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31 Days of Halloween: The Devil Bat

Published Saturday, October 30, 2021 at 8:18pm

If you'll permit me for a moment to sound like your parents, movies are too dark these days, and too dynamically varied. You have to block the windows to see the action onscreen, and as soon as you get the volume on your TV up to 47 to hear the whispered conversation, you have to turn it back down to 13 so that the car chase doesn't blow out your eardrums.

Old movies do not have this problem because Old Hollywood was more concerned with watchability than realism. Far from taking me out of the movie, I can lose myself in a black and white picture with a bombastic, old-fashioned score if they're well executed. Realism goes out the window if I have to struggle just to experience the movie.

Anyway, The Devil Bat (1940) is unencumbered by murky audio or visuals, and it's only 68 minutes long, all of which are selling points when I'm starting a movie at 10:30 PM.

Before Star Wars and Blade Runner gave us meaty, expository pre-film paragraphs, movies used to give us full screens of big print like this one:

All Heathville loved Dr. Paul Carruthers... the doctor found time to conduct certain private experiments—weird, terrifying experiments.

Bela Lugosi plays Dr. Carruthers, a chemist whose researches have earned him a pittance in comparison with the millions they have made for his employer. Unbeknownst to them, he's caused a bat to grow to an unnatural size, and plans to weaponize it against his enemies. One by one, he invites each of them to try the new shaving lotion he has developed, and each is shortly attacked by the giant bat.

The police are baffled, but journalist Johnny Layton and his sidekick, the photographer, One-Shot McGuire begin to connect the dots. After confronting him directly, Carruthers convinces them that he has nothing to do with the murders, but he gives them a bottle of lotion just the same. They manage to shoot the bad dead when it attacks, however, Carruthers has another Devil Bat waiting in the wings. Is that still a pun if I don't acknowledge it?

The Devil Bat was something of a comeback for Lugosi, and was well received when it was new, but it's not a very good movie. Lugosi is the best actor in the picture, but the idea of the giant bat homing in on and killing whoever is wearing the shaving lotion is just silly. As Mike Starr's film producer from Ed Wood says, all you get when you put a star in a crappy movie is "crap with a star". Lugosi gives it his all, but this, I think, is probably the beginning of his descent from being in demand to having to take whatever work he can get.

The other actors do what they can with the material, but it's pretty poor stuff. The next most memorable performance is Donald Kerr's One-Shot McGuire, and that's only because the character is constantly cracking the worst jokes in the movie; Kerr is not a major enough actor to have a Wikipedia entry. The director, Jean Yarborough, got plenty of work and directed King of the Zombies in 1941 (which I do like). As far as I'm concerned he was a hack who was more concerned with getting consistent work than making great films. There's nothing wrong with hack work, really, but it doesn't make for an impressive legacy.

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