Sharp Fanged Blood Sucking Death

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When I was younger I gave short shift to Bela Lugosi. Meh, he was just another low budget horror star. But, as I have watched more and more of his films, I have really come to love the actor. He was tall, good looking, talented, and horribly underused by Hollywood. Bela Lugosi was born in the Kingdom of Hungary (now Romania) in 1882. He dropped out of school when he was twelve and began his acting career about ten years later. He had a successful stage career as a supporting actor in Hungary but had to flee the country during the Hungarian Revolution of 1919 because of his activism in the actors’ union. After a short stay in Germany, Bela arrived in the United States where he played in stage productions aimed at immigrant audiences. Eventually he broke onto Broadway although he mostly played villains or “continental” types. Bela got his big break in 1927 when he played the legendary vampire in the Broadway production of Dracula. The play was a huge hit and Bela’s performance was critically acclaimed but even so poor Bela was not Universal Studios‘ first choice to play the Count when they decided to adapt the play for the silver screen. But their first choice, Lon Chaney, died, Bela Lugosi got the part of the immortal Prince of Darkness, and the film Dracula went on to become an all-time classic.

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Despite his success as Dracula, or maybe because of it, Bela Lugosi never managed to achieve lasting success in Hollywood. Part of his problem was his accent. He had to learn English as a second language and never lost his Hungarian accent. To Hollywood, that accent placed poor Bela firmly in the roles of villain or “foreigner”. There were many films where Bela Lugosi was obviously only used for his name value and many roles where his speaking parts are very limited. There were even some film roles where he did not speak at all. And, of course, his iconic portrayal of Count Dracula forever loomed over his career. Hollywood never quite lost sight of Bela as vampire and he was severely typecast and often limited to low budget horror films. Bela was also doomed to a professional rivalry with Boris Karloff. They were often paired together in films but studios preferred the English born Karloff and gave him top billing even when poor Bela had the larger role. But Bela Lugosi had larger problems that severely effected his career. Bela had served as an infantryman in the Austro-Hungarian Army during World War I and was injured while serving on the Russian Front. He later developed severe, chronic sciatica and became addicted to pain medications especially morphine and methadone. His addictions effected his performances, Hollywood noticed, and his roles quickly dwindled to almost nothing. When he finally decided to seek treatment for his addictions it was too late. Poor Bela had cancer, developed pneumonia, and suffered a heart attack and died while lying on his couch at home. He was 73.

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The Devil Bat was filmed in 1940 at a time when Bela Lugosi was attempting a comeback. The film was the first, and most successful, venture into the horror genre by young Poverty Row studio Producers Releasing Corporation. PRC was known for shooting its films quickly and very cheaply (it never spent more than $100,000 on any of its films). The Devil Bat is definitely not one of Bela Lugosi’s better films and the killer bat is dreadfully silly but the film was so successful for PRC that they made a sort of sequel in 1946 called Devil Bat’s Daughter. I call it a “sort of sequel” because the later film pretty much totally contradicts what the original film showed about Bela Lugosi’s character’s actions.

The Devil Bat is a black and white film that runs 68 minutes. Bela Lugosi plays beloved country doctor Carruthers. He is a skilled chemist, and Bela plays the part with conviction, but Carruthers has been wronged by his business partners who have made a fortune off his formulas and tried to placate him with token payments. Driven mad by the injustice of it all, Dr. Carruthers hatches an elaborate plan: first he develops a huge blood thirsty variety of bat, then he cooks up a shaving lotion with a scent designed to draw and enrage the bat, then Dr. Carruthers gets his unwitting victims to slather the lotion all over themselves. All Carruthers has to do is let his pet bat out and – viola! He has his revenge.

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The Devil Bat is entertainingly campy by today’s standards. The film might have been better if the studio had just played up the horror aspects but they stuck in some useless light weight comedy with a reporter and cameraman who are out to solve the mysterious murders and who get repeatedly sidetracked by the cameraman’s eye for lovely ladies. Although I did like that the duo actually stage a bat attack so they can get good photos – that just seems so modern. The killer bat itself is ridiculously silly. I could run out now, get a Halloween prop, and do better special effects in my back yard. But that silliness actually adds to the entertainment value of The Devil Bat. Those poor actors just look so laughable when they shriek in fear and wrestle with that big limp bat. The film is in relatively good shape. There is some damage and some black spots. Many older horror films are very dark and some scenes are hard to see clearly but The Devil Bat does not really suffer too much from that problem. The audio quality is excellent. The biggest problem the film has is the sad talent of the actors. Bela Lugosi tries hard to make his murderous plot succeed and is by far the best thing in the film. But the other actors can barely act. Dave O’Brien as reporter Johnny Layton is just a blah handsome hero, his sidekick cameraman played by Donald Kerr just feels out of place, and Suzanne Kaaren is such a limp dish rag of a damsel in distress that she shows no reaction at all when her family members are murdered practically right in front of her. The film could have been so much better if only poor Bela Lugosi had some one to act with. One of my favorite scenes: Bela lashes out in frustration and screams “Imbecile! Bombastic ignoramus!” He might just as well have been shouting at Hollywood for the way they sadly underused his talents. Lugosi fans will enjoy watching Bela plot and scheme and tender-hearted movie fans have nothing to worry about because the devilish killer bat is not at all scary. Of course, the very best thing about The Devil Bat is that it is FREE in the Public Domain. Just go to our favorite PD site, Internet Archive, to watch online or download the film. IA has three versions available. Version #1 is the one I watched all the way through. Version #2 seems to be just a bit darker. Version #3 looks like it might be a little sharper.

Bela Lugosi fans, please check out my posts on some of his other great films:
Bela Lugosi Enslaved Them All
The Gorilla: Is It Man or Beast or the Bumbling Ritz Brothers?
Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla
An Aging Vampire and a Guy in Drag
Spooks Run Wild: Bela Lugosi vs the East Side Kids

Bela Lugosi fans will just love this fantastic “Chrome Themes: Bela Lugosi as Dracula” by Gen Xavier.

SyllieBee has also reviewed some fun horror films:
Attack of the Giant Cliche
A Bucket of Corman
House on Haunted Hill: Whose Murder Is This, Anyway?

One last fun fact: My post title comes direct from one of the taglines of The Devil Bat: Sharp Fanged Blood Sucking DEATH Dives from MIDNIGHT SKIES!

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