Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Devil Bats In His Belfry: An interview with Peter H. Brothers


When you're obsessed with something to a degree that qualifies as 'medical', it's always a relief to encounter someone else who shares the same problem. Even better when they've got it even worse than you have.

I thought I had plumbed the outer limits when it came to obsessively pondering The Devil Bat, Lugosi's PRC masterpiece.
But even after that occasion when I watched it three times in a row without a break, it never once struck me that it might be a good idea to turn it into a novel.
For that stroke of genius, ladies and gentleman, the gent to whom your fedora must be tipped is Peter H. Brothers.
Peter's name may well be familiar to you already, author as he is of Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda. But now he has come up with Devil Bat Diary: The Journal of Johnny Layton, which as its title suggests is a retelling of the film, from the perspective of its newspaper reporter hero.

If anyone has ever had a better idea before - and I'm including penicillin here - I've yet to hear about it.
When Peter got in touch to tell me about the project, I decided to find out more.

Carfax Abbey: This is a terrific idea for a book! How did it first come to you, how long did it take to write and how many people per day on average told you you were crazy...?

Peter H. Brothers: Well I have been a Bela Lugosi fan since way back and The Devil Bat is my favourite film of his (don't tell him this!) And I thought since the story was so zany and the characters so interesting it might be fun to write, and it was. The film was ahead of its time in its tongue-in-cheek and self-parodying tone ("I tell you Layton, the idea of a bat being attracted to the scent of a lotion, is all foolishness!"); in fact its chief virtue is that it doesn't take itself too seriously.
One thing that makes the film so enjoyable to watch is seeing the idle rich getting bumped-off one by one by a guy who spends his whole life with his nose to the grindstone. The Carruthers character is one that a lot of people can relate to: a hard-working grunt who feels he doesn't get the credit or salary he deserves, so he takes revenge against those who wronged him - a premise we can all relate to! It took six months to write it and my wife, who thinks I'm crazy anyway, gave it her blessing.

Can you let us in on any of the book's major revelations? I'm assuming it doesn't go so far as Devil Bat's Daughter and whitewashes Carruthers of all responsibility?

Oh no! Carruthers did what he did all right, but we do learn why he is so resentful of the Heaths and Mortons. It turns out he has other issues as well. I have altered the ending a bit as well, to give it a more cinematic feel.

This is the diary of Johnny, the reporter in the film. Do we get to see an altogether different side to his character, or is he basically the same obtuse wiseacre we fans know and love?

We learn more about his character and his relationships with the others in the film; how he feels about them and basically the kind of person he is, how his mind works, a little about his background and so on. He basically comes across in a similar fashion to how he is in the film, but we learn more about him.

What other characters come over differently? I see Mary Heath is pegged as a religious lunatic...

Yes. I thought it would be fun to give some of the characters little quirks. For example, "One Shot" McGuire is a rather vulgar fellow who can't stand the sight of Layton (and vice-versa), Martin Heath is devastated by the loss of his son, Mary is a bible-beater who gets crazier and crazier as the story goes on and Chief Wilkins is gay -- strong stuff for 1940!

This can only be the work of a truly obsessive fan of the movie. Speaking as another one, can you tell me what it is about the film that inspires this kind of devotion?

I'm not too sure when I first saw it but I just fell in love with it and realised there's much more to it than meets the eye. It's an interesting film in many ways. For one thing, Bela was a man who was a cheap hire and who was known to take the first offer rather than hold out for things like better salary and so on; he was not choosy, he just loved to work.
The famous story is that he accepted Dracula for a mere pittance rather than get a percentage of the profits (although such deals were rather rare for the time). In a sense he had no bargaining power and he had to basically take or leave the offer. The Devil Bat follows an ironic parallel is that he plays a a man who settles for a quick cash settlement rather than become a partner of the firm. I'm sure Bela - who was an intelligent and sensitive man - was very aware of this parallel while he made the movie.

It's also an interesting part for him. As you know Bela loved to always give 110% when he performed regardless of the role or the studio or the story. In The Devil Bat he gives a very restrained and realistic performance; there is very little of the theatricality that is typically called for in a Bela role. "Sour irony" is I believe how director Joe Dante defined Bela's portrayal of Carruthers, which also comes across as very appealing; we like the guy even though he is basically a sourpuss!
Bela's greatest moment in the film is near the end, when he gets a wistful look in the eyes and tells Layton, "You wouldn't understand a scientific theory," which is delivered so sublimely I'm not sure I can ever attempt to define it. It is truly an extraordinary moment for him. He was truly a great actor.

Have you seen the sequel?

I have yet to catch-up with Devil Bat's Daughter but I understand that Carruthers is completely exonerated of his crimes and is now remembered as a bit of a local hero(!), which brings up another interesting issue: how people's reputations are enhanced after they're gone: you know, like Ronald Reagan?

What are your views on Lugosi's 'Poverty Row' films in general?

He was a professional who loved his craft, and I personally feel his performance as James Brewster in The Ape Man is the finest performance I have seen an actor give in a film; I mean we're talking Shakespearian stuff, man... just heartbreaking. I also love Scared to Death, The Raven, White Zombie, Chandu the Magician, The Corpse Vanishes, Son of Frankenstein (he should have gotten an Oscar for that one) ... I could go on and on, but yeah, I love the guy ...
In 1971, when I was 18, I saw Dracula on TV during a Saturday afternoon and that was it for me. He is my idol and in fact I visit his grave every year around his birthday and leave him a cigar which I'm sure ends up in the hands of the groundskeeper! (I live in Agoura Hills, about 40 minutes from the Holy Cross Cemetery where he is buried). I love all his films because I too am an actor and appreciate the total dedication he gave to each and every role he played.
So Devil Bat Diary is a tribute to both Bela and a wonderfully entertaining film which was very cleverly-written and has some wonderful moments in it (I can hear those Devil Bat screams to this day!) I hope you and your readers enjoy it.

Leave him a cigar from me next time.

Yes, next time I visit his grave I'll leave a cigar from you and say hello.

Lugosi in The Ape Man: "The finest performance I have seen an actor give in a film"

Peter H. Brothers: Well, he looks relatively normal...

4 comments:

Mykal said...

Matthew: Just bought it on Amazon. Wow, this is gonna be PRC Heaven! I already have Mr. Brothers' book on Ishiro Honda (one of my all time favs). Great post and great interview!

And speaking of Lugosi!

" personally feel his performance as James Brewster in The Ape Man is the finest performance I have seen an actor give in a film; I mean we're talking Shakespearian stuff, man... just heartbreaking."

Right on! No one ever exposed himself raw to the camera the way Lugosi did. Watching his performance as Dr. Vornoff in Bride of the Monster is like watching a self-immolation.

Great post and great interview.

Tabitha said...

Matthew, thank you so much for your kind words on my blog! It was such a nice surprise. Even though I'm 18 years too late, Happy Golden Birthday!

James Gracey said...

Great interview Matthew! What a quirky (and obscure) idea for a book. I really like The Devil Bat, though by the sounds of it, not as obsessively as you! I'd be really interested in checking this out. Plus, any excuse to watch the film again!

Thanks for sharing this!

And I agree with what Mykal said about Lugosi's performance as Dr. Vornoff in Bride of the Monster - self-immolation indeed.

Matthew Coniam said...

Let's all watch The Devil Bat again for Hallowe'en, and raise a murky Merlot to Bela's memory!