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DEVIL BAT'S DAUGHTER (1946)
“Paul Carruthers? Then the girl is – the Devil Bat’s daughter!”
Director: Frank Wisbar
Starring: Rosemary LaPlanche, John James, Michael Hale, Mollie Lamont, Monica Mars, Nolan Leary, Edward Cassidy, Eddie Kane
Synopsis: A girl lies catatonic in a bunk at the back of the sheriff’s office of Wardsley, having been found unconscious in the road by a local farmer who was driving into town. Later, a cabbie identifies her as one of his fares. He tells the sheriff (Edward Cassidy) that he drove her from the train station to the old Carruthers place at the edge of town and that, when he mentioned that Dr Carruthers had died many years ago, she was terribly shocked. The sheriff decides to visit the Carruthers house and invites Dr Elliott (Nolan Leary), who has been called in on the case, to join him. There, the two men find a bag belonging to the girl. Inside it are papers identifying her as Nina MacCarron, and her father as Dr Paul Carruthers, a scientist known locally as “the Devil Bat” because of his work with bats. Carruthers was killed along with several local people when his experimental creatures escaped. The next morning, Dr Elliott calls upon Clifton Morris (Michael Hale), a New York psychiatrist who lives near Wardsley with his wife, Ellen (Mollie Lamont). Explaining the circumstances, Elliott begs Morris to see the still-unresponsive girl, to which he agrees. Morris succeeds in reaching Nina, who breaks down in helpless sobs as he recounts her difficult recent history. Morris has Nina transferred to a local hospital. There, she begins to suffer nightmares about gigantic bats. Terrified, she flees the hospital and runs to the home of the Morrises, where the compassionate Ellen puts her to bed. Having called in Dr Elliott, Ellen phones her husband in New York so that the two men can consult. Unbeknownst to Ellen, however, Morris is not alone: in the apartment with him is his mistress, Myra Arnold (Monica Mars), who accuses him of marrying Ellen for her money and begs him to get a divorce. Morris refuses. Back in Wardsley, Morris chides Ellen for taking one of his patients into their home, but she persuades her husband to let the girl stay. Morris and Nina begin therapy sessions to get to the root of her problems. The girl continues to deny remembering her father, but becomes terrified at every mention of him. One day, as the two discuss Nina’s war-time experiences, a bird flies overhead. Nina, however, cries hysterically, “Bat! Bat!” – then for the first time speaks of her father. She recounts confused childhood memories of Carruthers’ work with bats, her mother’s death from anaemia, and the local accusations that her father was a vampire. She also confesses to nightmares in which she and her father fly together as bats, and reveals that at her father’s house, she found an old newspaper in which he was declared guilty of murder – and that, suddenly, she was convinced that he was right there in the room with her.... Morris reassures Nina that, now that they have the key to her problems, she can be cured. Shortly afterwards, Ellen’s son from her first marriage, Ted Masters (John James), is discharged from the army and comes home, where he is immediately smitten by Nina. Seeing the growing intimacy between the two, Morris warns Ellen to send Ted away. Nina’s illness worsens, with the girl suffering increasingly from nightmares and lapses of memory. Then, one morning, Nina wakes to find Ted’s dog dead in her room, its throat cut....
Comments: Okay, I admit it: including a review of Devil Bat’s Daughter on this site is an outright cheat. Despite its supposed descent from the 1940 Bela Lugosi epic The Devil Bat, there is nothing here that would allow this film’s classification as science fiction, or as horror, or even as fantasy. It does make various references to vampirism, but the fact that it feels the need to explain to the audience what a vampire is speaks for itself. At the very worst, this film is a psychological thriller. But, under the circumstances, I haven’t much alternative but to break my own house rules. When I agreed to this Roundtable topic, I backed myself into a corner. Heaven knows there is no shortage of unnecessary sequels out there that re-write, re-imagine, undermine, ignore or just plain spoil their predecessors; trouble is, I’ve already dealt with all of my obvious choices: Exorcist II, Halloween II, Howling II, Jaws 2, Friday The 13th Part 2---- It was a case of been there, criticised that.
Scrolling ever more worriedly through my index of reviews, I realised that I really only had two options: it was either Devil Bat’s Daughter or Ghostbusters II – and while the latter would have been a more legitimate selection, the very thought of having to review a late-eighties cutesy baby film---- Well, frankly, as Bleeding Gums Murphy once so aptly put it, I got enough pain in my life.
Back in the days when B-movies were actually B-movies, there existed in Hollywood a sliding scale of tiny studios devoted to churning out supporting features on a budget that these days wouldn’t keep most stars in mono-colour M&Ms. Down – way down – at the bottom of the heap were Monogram, who turned out some of the loopiest movies in the history of filmdom, and the Producers Releasing Corporation, who made the absolute cheapest. All sorts of people showed up in the films produced in this particular poverty row: fallen stars, journeyman actors who simply liked to keep busy, writers looking for a break, delusional producers whose ambitions outstripped their abilities – and occasionally, an iconoclastic talent unable or unwilling to find work within the studio system.
Having fled Germany in the late 1930s, Frank Wisbar arrived in Hollywood via England and from 1945-1947 made four films in rapid succession for PRC. Of those four productions, the best is undoubtedly Strangler Of The Swamp, a re-make of Wisbar’s own Fährmann Maria, which proved successful enough to inspire the undemanding PRC executives to reunite its director, co-writer and star to make the in every way inferior Devil Bat’s Daughter, a sequel to one of the studio’s biggest hits. And the fact that The Devil Bat was considered a big hit should tell you all you need to know about PRC.
While some of PRC’s productions succeeded in rising above their circumstances – the work of Frank Wisbar’s fellow émigré, Edgar G. Ulmer, comes immediately to mind – Devil Bat’s Daughter is unable to overcome the combination of an inadequate cast and a cripplingly low budget. Where it falters most is upon the central performance of Rosemary LaPlanche as Nina. LaPlanche was much better in Strangler Of The Swamp, where she was playing a strong character who took an active role in deciding her own destiny. Here she is far more passive, being called upon to express “anguish” or “terror” in static scene after static scene, and she simply isn’t up to the task. Sadly, LaPlanche is never more effective than when conveying Nina’s catatonia at the beginning of the film; the facial contortions she adopts later on, which are intended to communicate Nina’s inner torment, are more likely to elicit snickers than sympathy.
(Granted, LaPlanche isn’t helped by a screenplay that refuses to acknowledge her limitations. “I’ve never seen anyone so terrified – it’s pitiful!” exclaims Ellen Morris, after putting Nina to bed. Without this guidance, we would have read Nina’s state of mind as, at worst, mildly put out.)
Whatever the many sins of PRC’s releases, wasting film was never one of them; and Devil Bat’s Daughter gets down to business with an efficient opening sequence that sees the local doctor and sheriff, learning that the unidentified, catatonic girl who now lies in the back-room of the latter’s office, had been dropped off by a cabbie earlier in the day at “the Carruthers place”, go there to look around. They find there an old newspaper with a headline proclaiming the murder conviction of someone nicknamed “Devil Bat” and the girl’s bag, inside which are her papers. These reveal that her name is Nina McCarron, that she is using her mother’s maiden name, and that her father was none other than the “Devil Bat” himself, Dr Paul W. Carruthers.
“Paul Carruthers!” exclaims the doctor. “Then the girl is – the ‘Devil Bat’’s daughter!”
Recognising that Nina’s case is beyond his scope, Dr Elliott goes to the home of Clifton Morris, a New York-based psychiatrist who weekends in Wardsley, to ask for his help. Elliott helpfully fills Morris, and us, in on the film’s version of the events of The Devil Bat, explaining that Paul Carruthers came to Wardsley to work in “peace and secrecy”; that his experiments concerned “cell growth stimulation”, which led to the creation of giant bats; and that one day the bats escaped and killed several local people – after which, Carruthers himself was found dead, a victim of his own creations. Morris is sceptical but intrigued, and wishes aloud that he could read Carruthers’ experimental notes. Elliott tells him that none were ever found. He then concludes his story by explaining that the nature of Carruthers’ work gave rise to rumours of vampirism, which in turn saw him dubbed “the Devil Bat”. Morris agrees to see Nina.
(It probably goes without saying, but Nolan Leary makes a rather more convincing “kindly village doctor” than did Bela Lugosi!)
Morris visits Nina at the sheriff’s office. She is still motionless and silent, although she reacts slightly to Morris’ use of her name. He remarks that she has suffered a terrible shock, and begins to recount her recent history. This has the desired effect: Nina not only opens her eyes, but breaks down sobbing. Morris advises Elliott to have her transferred to a hospital, where she can undergo further treatment. (Morris prescribes a “cheerful room” for her, which on the visual evidence was beyond PRC’s budgetary powers!) However, during her first night at the hospital, Nina suffers an hallucination in which she sees a giant bat hovering outside her window. Terrified, she flees the hospital and runs all the way to the Morris house.
The film’s introduction of Ellen Morris is commendably subtle. We are introduced to her while she is writing a letter to her son, Ted, who is away in the army. We hear the letter in voiceover, and know immediately not only that Ted isn’t happy about his mother’s second marriage, but that there are problems in that marriage, which Ellen is eager to conceal from her son, and possibly from herself. Her letter-writing is interrupted by the arrival of the hysterical Nina, who pleads to see Dr Morris. Ellen tells her that he isn’t there, but invites her to stay the night, worrying in a maternal way that Nina may have caught a chill. She puts the girl to bed and summons Dr Elliott, who arrives to find Nina in a state of shock. They calm her, and she falls asleep. Elliott asks Ellen to phone her husband in New York, which she does; and we are made privy to the reason behind the undercurrents in the Morrises marriage when the phone-call interrupts a tryst between Clifton Morris and his mistress, Myra Arnold – who happens to be one of Ellen’s closest friends.
Morris’ contempt for Ellen shows itself further when he returns to Wardsley, when he reproves her for allowing Nina to stay at the house, and coldly dismisses her self-evidently correct assertion that Nina is in sore need of some warmth and love. (“I’m always very interested when people are prescribing for my patients!” he sneers.) However, he finally gives in to Ellen’s pleas to let Nina stay; Over the next several weeks, Morris conducts therapy sessions with Nina, during which he brings forth her happy and affectionate memories of her mother. However, Nina denies remembering her father, although every mention of him brings a fearful reaction from her. We also learn that Nina was working in London during the war, and lived through the Blitz. Things seem to be progressing well with her until one day when she and Morris are talking in the garden and a bird flies overhead. Nina recoils in terror, gasping, “Bat! Bat! My father....”
This incident brings back Nina’s repressed memories. She recalls that her father was a Romanian (!), who met and married her mother in Scotland; that he left them when she, Nina, was only four years old; and that soon afterwards, her mother died of an anaemic illness. She also recalls the gossip and rumours that surrounded her father’s scientific research – and the accusations of vampirism....
With barely even a budget, let alone a special effects budget, at his disposal, Frank Wisbar resorted to the simple and inexpensive tactic of expressing Nina’s confusion of mind by first blurring and then rotating the image on screen. Here we get one of Devil Bat’s Daughter’s few tenuous attempts at linking to its predecessor, as Nina’s nightmares take the form of hazy but unmistakable excerpts from The Devil Bat – namely, the giant bat attacks that help make that film so goofily enjoyable. Here, however, those scenes are as close to horror as we ever get, and even then they need to be interpreted for us by Clifton Morris: Nina’s nightmares indicate her dangerous obsession with, even her possession by, her father, with his vampirism-by-science perhaps manifesting itself in his daughter as the real thing.
Giving the devil bat’s daughter her due, the section of the film dealing with the crumbling of Nina’s sanity is actually fairly affecting. The first crisis is reached when Nina wakes one morning to find Ted Masters’ dog lying dead in her bedroom, its throat pierced by a pair of scissors. (Coming upon this scene, Dr Morris hisses, “Nina, show me your hands!” She shakes her head and hides her hands behind her back in an action both childish and touching.) Much worse is to come: Nina comes out of a shattering nightmare to find herself sprawled at the foot of a staircase, outside the room of her closest friend and surrogate mother, Ellen Masters, who lies dead across her own bed, stabbed through the throat....
(One of the few real points of comparison between The Devil Bat and Devil Bat’s Daughter is their frequent use of newspaper headlines to convey information – or misinformation. Thus, the Wardsley Telegram describes Ellen’s murder as “bestial”, and insists that the body was “horribly mutilated”, although our glimpse of it suggests nothing of the kind; while the Chicago Star goes all out and suggests that Nina actually is a vampire [Johnny Layton must have moved there from the Daily Register]. My personal favourite piece of journalism, however, comes courtesy of the New York Record, which spices up its story of Nina’s confession to murder with a misplaced apostrophe....unless, of course, they were trying to imply something about her mother....)
Devil Bat’s Daughter is too short and too straightforward to make the most of its central premise. If Nina isn’t guilty of these bloody acts, as she fairly obviously isn’t, then only one other person could be; and I don’t think I’m really giving anything away by revealing that the true villain of the piece is Clifton Morris, who has taken advantage of Nina’s precarious state of mind to rid himself of his unwanted wife and to get his hands upon the substantial fortune for which he married her in the first place.
Here, too, the screenplay is surprisingly subtle. Talking with Nina after the bat/bird encounter that frees her repressed memories, Morris deconstructs Nina’s fears and convinces her that there is nothing to fear from her father; that the stories of vampirism were nonsense; and that whatever he may have been in life, he cannot touch Nina in any way now that he is dead. After this, Morris takes tea with Ellen and Dr Elliott, during which the latter must explain to the former what a vampire is; adding that, by definition, a living person cannot be a vampire, but such “supernatural” influence would, rather, be a case of possession. It is not at all obvious upon a first viewing, although it is in retrospect, that this is the moment when Clifton Morris conceives the idea of using Nina’s mental instability to turn her into a scapegoat for the murder of his wife, using his power over her as her psychiatrist to convince her that she has been possessed by the “Devil Bat”, and killed while under his influence. In the aftermath of the dog’s death, Morris takes the first opportunity that presents itself to impress upon Dr Elliott Nina’s belief in her own possession, laying the groundwork for what is to follow. Of course, having just spent several weeks convincing Nina that she is sane and the past cannot hurt her, Morris must now undo most of his work with equal thoroughness. We are given one indication of the kind of tactics he is using when Nina comes across a book entitled HOW I KNOW THAT THE DEAD RETURN.
In its attitude to Clifton Morris, Devil Bat’s Daughter is quite an old-fashioned film. In the thirties and the early forties, there were countless movies featuring psychiatrists, or alienists, who were quacks, or con artists, or criminals, or all three at once; who were villainous or comic as the situation demanded, but who were certainly not to be taken seriously as medical professionals. This viewpoint underwent an abrupt transition in the post-war era. With so many in need of help, the status of the psychiatrist underwent a rapid elevation.
In movie terms, this meant instant promotion from villain to saviour, someone capable not just of “curing” all sorts of desperate problems, but of doing so via a single session on the couch, or one brief game of word association. The fact that in many of these movies, the psychiatrist was also the heroine – Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound, for instance, or Audrey Totter in High Wall – speaks for itself; although in so saying, we must not overlook Helen Walker’s marvellously malign Dr Lilith Ritter in Nightmare Alley, kissing cousin to Clifton Morris in her cruel exploitation of her patients’ weaknesses and sorrows. Morris is a throwback, not in the sense that he is a quack – on the contrary, it is because he is a good psychiatrist that he is such a threat to Nina – but because he uses his professional talents entirely to further his own cruel and selfish ends.
If Rosemary LaPlanche’s central performance in Devil Bat’s Daughter is weak, the supporting cast does do quite a bit better. Molly Lamont is likeable in a pathetic sort of way as poor-little-rich-wife Ellen, while Michael Hale’s performance makes an impact through its understatement and the sense of calculation that it conveys. Clifton Morris is recognisable from the outset as a slimeball, yet at the same time we see that he might well be a professional success, and understand why both Ellen and Myra Arnold have allowed themselves to fall for him – and be used by him. We see also the extent of Nina’s danger. The man is a master manipulator, at least of women (the society woman who has been taken in by a fake shrink is another stock thirties movie character), and has everything his own way until confronted by a male antagonist.
We don’t expect much of John James’ Ted Masters, but here the film manages a surprise or two, although more through the writing than the acting. The Ted-Nina romance upon which the plot turns is another aspect of Devil Bat’s Daughter where the film is badly hurt by its brevity: the relationship between the two, and Ted’s unshakable faith in the girl he loves – who he has known for all of a fortnight, and that as a psychiatric patient – is wholly unconvincing. Of course, given that the film is only sixty-seven minutes long and Ted doesn’t show up until nearly halfway through, it could hardly be otherwise.
In the face of Morris’s earlier warnings about Nina’s condition, and of Nina’s frank belief in her own guilt, Ted’s stubborn refusal even to contemplate that Nina could really have killed Ellen makes him look not so much romantic as a bit thick; and his repeated declarations of loyalty are eventually too much even for Nina. Trying to make Ted give up her, Nina sinks to a masterpiece of bathetic argument: “I even killed your little dog!” – because, you know, sometimes murdering a man’s mother just isn’t enough.
But if the central romance in Devil Bat’s Daughter is unpersuasive, the tense mother/son/step-father triangle in the Morris household is completely credible. Ted has seen clearly enough that his mother has been married for her money – which is not to say that there isn’t just a whiff of Oedipal angst operating here as well – and his undisguised loathing of Clifton Morris is both justified and, frankly, rather refreshing. (“You dislike him very much, don’t you?” Dr Elliott inquires when Ted begins to voice suspicions of Morris. “That’s putting it mildly,” responds Ted with a twisted smile.) When it comes to Ted’s search for an alternative killer, it is not hard to see that his hatred is almost as powerful a motivation as his love.
The single biggest surprise in Devil Bat’s Daughter has nothing to do with its central mystery. It is, rather, the film’s entirely sympathetic handling of its “other woman”, Myra Arnold. Judged by the usual movie morality, Myra is guilty twice over, being Ellen’s friend as well as Morris’s mistress; familiarity with the harsh standards of cinematic justice at the time leads us to anticipate a grim end for Myra, probably at her lover’s hands. Instead, the screenplay of Devil Bat’s Daughter declines to condemn her, preferring to consider her as yet another of Morris’s victims.
From the first moment we see Myra, she is distressed by both her situation and her disloyalty to Ellen, but she can neither give Morris what he wants herself, nor convince him to give up the wealth and status that his marriage has brought him; while she loves him too much to break off the affair. However, in Myra’s judgement, the timing of her friend’s death is just a little too convenient. She may be in love, but she knows her man; and when Ted calls upon her during his hunt for evidence against his step-father, he sees his own suspicions reflected in Myra’s eyes. Although she has allowed her love for Clifton Morris to draw her into an affair that betrays one of her best friends, Myra has reached her limit, and heartbrokenly gives Ted the clue to the proofs he seeks. Ted is a lawyer by profession, a plot point that seems meaningless until the closing scenes when he takes both Morris and the viewer off-guard with a classic legal double-play, first serving up a piece of evidence that is weak and inconclusive and allowing Morris to demolish it – and then, having lulled his smug opponent into false security, springing the clincher on him: the results of his analysis of the pills with which Morris was routinely doping Nina prior to the murder....
Judged on its own merits, Devil Bat’s Daughter is quite a good little film. There’s some nice writing, a couple of clever touches, particularly in the working-out of Ted’s investigation into Clifton Morris, and some good performances in the supporting roles. However, when considered as a follow-up to The Devil Bat, it becomes infinitely more amusing. In the pantheon of sequels that re-write its original, Devil’s Bat’s Daughter ranks with the best of them. Oh, granted, it never reaches the ludicrous heights of any or all the Friday The 13th sequels; but then on the other hand, the Friday The 13th movies never tried to deny that Pamela Voorhees was responsible for that first great killing spree, still less to claim later on that she was more sinned against than sinning. In the case of Dr Paul Carruthers, however, Devil Bat’s Daughter is guilty of the kind of revisionism and character-whitewashing that tends to get certain historians banned from entering certain countries.
Let’s remind ourselves, shall we, of how The Devil Bat described Paul Carruthers in its opening crawl:
“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....”
Weird, terrifying experiments involving “glandular stimulation” via “electrical impulses”, no less, which resulted in giant killer bats ready and willing to rip the throat out of anyone wearing a certain brand of aftershave; this being the method by which “kindly Dr Carruthers” revenged himself upon the families who had made millions out of his “formulas”, screwing him in the process. (Or so he thought: Carruthers’ choice of a lump sum over a share in the eventual profits was his own decision, and the financial consequences thus entirely his own fault. His revenge scheme is therefore even more outrageous than it appears at first glance.) The giant bats managed to kill four of Carruthers’ supposed enemies before fulfilling their manifest destiny by tearing out the scientist’s own throat: an act committed before the eyes of a reporter, to whom Carruthers had already confessed, a photographer, and the local Chief of Police.
This is not exactly how Devil Bat’s Daughter recalls events.
First of all, we have the basic proposition that Paul Carruthers himself, rather than the outcome of his experiments, was “the Devil Bat”; a nickname, then, not the signifier for an actual killer bat. Searching for clues to the catatonic Nina’s identity, the sheriff and Dr Elliott visit the abandoned “Carruthers place” – which, amongst its other revisions, Devil Bat’s Daughter finds necessary to relocate from Heathville, Illinois, to Wardsley, Westchester County, New York.
(Curiously, while “Wardsley” is a fictional town, there is indeed an Ardsley in Westchester County: perhaps someone was worried the Ardsley-ites might object?)
In the laboratory, an old newspaper trumpets “‘DEVIL BAT’ CARRUTHERS GUILTY OF MURDER”. (If Carruthers was already dead, who left that there?) This makes no sense whichever way you look at it. There was some nasty local gossip back in Scotland about the circumstances surrounding the death of Nina’s mother, but clearly nothing more came of it; and anyway, how would the people of Wardsley know about that? We are left to assume that it was the deaths of the local people as a result of attacks by Carruthers’ bats for which the scientist was convicted. In the world of Devil Bat’s Daughter, doubtless those deaths were accidents rather than executions, which means that they should by rights have attracted charges of manslaughter rather than murder. However, setting aside the legalities of the situation, if Paul Carruthers was convicted of murder, how could he possibly have been killed by his own bats, as the screenplay later insists that he was? – which is, by the way, one of the very few details in which this film is in concordance with its predecessor.
Be that as it may, it is the discovery of the newspaper, with its headline trumpeting her father’s conviction, that pushes Nina over the edge, reviving all her jumbled childhood memories of her father’s research on bats and her mother’s death by anaemia, which together led to local accusations of vampirism. As the film progresses, the fact that Carruthers’ experimental notes were never recovered becomes the crux of the matter. Clifton Morris has in fact found and secreted these notes, which are not only a clear description of Carruthers’ brilliant experimental work on “cell growth stimulation” (a movie scientist who writes up his experiments properly!? – gedouttahere!), but – much to everyone’s astonishment – prove conclusively that Carruthers was: (i) not a vampire; (ii) not a murderer; and (iii) not insane; and that consequently, Nina could not have inherited any or all of those tendencies.
The extent of the screenplay’s re-writing of its own history becomes, perhaps, a little less surprising when we consider that it was the work of Griffin Jay, who six years earlier performed a similar function for the mythology of The Mummy, transforming the story into what would form the basis of The Mummy’s Hand and its sequels. The possibility even exists that Jay was hired specifically for his ability to twist an existing backstory into whatever best suited the aims of his producers. However, at least when Jay got done with it you could still recognise the bare bones of The Mummy underneath the new bandages of The Mummy’s Hand. Such is far from the case with Devil Bat’s Daughter, which isn’t content with simply altering some of the facts, but goes the distance in its reinvention of Paul Carruthers. The screenplay does not merely vindicate him in passing, but turns him all the way from an outright villain into an outright hero. Check out this eulogy, delivered in solemn tones by Ted Masters towards the end of the film:
“[Nina’s] father was not a murderer! Calling him ‘devil bat’ and ‘vampire’ was throwing mud at a great scientist! He was far ahead of even today’s experiments in cell growth stimulation, and proved it on plants, and frogs, and bats! It was the world’s loss when his bats broke loose and killed some people, because they killed him, too.”And those of us who have followed with great interest the glorious scientific career of Paul W. Carruthers are left with nothing else to do but to pick our jaws up off the floor – and perhaps to give a wistful thought in passing to the movie that might have been made about “kindly Dr Carruthers” and his giant killer frogs....