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A Devil Bat in the Details: The Haphazard Horror of PRC

by Anders Runestad

In his definitive survey Poverty Row Horrors! (McFarland, 1993), Tom Weaver makes clear that none of classic Hollywood’s lower tier of Poverty Row studios were that well-suited to make horror films—yet make them they did. While Universal had deservedly ruled the market in the 1930s, they were less in the game by the early 1940s. It was up to Poverty Row to fill this gap but, as Weaver notes, its dominant player Republic was not really up to the job. Tunnel-visioned by their penchant for the location work that helped them mass-produce reliable Westerns for horse opera fans, Republic didn’t bother with horror that often. Meanwhile Monogram took the stable route of a nine-film streak with Bela Lugosi, using him in a basically horror assortment that included comedies starring the East Side Kids.

But horror films from ultra-cheap Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) were a less predictable assortment, and therein lies their potential. One might not like a PRC fright film in the end, but there’s at least a chance that it won’t be what you expect. For a start, PRC was not afraid to get a little artsy at times, such as when they hired cult director Edgar G. Ulmer for Bluebeard (1944), and one could even try to shoehorn in Ulmer’s dark and bleak PRC film noir Detour (1945) as a close cousin of horror. Yet it would be a mistake to say that PRC never followed a pattern. They could follow the genre tropes as closely as anyone, and had at least enough of a formula to take one of their productions and use it as the basis for later films. For this writer (and no doubt many others), that initial movie stands above the rest, and its name is … The Devil Bat (1940).

Fittingly, this was one PRC film with an actual star. Bela Lugosi, who spent much time at Monogram in this decade, plays a mad scientist in The Devil Bat. There’s no stretch there, of course, but this film gave the imported Hungarian horror lead what must still be one his oddest roles. It does, after all, allow Lugosi to say incongruous lines, such as when he explains that he is “very busy working on a formula for a new shaving lotion.” For Lugosi’s character, beloved small town doctor Paul Carruthers, is also a brilliant research chemist. Embittered that he sold a formula he created for an upfront payment, Carruthers stews about the fortune he could have had if he had waived it and accepted a profit share instead. No one forced him into this less lucrative deal, he did it to himself, but he nonetheless charts a course for revenge against those who profited by his creation.

And what a screwy revenge it is. For Carruthers outsources his vengeance to denizens of the natural world, tampered with in mad scientist fashion: giant bats. Much of the film’s first ten minutes consists of Lugosi hanging an inanimate object that is supposed to be a bat from the ceiling of his mad scientist lab, then staring through the lab door window as he sends electricity coursing into it. For some reason, this mutates the bat to grow a few times its size, the enlarged bat now behaving less like a pinata and flexing its wings a bit. But most impressions of the creature being alive are from cutting to stock footage of the face of an actual bat, often while Lugosi regales it with his elaborate revenge scheme. This not only gives Lugosi some prime onscreen moments, but makes for some very handy info dumping for the (human) audience.

Lest it should seem that there’s a total disregard for any reason that a giant bat would be driven to attack a human victim, Carruthers’ latest concoction is the catalyst. Giving the bat a whiff of the scent in police dog fashion, he opens an attic window from which the devil bat is unleashed (apparently by means of some sort of launch chute, as all this happens in the basement until the bat emerges from far above). This would be for naught, except that Carruthers is so persistent in the other half of this scheme. Hornswoggled by him to try the new aftershave now and not later, the objects of his vengeance become homing beacons of scent, and are no match for the kamikaze throat attack of the devil bat.

Why does the bat make a ridiculous shriek like a very silly prehistoric monster? Does it make sense that the police find mouse hair at a crime scene and a reporter treats it as evidence that a bat was present? Does it ever occur to Lugosi’s mad scientist that he’s getting revenge on people who did him no wrong? Could he have possibly thought up a more convoluted scheme? And why is it so difficult to resist trying aftershave when Bela Lugosi is pushing it? To all these questions the best answer is … who cares! The Devil Bat is one of the most squirrelly and fun low-budget horrors ever, even if the horror content is undercut by the silliness.

PRC apparently saw it the same way, at least because audiences did make it a hit, and the studio used it as the basis for more movies. First up was The Mad Monster (1942), a similar storyline with the upper crusty Brit menace of George Zucco in place of Lugosi as the mad doctor. But despite another fairly zany concept (an army of werewolves), this re-do feels sluggish in comparison. Likewise, there is the supposed sequel Devil Bat’s Daughter (1946). It’s not completely bad, it’s just dour, cold, has a couple of notably sad and unpleasant deaths, and doesn’t even reference the original movie very accurately. The Val Lewton trick of making a sequel with a tenuous connection to the original (see Curse of the Cat People) doesn’t pay off here, and the definite lack of fun is a serious problem. But another Devil Bat-wannabe comes closest to the outlandishness of the original because it follows the original the most closely. The Flying Serpent (1946), with another George Zucco mad doctor, this time around has a flying mythological monster that gets mighty territorial over its lost feathers. It can’t hope to equal the original, obviously, but its heart is in the right place: only the greatest of mad scientists know that there is no scheme like a pointlessly complicated scheme.

Which brings this brief appraisal of PRC’s scare flicks right back to The Devil Bat, for it is the essence of what’s most entertaining in cheap horror oldies. There’s the usual mad scientist with a lab, attractive young leads, silly comic relief, stolid authority figures, but a not-so-average monster. That monster might be ludicrous, fair enough, but it’s not boring, forgettable, or something you’ve seen before, and that makes it a cut above the rest. And that, in the fast and cheap world of a Poverty Row studio, is quite an achievement.


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