Best known for his performance in Dracula and a brilliant, underrated, turn in The Black Cat, Bela Lugosi is as synonymous with great classic horror cinema as he is with the campiest of campy horror pictures. And one of the campiest just so happens to involve creatures Lugosi knew a thing or two about; bats.
Entitled The Devil Bat, the film is now available on home video thanks to Kino, and yes it is one of the campier horror pictures, but it also happens to be one of the more charming films the B-movie side of Lugosi ever ended up producing.
The film is relatively simple narratively, and for good reason, as it is just a smidge over an hour in length. Lugosi stars here as a scientist, Dr. Paul Carruthers, who works for a company in the business of hair care products. Carruthers is in the midst of his greatest creation, a pungent yet soothing aftershave lotion, that people seem to be highly anticipating. And yet, it may end up being the death of them. Carruthers, with the aftershave lotion as its attractor, has been working on what is truly his greatest creation, a bat the size of a young child. A relic of the Stone Age, the bat has evil intentions, as it becomes this picture’s central monster, killing anyone who wears this new aftershave.
Oh, and that premise is only the tip of the camp iceberg, and it’s also a perfect descriptor of just how enjoyable this picture truly is.
Aesthetically, director Jean Yarbrough doesn’t bring much to the table. Very much a B picture through and through, The Devil Bat carries with at an interesting set of mood and atmosphere, but not much interesting direction. Flatly filmed with the occasional inspired set piece (the kill sequences are comedic, but in a way entrancing), but the black and white photography doesn’t add any real atmosphere to the picture, and the design work feels extremely dated. The camera work is primarily static, set in either a meeting room, outside of an estate or in the scientist’s lab, offering up little in the way of interesting set work or production design. Ultimately the film, at least aesthetically, feels of somewhat B-level craftwork, one would presumably attribute to a shoestring budget more than say a mediocre director, but it definitely makes the film feel a tad less thrilling. And then there is the actual effects work, like the bat, and the film, if taken completely serious, begins falling apart.
That said, the performances here are oddly compelling. The script they draw from has a really thrilling sense of humor, particularly found in the newspaper man character and his assistant, but the words are really given vitality by the shockingly entertaining performances. Lugosi is obviously the real star here, absolutely stealing every scene he’s in. He’s notorious for putting his absolute all into even the campiest of performances and features, but it works wonderfully here. It’s a performance on a hinge that he’s perfect for, and it really fits here. He’s joined here by the likes of Suzanne Kaaren, Dave O’Brien, Guy Usher, Yolande Donlan and a really fun Donald Kerr, all of whom add a great deal of enjoyment to this picture. It’s not a groundbreaking drama or a prescient character study, but what it is is a deeply enjoyable romp spearheaded by a fantastic and entertaining turn from the ever engrossing Bela Lugosi.
And this new Blu-ray is shockingly solid. The transfer here is great, given the original source material, and it looks as good as one could ever really imagine. The contrast here is a bit hot, bleeding more white into the picture than one would really like to see in this type of feature, and there is some natural wear and tear here, but for the most part, the transfer and soundtrack really look and sound as good as they ever have on home video. Again, the features here, as with many Kino releases, are light, but there is a commentary with scholar Richard Harland Smith, that is really insightful and Smith really lets his love for the film shine here, in a charismatic and engaging commentary. Overall, while the film has been fit amongst the various B-pictures legends like Bela Lugosi joined later on in their careers, this is as enjoyable a cult classic as you’re bound to see, and Kino once again proves their genius in finally bringing the film to home video.