Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Alone in a Darkened Room

The Devil Bat (1940)

Of course I love Dracula and White Zombie -- I'm not crazy -- but personally, my favorite Bela Lugosi mode is the totally schizophrenic. Like, say, Bowery at Midnight, in which his character is a psychology professor. Who runs a charitable soup kitchen on the side. AND is secretly a heartless underworld gang leader. He could give profitable time management seminars for psychopaths.

The Devil Bat is another fine entry in this delightful category. Here, Lugosi plays a kindly small-town doctor and cosmetics developer who performs "weird and terrifying experiments" with electricity and, apparently, hypnosis, to turn normal bats into giant, flying killing machines.

Yes, I said "cosmetics." Both an "experimental shaving lotion" and a "greaseless cold cream" are important elements of the plot. The town of Heathville is dominated by the Heath family's cosmetics empire, and inventor Dr. Carruther (Lugosi) has been driven murderously mad by the fortune they've made off his work. Logically, his response is to send test samples of his new shaving lotion to his enemies -- the scent of which drives the unleashed Devil Bat to attack.

Interestingly, Dr. Carruthers' resentment is completely hidden from his victims. They all think well of him, appreciate his work, and obviously want it to continue. If he'd just gotten a decent contract lawyer, a lot of unconvincingly photographed bloodshed could have been avoided. That would have been much less entertaining, and besides, it highlights the madness of the mad scientist in a way that's oddly realistic. He's eaten up with a seething sense of having been wronged, but it all seems to be mostly in his mind.

Some favorite moments:

-- A Chicago newspaperman and his comic-relief photographer come to cover the murder investigation, and, wanting to punch up the story, stage a photo with the help of a modified taxidermy model. It's no wonder that they temporarily fool people with it, since it really looks no fakier than the "real" bat does.

-- When a bottle of the sinister shaving lotion is found in the third victim's bathroom, it's sent to the lab for analysis. It contains a mysterious compound that the scientists can't identify. Once they find out that compound is a secret ingredient used in Tibetan mystical rites, the policeman and the reporter immediately rule it out as suspicious. Oh, sure, that explains everything!

(The reporter, by the way, is played by Dave O'Brien, who appeared inthe infamous Reefer Madness, as well as Bowery at Midnight and Lugosi's team-up with the East Side Kids, Spooks Run Wild).

-- Lugosi's character lounges at home with a skull on the table next to his telephone. And his killer creation is portable! He carries it around in the trunk of his car, and when he opens it up, whoosh! Out it flies, in search of the smell of shaving lotion!

It's hard to talk about a movie like this without the exclamation points. As the plot steamrollers toward its climax, the dialogue grows purpler, which is one of the best parts of these older, more theatrical horror films. For example, feeling condescended to, Dr. Carruthers tells his boss that "your brain is too feeble to conceive what I have accomplished in the realm of science." (Lugosi pronounces "realm" like "real" with an "m" at the end, not to rhyme with "elm"). This lapse into candor leads the other man to suspect his old friend may be behind "the most diabolical plot that a madman ever concocted!"

There are many different DVD editions of The Devil Bat out there. I'd steer clear of the Alpha Video one, since I've seen some pretty bad public-domain transfers from them. I'd also avoid any versions that come in sets of 100 films on 5 DVDs. The promoted "Bela Lugosi Presents" edition (the same people who did a very high-quality release of Bowery at Midnight) seems to be completely unavailable, and I'm not sure it was ever made, although there is, frustratingly, still a cover image on Amazon that implies it actually exists. I finally settled for the Roan Group double feature with The Corpse Vanishes, and I have no complaint about the DVD. I'd say that's about as good as we're likely to get, for the time being anyway.

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