tips us off that the hated comic relief has arrived. For some reason, Police Chief Wilkins (Hal Price, who starred in about a million cheap Westerns and an even cheaper Tarzan rip-off called Jungle Man), puts the investigation of Roy’s death entirely in the reporters’ hands— either Heathville’s law enforcement budget is hopelessly inadequate, or Wilkins is only here for the donuts. In any event, Wilkins shows Layton some crime scene photos, pointing out the curious scratch marks that cover Roy Heath’s upper body (which he says are too deep to have been made by fingernails, but are too shallow and ragged to have been made by a knife) and the peculiar smell that Roy’s wounds gave off. The next scene has Layton interviewing Mary Heath while McGuire tries to get into the maid’s pants. (Considering that The Devil Bat is less than 70 minutes long, you’d think there wouldn’t be time for such things, but One-Shot and Maxine [Yolande Mallott] receive an astonishing proportion of the movie’s total screen-time.) Carruthers himself stops by as the interview is winding down, and he gives his opinion that Roy was slain by some sort of wild animal.
And now back to the body count. Carruthers’s next victim is Tommy Heath (Alan Baldwin), yet another of Martin’s offspring. Again, the doctor hands out a sample of his aftershave, with instructions to rub it on the tender part of his neck, and again, the bat is released to do its bloody business. But this time, there is a witness to the attack in the form of Johnny Layton, who had been talking to Tommy when the monster bat attacked. For a guy who carries a gun around at all times, Layton isn’t a very good shot, and the bat escapes unharmed. A quick call back to the home office secures Daily Register editor Joe McGinty’s grudging permission to run a series of stories about the “Devil Bat,” and the screen fills with closeups of front pages, all of them with headlines like “Mysterious Devil Bat Kills Thomas Heath,” and “Villagers Cringe in Terror of Murderer.” (I’d like to take a moment now to point out two things. First, notice that, apart from the lead story, it’s really the same paper every time— look for the inexplicable telltale headline, “Americanism,” just below and to the left of every Devil Bat story. Second, Arthur Q. Bryan, the actor who plays McGinty, was later the voice of Elmer Fudd!) The subsequent death of Don Morton by the usual means results in more spinning newspapers with headlines about the Devil Bat and Americanism, and McGinty starts demanding photographs of the monster in action. This, in turn, leads Layton to a breach of journalistic ethics which would be amazing enough in and of itself, but which becomes even more so for the fact that it is completely unnecessary. With bat attacks coming just about every night, and all of them directed against the Heath or Morton families, Layton still has One-Shot rig a fake attack on Maxine using a stuffed bat purchased from the local taxidermist. McGuire is caught in the act by Chief Wilkins (who must have run out of donuts), but Layton is able to talk his partner out of trouble. He’s less successful the next day, when McGinty learns that a college professor in Chicago has noticed the “Made in Japan” tag on the bat’s wing in McGuire’s pictures, and both Johnny and One-Shot find themselves out of a job. (By the way, notice the extraordinary lengths to which the special effects department had to go in order to make a model bat even more obviously fake than the “real” one!)
Layton also finds himself out one potential girlfriend, because Mary reacts rather badly to the news that Johnny is a fraud. Mary has no more patience with his protests that the was just “trying to get the news” than does the audience. What Layton’s malfeasance does not do is convince Wilkins to stop working with him. (Hey, man, the donuts call...) Wilkins tells Layton about a bottle of experimental Heath-Morton aftershave lotion that was found in Don Morton’s bathroom, which smells exactly like the wounds on all three victims’ throats. Chemical analysis of the lotion turns up an ingredient that cannot be identified. Layton then hits upon the brilliant idea of having Dr. Carruthers take a look at the stuff. He’s been suspicious of the doctor for some time now, and he figures that Carruthers will deny any knowledge of the strange lotion, thereby exposing himself as the culprit. After all, both Layton and Wilkins know that Carruthers made the aftershave, and it is now obvious that the bat attacks only people wearing the lotion, and that samples have been given only to members of the Heath and Morton families.
But amazingly enough, Dr. Carruthers doesn’t fall for Layton’s trap. He admits to creating the lotion, reveals the origin of the mystery ingredient, and then explains away the pattern behind the killings by saying it has always been company policy for members of the Heath and Morton families to test Carruthers’s newly formulated cosmetics themselves. Then the doctor offers samples of the new lotion to both men. Wilkins declines, but Layton takes a bottle, hoping to use himself as bait in a trap for the Devil Bat. This leads us to the most infuriating scene in the whole movie. Layton brings McGuire along with him when he puts his plan into motion, and the bat remarkably finds the photographer so annoying that it glides right past Layton, ignoring the lotion fumes emanating from the tender part of his neck, and attacks One-Shot instead. But goddamnit, the insidious B-movie principle that the comic relief must always survive is activated, and Layton is able to gun down the bat before it has done his partner any real harm.
Those “Reporter Kills Devil Bat” headlines are a bit premature, though, because Carruthers still has his electrical impulse machine and an entire attic full of bats. And sure enough, he promptly makes himself a new Devil Bat, even bigger than the last one. A quick look at the clock at this point will tell us that we’ve entered the home stretch to the doctor’s destruction at the hands of his own monster, though, and that is indeed the case. Henry Morton himself sets the process in motion by calling Carruthers in for a visit, and tactlessly reminding him at great length how rich he could have been if only he had insisted on a percentage deal from the two tycoons. Carruthers forgets himself in his rage, and begins blabbing about what a great scientist he is, and about how he has already “controlled men’s destinies” on three separate occasions. Whoops. Morton gets on the phone to Wilkins and tells him he’s got a vital new clue in the case of the Devil Bat. It does Morton little good, however, because he happens to be wearing Carruthers’s new aftershave at the time, and the Devil Bat Mk II kills him before he has a chance to tell anyone anything. A subsequent bat attack on Mary makes Morton’s case just as well, however, and before you know it, Layton has laid another trap, this one designed to catch Carruthers along with his monster bat.
It’s reassuring to know that even after all these years, I can still find movies that leave me wondering how they could possibly have gotten made. I mean, really… imagine for a moment that you’re the head of a Hollywood studio— even a poverty-row Hollywood studio. Now imagine that one day, somebody comes up to your office and says, “I’ve got a great idea for a movie. There’s this doctor, see, and he works for a cosmetics company whose owners have been giving him the shaft for years, so he tries to kill them and their whole families by creating a giant bat and training it attack anyone who wears this special aftershave lotion.” Would you even consider saying “yes” to a pitch like that? Can you imagine that anyone in their right minds would? And yet— Allahu akbar— there seems to be no shortage of people who will, time and time again. When presented with such evidence that the culture is completely insane, doesn’t it make you feel good to be alive?