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As central to the history of horror film as George Washington is to American history, Bela Lugosi's distinctive Hungarian accent and penetrating stare have kept many an expectant viewer glued to the late, late show.
The Devil Bat (1940) is Lugosi at his otherworldly, menacing best in a role made to capitalize on his most famous, iconic performance as cinema's greatest vampire in Tod Browning's Dracula (1931). Lugosi plays Dr. Paul Carruthers of Heathville, a deceptively genteel scientist who secretly harbors a murderous hatred for the wealthy local businessmen Henry Morton (Guy Usher) and Martin Heath (Edmund Mortimer) whom he feels cheated him out of his deserved profits for one of his formulas. Experimenting in his basement laboratory one night, Carruthers comes up with a devious equation of bat-plus-electricity to create the Devil Bat, an enormous, bloodthirsty beast whom Carruthers sics on his enemies. The scientist's nocturnal revenge begins with a fragrant aftershave that he convinces his unsuspecting victims to apply liberally to their neck, thus attracting his killer bat. The village is suddenly in a panic and fast-talking reporter Johnny Layton (Dave O'Brien) moves in to investigate, while making a play for Martin Heath's beautiful daughter, Mary (Suzanne Kaaren).
The Devil Bat was the first horror film made by the Producers Releasing Company, a low-budget indie, rebuilt from the failed Producers Distributing Corporation. And the mark of this lower-echelon Poverty Row studio is all over The Devil Bat. Testament to the film's lowly origins is the appearance of charismatic exploitation film actor Dave O'Brien as the slick reporter Layton. O'Brien's most famous screen performance is undoubtedly as the deranged "hophead" who murders and rapes under the influence of "reefer" in Louis Gasnier's 1936 anti-drug cult film Reefer Madness. The Devil Bat bears other marks of its cut-rate origins in its clearly limited budget for special effects (the resemblance of the Devil Bat to a furry kite propelled through the air is typical), some amateurish performances and - let's face it - a ludicrous storyline, though the original story's author George Bricker took great pains to argue the circumstances could happen. Despite such bargain basement flourishes, The Devil Bat has a sublimely weird ambiance and is unquestionably mesmerizing, due in large part to Lugosi's intensely creepy performance as a man driven to murder by his warped sense of wounded pride.
For many, The Devil Bat is evidence of the beginning of Lugosi's slide into film infamy as a once promising career petered out on cheap horror productions. Born in the Hungarian town of Lugos (from which the actor created his stage name, adding an "i" to suggest aristocratic origins), Lugosi began his career on the stage before appearing in a number of German film productions. After immigrating to the United States, Lugosi made his name in the 1927 Broadway production of Dracula. Three years later Lugosi would reprise that role in Browning's horror classic, where he altered the image of the vampire on film forever. Lugosi's imprint on that role was significant in several regards. Lugosi and Browning's macabre Count was significant for being a naturalistic monster, free of the face paint and ghoulish accoutrements that tended to define movie horror villains. And his spellbinding performance as the aristocratic bloodsucker also added a sexual element that has since become a recurring theme in screen revisitations of Bram Stoker's myth, from Frank Langella to Gary Oldman, to even George Hamilton's parodic Count in Love at First Bite (1979). As evidence of his dark charms, Lugosi reportedly received as much female fan male for his performance in Dracula in the mid-'30s as Clark Gable.
Director: Jean Yarbrough
Producer: Jack Gallagher
Screenplay: John T. Neville based on a story by George Bricker
Cinematography: Arthur Martinelli
Production Design: Paul Palmentola
Music: David Chudnow
Cast: Bela Lugosi (Dr. Paul Carruthers), Suzanne Kaaren (Mary Heath), Dave O'Brien (Johnny Layton), Guy Usher (Henry Morton), Yolande Mallott (Maxine), Donald Kerr ("One-Shot" Maguire).
by Felicia Feaster