Saturday, October 7, 1972: Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942) / The Devil Bat (1940)


Synopsis: Dr. Larry Forbes (Shepperd Strudwick) arrives in a remote French village to see his fiance, Madelon Renault (Lynne Roberts) and to meet her uncle, the renowned scientist Dr. Robert Renault (George Zucco). Forbes stops at an inn near the village, where he is supposed to meet someone who will take him to the Renault house. But he learns that they will have to cross over a bridge that has been washed out; and as a result he is stranded in the town overnight. He meets Renault’s gardener Rogell (Mike Mazursky) and another of Dr. Renault’s servants, a strange taciturn man named Noel (J. Carrol Naish).

Noel says he is from Java, and he seems gentle and sensitive, but also uncomfortable, apologizing repeatedly for his behavior, even when he’s done nothing wrong. But he becomes enraged when a drunk inn patron makes a remark that Noel sees as insulting to Madelon. Noel grabs the man and seems ready to attack him. But Larry calms him down and the situation is defused.

When he goes up to retire that night Larry finds the drunk has stumbled into his room by mistake and is snoring away on the bed. Larry, amused, goes to sleep in the drunk’s unoccupied room next door. But in the morning the drunk is found murdered, strangled by a very powerful assailant. The police question everyone closely, particularly Rogell, who has a criminal record, as well as Noel, who was seen to argue with the murder victim a few hours before the crime.



The police are unsure of whether the intended victim was the drunk or Larry himself, who was after all sleeping in the wrong room. Nevertheless, Larry, Rogell and Noel head out to the Renault estate. Noel drives, and as the car reaches a bend in the road, he abruptly slows the car down to a crawl. To Larry’s astonishment, as they proceed around the curve they see a dog crossing the road. Had Noel not slowed down he would have hit it. But how did he know it was there?

Larry seems to find a kindred spirit in Dr. Renault, who has a keen and curious mind. But something bothers Larry about Noel, and he can’t put his finger on what it is. Noel seems gentle and kind, extremely loyal to Madelon, but can fly into a murderous rage if provoked. Animals don’t seem to like him, and he doesn’t seem to like them. He has enormous strength — more than any one man ought to have. He has senses much keener than any human. And it comforts him greatly when the barber in town gives him a good close shave….

Comments: By my count this is Horror Incorporated’s third broadcast of Dr. Renault’s Sccret, a Fox release starring J. Carrol Naish and George Zucco, two faces familiar to us from Universal’s golden age of horror. Naish in particular helps to redeem the dubious premise with a remarkably sensitive performance; if he felt at all embarrassed playing a manscaped gorilla trying to pass for a man, it isn’t obvious here.*
John Landis, commenting at Trailers From Hell, calls it “a very well-made, stupid programmer” but he clearly has a lot of affection for it (he seems to be a big fan of George Zucco too, and really, who isn’t?)
Dave Sindelar is more forgiving of the picture than I am, calling it “a little gem”, and I concede that the less you expect from it, the better it plays. Naish and Zucco are both outstanding here (Zucco would have made a delightful Hitchcock villain) and in purely technical terms it has a polish and snap to it that is distinctly lacking in even the best poverty row entries, including our second feature, The Devil Bat.
 
While it isn’t obvious at first glance, the story of Dr. Renault’s Secret resembles that of Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein imbues a living creature with sentience but won’t take responsibility for his actions, leaving his creation to suffer the cruelties inflicted by Fritz. In Dr. Renault’s Secret, Renault himself taunts and belittles the simple and childlike Noel, leaving us to wonder why he would create a human life if he places so little value in it. And like many scientists in the post-Frankenstein era, Dr. Renault conducts research for no reason but to inflate his own ego by meddling in God’s domain. Both movies feature physical and quite sympathetic performances by the actors portraying the monsters. And, of course, neither Frankenstein nor Renault publish their results in any peer-reviewed journals.
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*George Zucco was in so many Shock! package movies we never have to wait long for him to appear, but we haven’t seen a lot of J. Carrol Naish lately.  Dr. Renault’s Secret popped up a couple times earlier in 1972, but before that his most recent appearance on Horror Incorporated (not counting his small role in The Beast With 5 Fingers, which we saw in May)  was in House of Frankenstein on June 5, 1971. The last time we saw Calling Dr. Death, which featured Naish as a dogged police detective, was way back on February 14, 1970. Speaking of Calling Dr. Death and the other Inner Sanctum mysteries, they turned up pretty frequently in Horror Incorporated’s first year, but they seem to have disappeared –  the last one broadcast was The Frozen Ghost on Saturday, September 12, 1970, more than two years ago.
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 a share in the profits, 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: As I’ve noted a number of times on this site, Universal responded to Bela Lugosi’s success as the star of Dracula with an ambivalent strategy: they relegated him to minor roles, while at the same time playing up his name in the marketing materials. Slowly but surely they edged Lugosi right off the lot.

But in the poverty-row houses Lugosi was never anything less than a genuine star, and he won the lion’s share of screen time even when the scripts were poor and budgets were meager — which was approximately always. Probably the best of these Lugosi programmers was PRC’s  The Devil Bat, a film that attacks –with great relish — a premise that one might describe as, erm, “batshit crazy”.

Indeed, the craziest thing about Dr. Carruther’s revenge plot isn‘t that he breeds huge carnivorous bats and unleashes them to kill his enemies. It’s that his plot actually works.  No sooner do his intended victims step out the front door than a bat swoops in and rips out their jugular veins. If Carruthers was interested in getting rich, he should have just patented his process and sold it to the military — imagine entire Panzer divisions scattering in terror as clouds of huge, bloodthirsty bats descend from the skies!

Now that we’re thinking about it, why would Dr. Carruthers use a bat at all? Most bats eat insects or fruit (vampire bats drink blood, of course, but they’re pretty dainty about it; they nibble through skin with their teeth and lap up whatever small amount of blood comes out. Getting killed by one of them would take quite a while).

Hence stage one in Dr. Carruther’s plan: using electricity (or something) to make his bats super-sized. Stage two: conditioning the bat to react with rage at a specific smell (e.g., Old Spice aftershave). Then, stage three: get his unlucky victim to slap on some lotion while inside his house, usher them out the door, run down to the basement, pull the lever releasing the killer bat, and hope for the best.

Sorry, but this seems like an awful lot of work.  I get that using a .38 would rob you of the poetic justice of killing the Heaths with their own products, but really. If you’re so determined to outsource your murders to an animal, why not condition a mountain lion or a bear to go after your quarry? At least they’ve been known to kill people.*

I guess this is why they call them “mad scientists” and not simply “unreasonably angry but nonetheless practical scientists”.  The Devil Mountain Lion wouldn’t have looked right on a movie marquee either. Still, I can’t imagine pitching this story to any film studio. Even Universal — which released plenty of dogs from its cinematic kennel over the years — wouldn’t have touched this one with a ten-foot pole. But all things were possible  at PRC, and even stupid ideas could get greenlighted, provided they were lurid and exciting enough. And this one was both.

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*If it were me, I’d breed skunks to react with rage at the smell of the lotion; it wouldn’t kill the Heaths, but it would sure be entertaining.

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3 comments

  1. DR. RENAULT'S SECRET, being a Fox programmer at 58 minutes, never seemed to show up on any of my local Creature Features, the same fate as THE UNDYING MONSTER. I didn't catch it until AMC aired it in 2002, a remake of the 1927 silent THE WIZARD, with Zucco billed last, Naish toplining. The big reveal is saved for the very end, so one is left to ponder just what exactly Mr. Noel is supposed to be. THE DEVIL BAT has long been a favorite of Lugosiphiles, and with good reason, as the relish he brings to his work has rarely found a better vehicle. His sardonic asides to intended victims never fail to amuse, and considering the lower standards soon to arrive at Monogram, this PRC cheapie looks like a Universal by comparison. This film appeared on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater, but not the sequel DEVIL BAT'S DAUGHTER.

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  2. DEVIL BAT'S DAUGHTER! Horror Incorporated did broadcast it; in fact it aired before THE DEVIL BAT did. You guys in Pittsburgh probably got the better part of that deal though.

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  3. DEVIL BAT'S DAUGHTER is no different from SHE-WOLF OF LONDON, SON OF DR. JEKYLL, or DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL, all rough sledding, though Arthur Shields gets to play some kind of monster in DODJ.

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