Saturday, April 22, 1972: Torture Ship (1939) / The Devil Bat (1940)

 

Synopsis: A group of criminals have been lured onto a steamship by the promise of an ocean cruise, but they quickly discover they are the prisoners of mad scientist Dr. Herbert Stander (Irving Pichel), and his gang of thuggish orderlies, who uses them one by one as guinea pigs in his medical experiments.  Those who try to hatch a plot to take over the ship quickly find their every movement is being tracked; an attempt to bribe the captain into helping the prisoners also fails.

Young Joan is among the prisoners, but unlike the others she is actually innocent. She had been secretary to Mary, a serial husband-poisoner and insurance fraud specialist. Mary tries to kill Joan after she decides that her erstwhile assistant has betrayed her. 

 

This attracts the attention of Bob, a pleasant galoot who is Dr. Stander’s nephew, and who serves as an officer on the steamship.  Bob doesn’t seem very bright; he hasn’t really picked up on Dr. Stander’s scheme. He goes to Stander, lobbying for Joan’s protection, but his pleas fall on deaf ears.  Bob ends up hiding Joan in his stateroom.

Meanwhile, the prisoners, with little to do but plot an escape, manage to incapacitate Dr. Stander and take a number of people on board hostage, including Joan.  Desperate to free her, Bob decides to impersonate Dr. Stander over the ship’s intercom and convince them that the mad scientist is still in control….

Comments: As often happens with films that have fallen into the public domain, copies of this early PRC offering are cheap and plentiful, but the quality of the source material tends to be poor. Mill Creek issued Torture Ship on one of its cheapo 50-movie DVD packs, and what you get is apparently derived from a muddy and hacked-up 16mm TV print.  In fact, after the opening credits, the first eight minutes of the film are missing; the first scene we see is the criminals plotting to escape from their cabin, their conversation overheard by the listening device planted by Dr. Stander.  For those unfortunates who possess the Mill Creek set, the film starts somewhat abruptly, and it takes a little effort to figure out who’s who and what the central conflict is.

To be honest, it doesn’t much matter. Torture Ship is a pretty standard Mad Scientist picture.  The only things that set it apart is the fact that it’s set at sea, and that it sports an interesting cast for the time.  The mad scientist is Irving Pichel, whom you might remember as Sandor from Dracula’s Daughter. He was also a director, known for The Most Dangerous Game (1933) and Destination Moon (1950). Skelton Knaggs, the homely character actor who would go on to be part of Val Lewton’s repertory company, plays one of the motley gangsters.  Lyle Talbot is ostensibly the lead; he was the closest thing PRC had to a real leading-man type. Julie Bishop had played Joan Alison in Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) and she is a welcome presence here.

The screenplay is loosely based on “A Thousand Deaths”, notable only as Jack London’s first published short story. Like much of London’s early work it’s science fiction, but it also has strangely Freudian overtones (the protagonist is a man being repeatedly killed and brought back to life by his mad scientist father; in the end the hero manages to turn the tables and kill him).  In extracting the eccentric ideas from the story the screenwriters wound up also removing anything that made the story interesting and memorable. But that sort of thing happens a lot in the film business.

 The Devil Bat

Synopsis: Dr. Paul Carruthers (Bela Lugosi) is a brilliant chemist who works for a cosmetics company. Years ago the company had given him a choice: he could be compensated with profit-sharing or with a straight salary.  He chose the latter.  Unfortunately for him, the company went on to become a huge player in the cosmetics industry, and it’s clear that the percentage deal would have made him extremely wealthy. As it is, he’s well-compensated, but he missed out on a fortune that he himself helped to build. The Heath family, which owns the company, is aware of how much they owe Dr. Carruthers.  As far as they know, he’s as happy as a clam in his laboratory.

The Heath family decides to throw a party in Dr. Carruthers’ honor – and they also secretly plan to award him a bonus check of $5,000.  But the good doctor is late to his own party.  He’s busy working.  You see, behind a secret passage in his laboratory is another lab — and in this one he is breeding giant carnivorous bats!  And that’s not all — he has created a scent that drives the bats wild with rage. 


After Carruthers fails to show up at his own party, young Roy Heath (John Ellis) decides to drop by and give Dr. Carruthers the check in person. When he finds Carruthers the scientist seems delighted by the check, and he gives Roy something in return – a bottle of experimental shaving lotion.  “Be sure to put some on the tender part of the neck,” Carruthers advises, and Roy, gamely, does so.  But he doesn’t walk more than fifty or so yard out in the open before a giant bat swoops out of the sky, killing him.

At the offices of the Chicago Daily Register, smart-alec reporter Johnny Layton (Dave O’Brien)  is sent out to cover the story. Chief Wilkins of the Heathville police tells Layton that Roy was attacked by some kind of animal; moreover, there were hairs found on the victim that seemed to be those of a mouse.  Layton wonders if the hairs might be from a bat — as bats and mice are quite similar — and asks if he can “do some sleuthing around” on the case, and the police chief says it’s fine by him.

At the Heath estate, Johnny interviews Mary Heath (Suzanne Kaaren), and it’s clear that a mutual attraction is brewing. Dr. Carruthers agrees that Roy was attacked by an animal, and that night Layton and his sidekick / photographer “One-Shot” McGuire (Donald Kerr)  wait out at the edge of the Heath grounds hoping the creature will show up.  Mary comes out to keep Layton company, and before long they are joined by Heath sibling Tommy (Alan Baldwin), who’s just been to visit Dr. Carruthers and who has also received a bottle of the special shaving lotion. After Tommy scoffs at the idea of an animal killing Roy, he strides off toward the mansion.  But soon the others hear him calling for help — and arrive just in time to see Tommy attacked by a giant bat!

Now it’s a big story —  the Daily Register is running banner headlines about the “Devil Bat” — but Layton’s editor isn’t satisfied.  They need a picture of the bat, and Layton gets an idea: One-Shot can get the local taxidermist to create a fake Devil Bat, take a picture of it, and fool the editor.  Unfortunately, a “Made In Japan”  tag gives away the ruse, and both Layton and One-Shot are fired.  Now they have two tasks: find out the truth about the Devil Bat, and find a way to get their old jobs back….


Comments: Our second feature is another PRC offering, but more successful than the first; in fact, The Devil Bat was the most profitable film PRC ever made. It might also be the most fun; there’s something refreshing about a mad scientist who isn’t jabbering on, trying to justify his actions or elicit the sympathy of the audience.  There’s a little bit of hand-waving toward a motive — Dr. Carruthers had cashed out his stock in the cosmetics company he works for before it became a big player and now feels cheated — but the truth is the guy’s just crazy, gleefully rubbing his hands together and cackling darkly as only Bela Lugosi can.  Say what you want about this picture, Bela does not disappoint.

Some murderers might use a gun or a knife to do their work, but Carruthers is creative if nothing else: he breeds giant carnivorous bats, trains them to home in on  his experimental shaving lotion, then hands out bottles of the lotion to his victims. “Be sure to put some on the tender part of the neck,” he keeps urging people. The moment his belotioned victim walks outside, one of his giant bats swoop down and goes for the jugular!

Dr. Phibes couldn’t come up with a zanier method of execution, and you really find yourself rooting for Carruthers, who is altogether more interesting than everyone around him. He even gets some funny lines.  When first victim Roy Heath stops by to drop off a bonus check of $5,000 (about $85,000 in today’s money) Carruthers gets him to put some of the experimental lotion on his neck.  As he leaves, Roy tosses off a cheerful, “Goodnight, doc!”.

Goodbye, Roy”, Carruthers deadpans. Ha! We never even find out if he cashed the check.

Later, when Tommy Heath drops by and tries out the lotion, he marvels at how soothing it is. “I don’t think you’ll ever use anything else!” Dr. Carruthers says craftily. What a sense of humor this guy has! Why can’t they write villains like this nowadays?

Lugosi isn’t well-served, though,  by a dull-as-dishwater cast. Dave O’Brien’s smirking reporter character was a cliche even in 1940; he makes Doctor X‘s Lee Tracy seem like Lawrence Olivier by comparison. Donald Kerr’s “One-Shot” Maguire is Odious Comic Relief of the worst kind; even worse is that fact that we’re supposed to believe that pretty French maid Maxine (Yolanda Donlan) finds him attractive (look, we get that she’s part of the servant class, but — yeesh! — she must have some standards). Arthur Q. Bryan plays the usual grating city editor part (Heath Cosmetics, he explains to the dim-witted reporter, “makes all that goo that the women put on their faces!”. Besides Lugosi himself, the only real standout in the cast is Suzanne Kaaren, who doesn’t get an opportunity to dance or show off her spectacular legs, but she is beautiful and classy, really too good to mix with the knuckleheads from the Chicago Register. But really, who isn’t?

 

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One comment

  1. I've read about TORTURE SHIP but never had any desire to see it. Bela Lugosi's comic deadpan in THE DEVIL BAT is so spot on that one can admire any script that allowed him to do more than his standard mad scientist. Editor Arthur Q. Bryan is best remembered not for his on screen roles, but as the voice of Elmer Fudd in those classic Warners Bugs Bunny cartoons (he died in 1964).

    Like

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