Monday, January 10, 2011

Say what you will about Dr Paul Carruthers, but his theory of glandular stimulation through electrical impulses was correct

"With the town in an uproar, and everybody terror-stricken and wondering whether he's going to be the next victim, I don't want any more trouble stirred up, even with an artificial bat!"
.Wise words from the sheriff of Heathville, the town at the centre of what the papers are calling the Devil Bat Murders, in response to news photographer "One Shot" McGuire's attempts to storm the front page with a faked photo of the Devil Bat in action.
You or I, if called upon to play the Sheriff, might have stressed the word 'artificial', meaning that the bat might still have panicked people even though it wasn't real.
But Hal Price, a PRC man to his fingertips, opts to put the emphasis on 'even' and 'bat', implying he's so opposed to any form of trouble-stirring, that he even draws the line at some nitwit rigging up a massive fake bat in the grounds of the house where the victims lived.
These small town sheriffs! Will they ever lighten up?
.It's not easy to find anything new to say about The Devil Bat (1940) - though that in itself is a point worth making.
A Poverty Row quickie that came and went, that most critics ignored, that those who didn't heaped scorn upon... and which is now more famous, more beloved and probably more watched that anything MGM released in 1940.
.Actually, remind me - what did MGM release in 1940?
Basically a crazy cock-eyed spin on The Hound of the Baskervilles, an adaptation of which had just proved a nice hit for Fox, The Devil Bat is one of those films that everybody loves - even those who claim to hate it. It is unquestionably the best-known of all Bela Lugosi's Poverty Row horrors; it's also surely the best.
It was the only film he ever made for PRC and that's a great shame because, love his Monogram monstrosities though I do, he was often ill-used by the company, placed in unsuitable and sometimes demeaning roles, whereas you only have to consider for a second what he could have done with the lead role in The Monster Maker, for example, and his absence from the film becomes almost too heartbreaking to contemplate.
Whatever distinctions one has to draw about the scenario and production values of The Devil Bat, the fact remains that it is a classic Lugosi role, another Richard Vollin or Dr Mirakle. It's a rare treat indeed to see him get so full-blooded a showcase in a 1940s movie, virtually a unique treat in fact.
You know you're in for a good time from the very start, kicking off with that so familiar yet so perfect score, and then, the best explanatory foreword in the history of American cinema:
. Kindly village doctor? Everyone loves him?
Poor Lugosi - typecast again. How he must have longed for the opportunity to play a nasty character!
This is PRC chutzpah indeed - with his usual portentous, knitted-brow delivery and bats upstairs both literally and figuratively, to say nothing of the human skull on his telephone table, it's hard to imagine there was ever a time when Dr Carruthers took temperatures and applied antiseptic cream in such a way as to earn not just the respect but the love of all Heathville.
Nonetheless, the fact that any such love is misplaced is confirmed to us instantly the credits are over.
Like many another PRC horror, the film begins by plunging us into the story at an advanced stage. This spares us the boring preambles that disfigure so many horror films, and means that the very first thing we see is Bela Lugosi already in the throes of madness, talking to a bat (useful for filling in the back story; thanks):
"Ahhh, my friend! Our theory of glandular stimulation through electrical impusles was correct! A few days ago you were as small as your companion, and now look at you!"The bat - which didn't, I think, have any actual creative input in the scheme; Lugosi was just being cute with that bit about "our theory" - then hangs motionless from a coat hanger while Lugosi zaps it with electrical impulses, peering through a window in the door, wearing goggles and beating his clenched fist in waltz time.
Sure enough, the bat's glands are indeed stimulated: within a few seconds it has doubled in size and - presumably not as a result of the same process, but by some related training undisclosed in its details - we learn (because we get to hear Lugosi explaining this to the bat as well) that it hates the smell of a particular aftershave so much that when it encounters someone wearing it, rather than fly off smartly in the opposite direction to get the hell away from it, it will rip out the offending dandy's jugular vein.
The smell actually makes it angry: a bit of conditioning far more impressive than the electrically impulsed gland stimulated size increase. (What's the betting Lugosi gave Karloff a bottle of aftershave that Christmas?)
.Immediately after discovering how Carruthers is able to make bats bigger and more crotchety than nature felt necessary, we find out why: it's because he's an embittered aftershave formulator driven to fury by the fact that he was left out of a business venture that allowed several of the town's other inhabitants to become perfume millionaires using his fragrances.
So he has decided to kill them in the most complicated, impractical and attention-seeking method he can devise: by inventing, building and secretly locating the expensive and cumbersome apparatus needed to make bats swell to many times their natural size, training them to kill people who wear his special aftershave lotion, getting his enemies to use it, then releasing the bats and hoping for the best.
Even when the first of these attempts proves such a gruesome success, and the eyes of the nation are fixed on the Heathville mystery, he continues to stalk them one at a time, doing everything he can to look suspicious short of actually bringing the bat along with him on a string.
And to think, he would have succeeded, if only his plans hadn't come up against that eternal barrier between the innocent masses and the machinations of evil criminal geniuses - a smartass reporter. This one's played by Dave O'Brien, the pratfalling stuntman from all those Pete Smith shorts.
.The oddest touch in the screenplay is the decision not to make Lugosi's victims grasping villains who deliberately pushed him out of the deal that made their fortunes on the back of his efforts. On the contrary: they're scrupulously fair. He declined the offer to take a share in the venture, and even now, as he unleashes his bats, they are still making every effort to be friendly and accomodating to him. Their only sin, it would seem, was not to give him a big payoff when their ship came in. For that, it seems, they must die.
It's a nice touch to have a bat's shadow superimposed over the usual newspaper headlines montage (one of several small but pleasing evidences of just that little bit more care being taken than usual in the movie), though from the evidence it's hard to tell how seriously the papers are taking the case.
In the Chicago Daily Register the headline MYSTERIOUS DEVIL BAT KILLS THOMAS HEATH! dominates the front page, but the accompanying story is abruptly stiffed midway through a sentence in the first paragraph, to make way for another scoop: Pericles the Great Athenian Speaks. The Devil Bat mystery is 'continued on next page'.
In an identical layout, the Heathville Daily goes for the massive header VILLAGERS LIVE IN FEAR OF THE DEVIL BAT but pulls the same trick after the first paragraph, and - suggesting that readers have more interest in the affair in Chicago than in the town where it's actually happening - doesn't pick it up again until page 5. While over in Peoria, where they also use the same typesetters as the Chicago Daily Regsiter, the Gazette headline asks WHO WILL BE THE DEVIL BAT'S NEXT VICTIM? but then relegates all but its first two sentences to page thirty.
Later, when the Register's man manages to blast Bela's baby from the skies, the paper celebrates its scoop by giving it two paragraphs before relegation (to page 22) to leave room for the day's other top stories: AMERICANISM, an enigmatically-titled piece they had already printed in the same spot in the last edition, the intriguing At Ease! and the even more intriguing GIRLS.
When the deaths continue, and it seems a new bat is on the loose, the Register is so excited (DEVIL BAT'S MATE KILLS HENRY MORTON) it again only forces its readers to wait until page two to read the second paragraph; meanwhile the rest of the front page allows readers who may have missed it last time a second chance to enjoy that exclusive interview with Pericles the great Athenian.
Few are the horror film monster-makers who are not ultimately undone at the hands of their own creation, and sure enough, Carruthers eventually perishes under the talons of his own devil bat, after O'Brien takes some of the aftershave and splashes it all over the doctor.
So ends Carruthers's insane campaign of murder and madness, and so ends a film which, while every bit as deranged as its central character, has much to commend it. Even as a horror film, it sort of works (in Poverty Row terms that is extravagant praise). The shots of the giant bat prop, flapping its way through the dusky, deserty landscapre of Heathville are eerie and beautiful; the bat itself a laudable piece of special effects engineering for its time and place. PRC liked it so much they later used it again in a spooky western, Wild Horse Phantom (1944), and the accompaniment of what sounds like a human scream as it swoops down, along with well-used intercuts of a real bat's ornery face, make the film a rare thing among Poverty Row horrors: one where the actual horror scenes are as effective as those of a Universal movie.

Well - so far, so familiar.
Nobody reading this needs me to tell them - again - what a great film The Devil Bat is, but not all of you may know that what you see in the movie is in fact only half the story.
Because the truth about Dr Carruthers and his giant bats may not be as straightforward as you think. Is it possible that we read him wrong? That what we thought was a vindictive nutcase releasing killer bats was in fact a nice guy doing nothing of the sort?
Did we only think we saw him doling out that aftershave and chuckling as each fresh jugular is severed? Could we really all be the victims of some sort of collective hallucination?
Sounds incredible, doesn't it?
But hold tight - we're about to hit a curve...
Devil Bat's Daughter (1946), made a full six years after the original film had been released and (temporarily) forgotten, is surely the only sequel to a Poverty Row horror original ever made. (Don't count Return of the Ape Man, because it's about an ape man returning, not the Ape Man returning, and has nothing in common with the Lugosi film besides the presence of the man himself, in a totally different and unconnected role.)
It stars Rosemary LaPlanche, the former Miss America of 1941 and already a PRC veteran - she's also the lead in Strangler of the Swamp - as Nina MacCarron, who we first see unconscious in the sheriff's office, having been found face down in the road. According to a local cabbie she had just arrived in town, and asked him to take her to the old Carruthers residence...
The sheriff takes a trip to the now derelict property, where an abandoned newspaper reminds us of the conclusion of the previous film:

He also finds the girl's handbag, dropped in her flight from the house, which contains a birth certificate revealing that her real name is Carruthers - she is the Devil Bat's Daughter!
What follows takes every first-time viewer by surprise. While the original Devil Bat appeared at a time when Son of Frankenstein had made traditional horror all the rage again after a half-decade in the doldrums, the sequel appeared when the genre was again winding down, and the new thing was the twisty psychological thriller laced with quarter-baked chunks of half-baked Freudianism.
Sure enough, Devil Bat's Daughter is a boldly revisionist murder mystery, with several overt but presumably coincidental similarities to the Universal movie She-Wolf of London, released the same year. The only Devil Bats we get to see are in the distorted flashbacks using footage from the first film, and almost from the first, a strange note of ambiguity creeps in when characters are called upon to recall the original events.
As the friendly town doctor puts it:
He was a scientist who came here to work in peace and secrecy. No one around here got to know him. His work seemed to consist chiefly of experiments in cell growth stimulation. How he achieved what he did, I don't know. But his work finally appeared in the form of gigantic bats. Several people were killed by the creatures, and then one day he himself was found dead, killed by one of his own beasts... Somehow or other the rumour spread that Carruthers was a vampire, so round here they call him the Devil Bat.
This explanation is given to Dr Morris (Michael Hale), a psychiatrist, and one that all but the naivest viewers will instantly want to keep at arm's length, with his oily insincerity and an odd habit of tossing a walnut into the air and catching it again while he's conversing.
Meanwhile, poor Nina is subject to terrifying waking nightmares, in which she thinks she sees one of her father's Devil Bats in her bedroom. As Dr Morris attempts to probe her psyche for the explanation of her strange obsessions (she's just learned her father was found guilty of training giant killer bats and was appararently widely thought to be a vampire - won't that do for starters?) we become more and more certain that the slimy headshrinker is up to something. (We already know he's having an affair and wants to get rid of his wife.)
It's an unwritten rule that whenever a creepy psychiatrist makes a big deal about whether or not you drink the tonic he's made for you every night, the chances are you'll wake up the prime suspect in a murder you can't remember commiting.

Sure enough, Nina wakes in the middle of the night to find herself in the hall, and Morris's wife nearby, stabbed to death with a pair of scissors.

Confessing to the crime like a good psychotic, Nina becomes as big a news sensation as her father had been, with the Chicago Star jumping to the obvious and inevitable conclusion, as who wouldn't when they hear of a woman murdering someone with scissors:

But luckily, Morris's stepson Ted, who loves Nina and is the only man in town who dislikes Morris as much as we do, decides to do a little investigating of his own, journeying with the town doctor to the old Carruthers house. Here he finds a dropped walnut, indicating that his stepfather's been snooping around there too, and dropped his walnut in the excitement. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Carruthers's papers on cell stimulation are missing.
"I don't get it, Doctor," Ted exclaims, "who would be interested in learning the secret of enlarging bats? Who?"
"Well, to speak for myself, Ted, I'd be very interested," the doc replies. "Any man with a scientific turn of mind would be."
Ah, yes! The great dreams of science: fuller understanding of the limits, structure and origin of the universe, technological progress, fewer diseases and bigger bats.
And if you're entertaining any hopes at this point that Dr Morris has stolen the papers because he has become infatuated with Carruthers's ideas, and even now may be in the act of duplicating his experiments and unleashing an all-new army of Devil Bats - take a deep breath and calm down. This is 1946, for God's sake, not 1940! It's all in the mind, now. He just wants to get some psychological dirt with which to influence Nina's mind, to push her towards insanity and get her to take the rap for his murder of his wife.
But the biggest surprise is still to come, when Ted confronts Morris with the evidence:
Ted - I've found Carruthers' papers!
Morris - Well! Now perhaps you'll tell me their great significance.
Ted - They prove that Carruthers was not a murderer. If you'd let Nina read the truth about her father, she would have been cured!

You heard him right. Carruthers was not guilty of the Devil Bat murders! And Ted's not finished, as he later explains to the police:
Any jury would be quick to condemn her on the basis of inherited criminal tendencies. He couldn't give up those papers because they prove that her 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!
Not a word about the aftershave, the fact that all the bat's victims were members of one family in the cosmetics trade, or any explanation as to why Carruthers had stood idly, not to say maliciously by as the deaths continued, denying all knowledge of their cause. All of that, the nasty Dr Morris made you think you saw, when really, you saw nothing of the sort.
If the good Dr Carruthers is looking down on us now, and I like to think he is, I only hope he's forgiven us for saying such beastly things about him.
Which is to basically say that Devil Bat's Daughter just has to be the loopiest, most audacious Poverty Row horror of them all. The nerve of it! The sheer nerve!
For some reason it tends to be loathed even by seasoned fans of this sort of thing, but I loved it. Once you know you aren't getting a proper follow-up to the original - and really, how much fun would that be anyway, without Bela? - there's no reason in the world that I can see why this hallucinatory wallow into B-movie absurdia shouldn't strike you as it did me; as a constant delight.
And as the second half of a double-bill with the original Devil Bat? Well, is there a word to describe the experience? 'Sublime' will have to do, until a better one comes along.


Amanda said...

Fantastic post Matthew! Now I've got to watch The Devil Bat again. And I've never seen Devil Bat's Daughter, but I'm definitely intrigued.

Best Wishes,

Grendel said...

Love The Devil Bat! Definitely one of my favourite poverty row horrors, and a clear example of why PRC were more fun than Monogram. Keep em coming...

Matthew Coniam said...

Amanda - Thanks! You've got to see DBD - but for the full you effect you have to watch it IMMEDIATELY after TDB - - - It feels like you're going mad...

Grendel - I love Monogram too, but I think you're right.
Will do!