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...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

By the way, it's still PRC month, too...

... So it's about time I published the results of the favourite PRC movie readers' poll.
They're listed in reverse order, with the number of votes received in brackets:

9 (joint):
The Black Raven (1)
Devil Bat's Daughter (1)

7 (joint):
Fog Island (2)
The Mad Monster (2)
Strangler of the Swamp (2)

4 (joint):
The Flying Serpent (3)
The Monster Maker (3)

2: Bluebeard (4)

1: The Devil Bat (13)

No surprises at Devil Bat's runaway lead, or, I suppose, at his daughter's poor showing. But the low figure for a film as fantastic as Fog Island can only be attrubutable to the fact that it remains so criminally little seen.
Indeed all of PRC's output - which is, I've come to think, rather better and more interesting than Monogram's - still wallows in obscurity even in comparison with that studio's films. The only reason I can think of why this should be so is that Monogram had frequent recourse to Lugosi, whereas PRC bagged him only once (in a film that comes closer to legit horror classic status, for all its barking absurdities, than any of Lugosi's Monograms).
As horror films, especially if you imagine Lugosi in the leads, the PRC titles are a splendidly weird and wonderful crop: in particular The Monster Maker, Bluebeard and Fog Island would be unquestioned cherished favourites if only poor Bela had graced them with his presence.
And Fog Island, in particular, best illustrates another reason why PRC's horrors have their own claim to individual merit and status: they are the most unremittingly cynical and mean-spirited horror movies of the forties.
I don't think you need to look far to work out why. World-weary cynicism is only to be expected from a company that operated in the way that PRC did.
It's odd that they existed at all, really: just breaking even in the land of dreams seems almost to defeat the object. Nobody could have been working at PRC for the love of PRC. It was a place that existed on hope: on the starlet's hope that this, against all the odds, is going to be the one that gets them noticed, or that of the formerly noticed on the way down, hoping that this is going to be, against odds still greater, the one that turns the descent round again. Or the studio's own hope that this, or if not this then the next one, is going to be the one that breaks all known patterns and become the Poverty Row Breakhtough, the one that's a massive hit, just liked for what it is - even, dare to dream, the one that pushes them into the ranks of the semi-majors, like Capra had done for Columbia.
Success on Poverty Row was measured by how quickly you got the hell out. This seems to have been the great animating dream of all the Poverty Row studios as much as the individual men and women who toiled there.
None ever quite achieved it, but PRC got there closer than most, thanks to the likes of Detour, and Edgar Ulmer and Frank Wisbar.
The air must have been thick there with the scent of hope and frustration mixed: so who cares about trying and failing to match the majors in sappy heroes who can do anything, and have only to flash their million dollar teeth to guarantee a return on the investment? That's why they have no heroes, why they don't bother trying to compete on star power - or the imposed characterisations that star power demands. It's why every character at PRC is either a doofus or a chiseller, and every character is drawn from stock: the reappearance in film after film of the exact same obtuse country sherrif, identical in performance though rarely by the same actor twice, is a particular joy. That the hero, or the closest the film will get towards anything so crass as an endorsement of heroism in their lead males, will probably be some species of reporter, drawn almost always to the heroine as a subsidiary of his professional fly-to-a-corpse instincts, and often as not accompanied by a goonish photographer who's there to get the big laughs is similarly close to given.
Unmistakably, this is a fictional world peopled by the kind of characters who hung around while they were making it.
All the world is here, if by the world you mean the scruffier parts of Los Angeles, but none portrayed with a drop of real human compassion, and always with either no aspirations or else aspirations so meagre - yet so devoutly held - you just know they speak to a community of workers who all know how it feels to be so nearly what they've always dreamed of being, yet still not quite.
What seems so strikingly obvious in Detour actually holds good for almost all PRC product. It is the noir studio. It may not have had the resources to define that moment stylistically, but in its sensibilities it was the studio that thought noir, regardless of the film it was making.

Think about Fog Island again in this light: was there ever a more noirish little murder mystery, however unifrom the lighting or limited the set design?
After the death of Zucco's character we watch virtually every other character tie themselves in knots of cross and double-cross, before all perish in the watery finale. Killing off virtually your entire cast all at once at the end of the film takes a certain insouciance and also, I would suggest, a very certain kind of take on the world and its wonders.
Because PRC has characteristically filled the film with nasties and left just two half-hearted young lovers to represent the decent mass of humanity, they can get away with the mass slaughter of most of the cast and still not ruffle Breen, because they all separately and individually had it coming. As a result, nearly everybody drowns, screaming, in the last scene.
Just the thing to get your mind off the Second World War.

PRC's movies have had the sweetness knocked out of them by the hard lessons of experience: lacking Universal's gloss, RKO's hauteur and Monogram's who-cares sense of fun, these are cold, hard films. Nobody ever trusts anybody else or likes anybody else in them. Their villains are animated not by mad inspiration or cosmic hubris but rather by petty resentments, jealousy, spite, wounded pride. Their monsters are like Warner gangsters: heartless, selfish, contemptuous of their victims. Warners may have built the better mean streets for their characters to go down: PRC could never afford such artful poverty, but at PRC, the bus ride home was the real thing. Inside, the sets were bright and noir was an attitude, not a template. MGM was for winners, with not a care in the world. At PRC they had to turn their collars up to keep out the rain, work all night to fill the larder.
There were no mean streets leading to the gates of MGM, so what did they know?