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: Bela Lugosi really shines in this silly but effective programmer. In fact, the only thing wrong with The Devil Bat is that the movie keeps cutting away from Lugosi’s Dr. Carruthers, forcing us to mark time with Johnny Layton and his dimwit sidekick One-Shot.
I guess we can’t blame Layton and One-Shot too much — the movie needs to hew to the conventions of mad-scientist cinema, ca. 1940, in that no matter how colorful the scientist is, he can’t be the protagonist, and he can’t win. Another rule from that era: the scientist must be ironically destroyed by his own creation. The Devil Bat delivers that stock ending as well.
A third rule: newspaper reporters make great protagonists, because they can provide their own comic relief. Dave O’Brien played reporter Layton, well enough one supposes, considering what a thankless task this sort of role was. As an actor, he’s nothing to write home about, but in fact O’Brien did go on to have quite a successful career as a comedy writer, eventually working his way up to head writer position on The Red Skelton Comedy Hour.
As though not trusting that Johnny Layton is quite funny enough, The Devil Bat gives us an Odious Comic Relief character in the form of inexplicably employed newspaper photographer One-Shot McGuire. One-Shot was played by Donald Kerr, a durable if undistinguished screen actor, perhaps best known as Happy Hapgood in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. By the time he turned up in this one his career was on the downhill side. But considering this is One-Shot McGuire he’s playing, we expect nothing else.