An opening title tells us all the people of Heathville love the kindly village doctor Paul Carruthers. No one suspected that in his home, he found time to conduct “certain private experiments — weird terrifying experiments.”
Carruthers (Bela Lugosi) takes a break from pouring liquids from beaker to bottle to duck into the secret bookcase entrance in his lab. He walks down a stone-walled hallway and up the stairs to to a secret-secret bat-nursery where he is raising his little darlings. Hey, Lugosi, enough with the bats!
His process of “glandular stimulation through electrical impulses” is growing the bats at a greatly accelerated rate. He takes a bat, which is conveniently hanging from a detachable coat hanger (or possibly nunchucks like Töht had in Raiders of the Lost Ark — this movie was released four years after the events in Raiders, so maybe they really caught-on in the late 30’s), and carries him downstairs to the lab.
After hanging the bat up in a specially shielded room, Lugosi steps back outside, dons his goggles, and electrifies the bejeebus out of the bat. Remarkably, within minutes, the bat quadruples in size. It is tragic that Lugosi did not use his meat-growing discovery for good, selling out to Frank Perdue, Butterball or Pfizer.
Lugosi gets a call from his bosses, Morton and Heath, to come to a party at Heath’s home just down the hill. He reluctantly agrees to attend, which is fortunate because his bosses plan to give him a bonus of $5,000 ($83,000 in 2014 dollars).
When Lugosi doesn’t show up, Heath sends his son Roy to deliver the bonus. After handing over the check, Lugosi asks Roy to test out his new creation, an after shave lotion, which he suggests — not at all suspiciously — be applied to the tender part of the neck. Carruthers bids him an ominous “goodbye” as he leaves.
The check has only angered Lugosi as it is revealed that he resents Heath and Morgan for reaping millions from his creations while tossing him crumbs. But his day has come — or night, actually, due to his method of revenge. He opens a window and orders the mega-bat to seek out the scent of the after shave lotion and go for the tender part of the neck.
That night, Morton’s son Don proposes to Heath’s daughter Mary. She tells him that she thinks of him as a brother. As the story is not set in West Virgina (or Westeros), this is a deal-breaker. Incredibly, Don is not having the worst night of the bunch — as Roy Heath returns from delivering Lugosi’s bonus, the giant bat swoops down and kills him.
The Daily Register gets wind of Heath’s death and assigns ace-reporter Johnny Layton to the story along with photographer “One-Shot” McGuire (presumably a nickname given by his editor, not his wife).
Heath’s other son Tommy visits Lugosi at his lab and is given the lotion to test. He tries to put some on Carruthers, but he recoils — although he is happy to shake Tommy’s lotion-slathered hand when he gives his ominous “goodbye.”
Lugosi wastes no time opening the window out of which — for reasons unexplained, four bats fly out before batzilla. Johnny, One-Shot and Mary see the bat kill Tommy, so now there are eye-witnesses.
Johnny’s editor still is not convinced, so Layton conspires with One-Shot to get a stuffed bird from a taxidermy shop and create some bogus pictures to back up their narrative. When their editor hears of the deception, he fires them and says he will see that they never work at another newspaper. On the plus side, they are now contractually free to join others of similar journalistic standards at NBC News.
After Don Morton is killed, Johnny finds the lotion in his bathroom and realizes that all of the victims had this same scent. After tracking the source back to Lugosi , Johnny and the Sheriff confront Lugosi who all-too-happily offers them each a bottle. Only Johnny takes it. When the bat inevitably swoops in, Johnny kills it.
Lugosi goes to Henry Morton’s office and gives him a bottle of the lotion. Morton makes the mistake of rubbing Carruthers face in the wealth he lost by cashing out of the company early like Walter White. Soon Morton is killed.
Johnny expresses his theory that someone is using the bats to kill every member of the Morton and Heath Families. That has the ring of truth since nearly every member of both families has already been killed by the bats. That’s some good work there, Lou.
Lugosi also attempts to kill Mary, but that doesn’t go so well. Soon (after all, this film is only 108 minutes), Lugosi gets his proper comeuppance. Like many movies of the era, it wraps up in about two seconds, ending on a completely innocuous line of dialogue.
The Devil Bat is enjoyable given the limitations of the day, like White Zombie. But neither is as transcendent as Dracula.
- Takes place in Heathville. There are newspaper references to Peoria, Springfield and Chicago, so we can assume this is in Illinois. There is a Heathsville in Illinois, but no Heathville.
- The Daily Register’s editor is played by Arthur Q. Bryan who voiced Elmer Fudd 1950-1959. Once you know that, it is impossible to hear his voice without thinking of Elmer.
- Jean Yarbrough also directed King of the Zombies. His name is spelled Yarborough in the credits, but IMDb says the standard spelling drops the “o”.
- Even 70 years earlier, Lugosi’s character sold out for twice as much as Walter White.
- Note to aspiring screenwriters: Don’t have characters named Morton and Martin unless you want to confuse simple minds.