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The Devil Bat (1941)
aka Killer Bats

"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…."

devil.jpg (14778 bytes) Director: Jean Yarborough

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Dave O’Brien, Suzanne Kaaren, Donald Kerr, Edward Mortimer, Guy Usher, Alan Baldwin, John Ellis, Hal Price, Yolande Mallott

Screenplay: John Thomas Neville

Synopsis: In a secret attic over his laboratory, Dr Paul Carruthers (Bela Lugosi) keeps the result of one of his experiments: a giant bat, which he has created by subjecting a normal bat to electrical impulses. Carruthers receives a phone-call from his employer, Martin Heath (Edward Mortimer), inviting him to a party given by himself and his business partner, Henry Morton (Guy Usher). Carruthers is reluctant, but agrees to attend when informed that Mary Heath (Suzanne Kaaren) has specifically requested his presence. Carruthers returns to his giant bat, waving a certain scent under its nose. The creature reacts angrily; Carruthers is delighted. That night, the gathered Heath and Morton families are disappointed when Martin Heath announces that Carruthers isn’t coming after all, as the true purpose of the gathering was to present Carruthers with a bonus cheque for his work for Heath Cosmetics, Ltd. Mary Heath suggests that her brother, Roy (John Ellis), take the cheque to Carruthers’ laboratory. Roy does so. Carruthers is angered and insulted by the gesture, but conceals his emotion. He tells Roy that he has been working on a new shaving lotion. Roy remarks on the lotion’s strong scent, but rubs some of it onto his throat, finding it soothing. When Roy has gone, Carruthers reflects bitterly on how the Heath and Morton families built their fortunes on his work. Carruthers releases his giant bat, which flies into the night…. Mary Heath tells Don Morton that she cannot marry him. As the two are talking in the garden, Roy drives up to the house. The bat attacks him. Hearing a terrible scream, Mary and Don rush to Roy’s side. Don sends for Carruthers, who announces that Roy is dead, his jugular vein severed. Johnny Layton (Dave O’Brien), a reporter with the Chicago Daily Register, is sent with his photographer, One-Shot Maguire (Donald Kerr), to investigate the killing. After attending the inquest, Layton visits Police Chief Wilkins (Hal Price), who reveals that Roy had strange scratches on his chest and shoulders, while hairs like those of a mouse were found on him. Wilkins arranges for Layton to talk to Mary. Carruthers joins them, and they discuss the doctor’s theory that a wild animal was responsible for Roy’s death. That night, Tommy Heath (Alan Baldwin) is invited to Carruthers’ laboratory, and given some of the shaving lotion to try. As he walks home, he passes Mary, Layton and Maguire, who are keeping vigil in the garden. The three hear a scream, and rush to the terrace to find Tommy with a giant bat tearing at his throat….

Comments: The Devil Bat was really the beginning of the end of Bela Lugosi’s serious acting career. Prior to it, in films such as Dark Eyes Of London, The Son Of Frankenstein, and even The Gorilla, he was able to maintain his dignity, giving in SoF what may have been his best performance. However, from The Devil Bat onwards, Lugosi’s roles became ever more self-parodic and demeaning, until the final indignity of his posthumous appearance in Plan Nine From Outer Space. As it stands, The Devil Bat is a grim forewarning of the rest of Bela’s career: the acting is universally terrible, the plot is ridiculous, and the "special effects" somewhat less than special. Which is not to say, oh gentle reader, that the film isn’t a great deal of fun….

In The Devil Bat, Lugosi plays "kindly Dr Carruthers" (as every other review of the film I’ve ever seen calls him – why should I rock the boat?), beloved village doctor by day, textbook mad scientist by night. With a chip on his shoulder the size of Gibraltar, Carruthers is plotting a complicated revenge on the families of Martin Heath and Henry Morton, who built a cosmetics empire on formulae devised by Carruthers. By subjecting an ordinary bat to "glandular stimulation" by using "electrical impulses", Carruthers has created a monster. We are privileged to witness the final phase of Carruthers’ experiment: as his giant bat hangs motionless – and I do mean motionless – from a strange piece of apparatus, electricity flashes and crackles all over the lab, but chiefly up and down one of those rabbit ear doo-hickeys, situated a safe five feet from where the "electrical impulses" are supposed to be doing their thing. But however distantly they operated, the "impulses" seem to have worked, as the next shot shows the giant bat moving its wings. This is doubtless meant to be a highly dramatic moment, but somehow it lacks the impact of, say, Boris Karloff’s first hand movement in Frankenstein. Still, Carruthers is delighted, and even more so when the giant bat squawks angrily when exposed to a particular scent. His weapon prepared, Carruthers begins his campaign of revenge.

We are next introduced to Carruthers’ potential victims: Martin Heath, his daughter, Mary, and his sons, Roy and Tommy; and Heath’s partner, Henry Morton, and his son, Don. The families are gathered to present Carruthers with a bonus cheque, but Martin Heath must break the news that Carruthers isn’t coming, because, or so he says, "he just got busy with his new formula" (which on a sliding scale of lousy excuses must rank somewhere between "My grandmother’s funeral" and "My alarm clock didn’t go off"). Roy Heath is elected to deliver the cheque to Carruthers, who is rightly unimpressed with the amount of it. However, fate having delivered a guinea pig into his hands, Carruthers puts his anger aside and gives Roy a sample of his new "shaving lotion", with the suggestion that he rub it on the tender part of his neck. Roy does so, thus sealing his fate. As he pulls up in his car outside the Heath mansion, Roy is attacked by Carruthers’ killer bat. His scream brings Mary Heath and Don Morton. Morton sends immediately for Carruthers, who informs them that Roy is dead, his jugular vein severed (they needed a doctor to tell them that!?).

Immediately before Roy’s death, we saw Mary Heath rejecting Don Morton’s marriage proposal. This is the cue for the appearance of the film’s real hero and romantic lead, reporter Johnny Layton. Layton is played by Dave O’Brien, whom Bad Film Aficionados will recognise instantly as the drug-crazed pianist of Reefer Madness (jeez – who’da thunk he’d ever work again!?). Layton is a wisecracking reporter in the mould of Lee Tracy’s Warner Brothers characters. If that isn’t enough to send shivers down your spine, Layton is accompanied by a photographer rejoicing in the soubriquet of "One-Shot" Maguire, who to nobody’s surprise turns out to be the film’s Odious Comic Relief. (So as not to raise your hopes only to dash them, I will tell you here and now that, although The Devil Bat boasts a fair body count by the end, the Odious Comic Relief makes it out alive. Yeah, I was disappointed, too.) Just to complete the Warner Brothers riff, the film also boasts the laziest, most ineffectual Police Chief seen anywhere outside of WB’s anti-cop films of the early thirties. Thrilled to have Layton and Maguire in on the case – presumably because that means he won’t have to get up out of his chair – Chief Wilkins immediately hands the whole case over to the newcomers, showing them photographs of the scratch marks on Roy Heath’s body, and telling them of the hairs found on his clothing, and the "strange odour" of the wound. Layton goes to interview Mary Heath, and in the proud tradition of William Shakespeare and the Restoration comedies, while Layton falls for Mary, second-banana One-Shot falls for Mary’s French maid, Maxine. (Short as the film is, the scenes between Maguire and Maxine seem to go on longer than Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.) Carruthers interrupts Layton’s conversation with Mary, and defends his theory of a wild animal attack on the grounds that, well, he’s a scientist and therefore sees things ordinary people don’t.

That night, Layton, Maguire and Mary keep watch in the garden, while Carruthers invites Tommy Heath to his laboratory to try "his new formula". Like his brother before him, Tommy is persuaded to rub some on the tender part of his neck. However, Carruthers’ plans nearly go awry when Tommy, claiming that the shaving lotion smells good enough to use as a cologne, tries to rub some on Carruthers himself. The good doctor jumps back, horrified, excusing his reaction by explaining that he has "a violent dislike for perfumes" (which certainly explains why he chose a career in the cosmetics industry). Having laid Tommy’s suspicions to rest with this bit of fast talking, Carruthers says "Goodbye" to him and shakes his hand – apparently not noticing that the hand in question was the one covered with the lotion. Come to think of it, Carruthers didn’t notice that when he shook Roy Heath’s hand, either! But fortunately, the bat only seems to attack when the lotion is rubbed on the tender part of the neck. Out in the garden, Tommy Heath pauses just long enough to provide high dramatic irony by scoffing at Layton’s watch for the "wild animal", before being attacked and killed on the terrace. Layton fires his gun at the bat, but it escapes.

Layton phones in his story to his editor, McGinty, insisting that the name "Devil Bat" will look great in a headline. McGinty obviously agrees, as we are next assailed by the inevitable spinning newspapers, the headlines proclaiming MYSTERIOUS DEVIL BAT KILLS THOMAS HEATH and VILLAGERS LIVE IN FEAR OF DEVIL BAT. The story beneath this latter one informs us that the villagers of Heathville "cringed in terror" after the second mysterious death. McGinty must have liked this rather insulting phrase even better than "Devil Bat", as the next headline announces VILLAGERS CRINGE IN TERROR OF MURDERER.

During his conversation with Layton, McGinty also demanded a picture of the "Devil Bat", a challenge to which the ethical and upright Layton responds by encouraging One-Shot to fake a giant bat and photograph it. Meanwhile, Don Morton has been given a bottle of the fatal shaving lotion, and soon the newspapers are spinning again. DEVIL BAT STRIKES AGAIN is the rather unimaginative headline, but it serves to push the paper’s ongoing series on AMERICANISM down the page (at least, we assume it’s ongoing – the headline AMERICANISM will be mysteriously present on every subsequent front page). Meanwhile, we’ve discovered that all it takes to get Chief Wilkins out of his chair is three unsolved murders. Wilkins stumbles upon One-Shot and Maxine faking a bat attack, blasting the mock-up mammal with his shotgun (he will later prove rather less handy with a gun when it comes to shooting the real bat). Layton defends One-Shot to Chief Wilkins, by then back in his chair, then shows the Chief a bottle of shaving lotion he found in Don Morton’s bathroom. Wilkins recognises the scent as that found on all the victims, and promises to send the lotion to the police chemists. Pointing out that all the victims have been Heaths or Mortons, Wilkins reveals that they are working on the theory that a "disgruntled factory employee" might be behind the killings (hmm – disgruntled employees must have been a bit more imaginative in those days).

Meanwhile, One-Shot’s photo is published, and exposed as a fraud when an "authority on animal life" points out that, under a magnifying glass, a tag reading "Made In Japan" can be seen attached to the "Devil Bat’s" wing. McGinty is swiftly on the phone, and Layton and One-Shot are sacked. The next phone-call is from Mary, rightly hurt by Layton’s behaviour. Layton tries to explain that the fraud was merely his attempt to "get the news" but Mary is unimpressed and hangs up. (I’m with her on this one. It’s hard to see how a faked photo could help "get the news", unless Layton was expecting the real bat to turn itself in in a fit of indignation. "I did it! I did it all!")

Layton is next seen with Chief Wilkins, who obviously isn’t perturbed enough about that whole "fraud" thing to dissolve the partnership (well, it beats working). Ensconced in his comfy chair, Wilkins tells Layton that there was one element in the shaving lotion the chemists were unable to identify. Layton expresses his suspicion that Carruthers is somehow behind the killings. Wilkins scoffs at the idea, informing Layton that "kindly Dr Carruthers" was "loved by everybody" (I dunno – do you get the feeling that this role wasn’t originally intended for Bela? This whole scenario feels more like Boris to me….). Layton proposes they ask Carruthers to analyse the lotion. If he denies recognising it, they will have proof. But to Layton’s annoyance, Carruthers outsmarts [sic.] him, immediately claiming it as his own formula. He then offers some of the lotion to Wilkins and Layton. The former declines, but the suspicious Layton accepts. After Carruthers wishes him "Goodbye", Layton decides to use himself as bait. The bat does attack, but apparently as fed up with One-Shot Maguire as any viewer of the film, it ignores the lotion-wearing Layton and tries to tear out One-Shot’s throat instead (YESSSS!!!!). Unfortunately (NOOO!!!!), Layton intervenes, proving himself a truly remarkable shot by plugging the bat four or five times despite standing directly behind One-Shot.

REPORTER KILLS DEVIL BAT is the next headline (pushing AMERICANISM down the page again), and as we peruse the ensuing article we see that Layton has rather oddly referred to himself as "Henry", not "Johnny". Modesty forbade, presumably. The "authority on animal life" is wheeled back in to pronounce the "Devil Bat" the last of its species. Carruthers smirks contemptuously, and returns to his lab to produce Devil Bat II. Layton and One-Shot get their jobs back, and Mary shows up to apologise for getting mad over that whole "fraud" thing. (Why do movies always make women apologise for being justifiably angry? I suppose it’s to make them look sweet and gentle, but personally I think it makes them look feeble-minded and spineless. Hmm – you say "to-may-to", I’ll say "to-mah-to"….) Carruthers visits Henry Morton, who spends about ten minutes cheerfully rubbing his employee’s nose in the company’s profits, reminding Carruthers how rich he could have been if he hadn’t asked for a cash deal. This is too much for Carruthers, who loses his temper, telling Morton that he is in the presence of a great scientist; one who not only has the power to control men’s destinies, but has already done so – three times. Morton manages to pick up on this subtle hint, arranging to meet Heath and Chief Wilkins at Heath’s house because he thinks he’s got a clue to "all those murders". But it’s too late for Morton. Carruthers has already persuaded him to rub a little of the lotion on his "delicate" throat skin and wished him "Goodbye". As Morton arrives at Heath’s house, Devil Bat II attacks!

DEVIL BAT’S MATE KILLS HENRY MORTON is the next headline. Sadly, no-one thinks to call in the "authority on animal life" to explain this little development. Layton and One-Shot move into the Heath house. Carruthers scoffs at the notion that someone could be controlling a bat, then rather reluctantly wishes Mary Heath "Goodbye". That night, courtesy of a suspect perfume bottle, Mary is attacked, but the screen on her window protects her. Now sure of Carruthers’ guilt, Layton has Mary pretend to have a nervous collapse so that Carruthers may be called in to attend her. In Carruthers’ absence, Layton searches the lab. But the wary Carruthers is not away long. Layton hides, then follows Carruthers to his secret attic, overhearing him putting the bat out for the night. Pretending to call on Carruthers, Layton reveals his belief that the shaving lotion is attracting the bats, and announces his intention of using himself as bait. Carruthers is delighted, and willingly accepts Layton’s invitation to sit out with him. But once in the garden, Layton splashes the lotion on Carruthers, forcing him at gunpoint to stay where he is. "Not so funny when it’s your own juggler vein that’s in danger, is it?" observes Layton. Before Carruthers even has the chance to reply that that entire remark is pretty damn funny, DB2 attacks! Carruthers jumps Layton as he tries to shoot the creature, and the two men struggle. Suddenly, there is a shotgun blast, and the bat flies away. Layton hauls Carruthers to his feet to find Chief Wilkins standing nearby. "What are you doing here?" asks Layton. "Don’t think you’re the only one working on this case!" replies Wilkins (gee, can’t imagine where he could have gotten that idea!). Layton hands Carruthers over, announcing that he is the murderer; something Wilkins accepts without asking for a shred of proof (well, it beats working).

At that moment, DB2 attacks again! Wilkins blasts away at it, but misses again. Carruthers takes advantage of the situation to make a break for it. He tries to abduct Mary Heath, convincing her that he will take her to Layton, but Justice is on its winged way. DB2 swoops, and soon Carruthers, like so may of his mad scientist colleagues before him, has met his fate at the hands--- er, wings? Anyway, teeth ‘n’ claws of his creation. The creature then attacks Mary, but Layton shoots and brings it down. He breaks the news to Mary that "kindly Dr Carruthers" was responsible for the wholesale slaughter of the Heath and Morton families. Wilkins confirms that Carruthers is dead, Mary sinks into Layton’s arms, and The Devil Bat ends, strangely enough without anyone observing that Carruthers had been meddling in things that man must leave alone. Well, let’s face it: that was Wilkins’ job, wasn’t it? I guess it was just too much damn trouble….