Poor Bela Lugosi. His entire career was and always will be linked with Boris Karloff. He was forever in Boris’ shadow and could never quite measure up. Even when it came to playing vampires, Karloff’s turn as The Wurdalak in Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath bested Lugosi as Dracula. In fairness Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula is one of film history’s great icon yet Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster is even more iconic.
The one place where Lugosi may have had the upper hand on Karloff was playing mad scientists. Karloff played many a mad scientists, but they were never that mad, more misguided. Lugosi’s mad scientists were wild eyed, English butchering, lunatics. He could pump life into any poverty row quickie. He could be creating an army of supermen, or scaring the Dead End Kids, Lugosi did it with flair and gusto.
Two new DVDs are out that showcase two of Lugosi’s best deranged docs. Dr. Paul Carruthers in The Devil Bat and Dr. Eric Vornoff in Bride of the Monster.
Jean Yarbrough’s The Devil Bat (1940) made by Producers Releasing Corporation was nowhere near the low point of Lugosi’s career but was quite a come down in quality from the films he was making at Universal. Lugosi plays Dr. Paul Carruthers, a chemist for a cosmetics company who feels slighted after his work makes the company’s owners wealthy and he is given a pitance in return. In his secret labratory he is experimenting with raising giant bats that will attack on command by honing in on a special scent he has formulated into an after shave lotion. The after shave makes certain that the bat will attack the wearer’s scent. People keep coming to the labratory to see if the good doctor has any information on the mysterious deaths and he keeps having them try his after-shave. Typical of films of this time a hot shot reporter and his wise acre photographer are out to solve the mystery and by the end of the tidy 68 minute running time Lugosi gets the after shave on him and is bat attacked to death.
Lugosi is classic in this otherwise routine B-Grade thriller as he stares through small windows at his giant bats and rants about how he has been done wrong. “That’s your money doctor they gave you doctor. Like a bone thrown to a faithful dog!” Lugosi fumes after being given a $5,000. bonus.
A decade later, this performace would seem restrained as he would don the lab coat to play Dr. Eric Vornoff in Edward D. Wood Jr.’s dubious classic, Bride of the Monster. Lugosi’s Dr. Vornoff uses his hulking, mute assistant, Lobo to abduct men for experiment on in order to create a race of supermen. He also has a giant octopus that makes a dandy watch dog. Bela is given free reign to over-act and he does so with glee. He anguishes each scientific failure, he laugh maniacally at helpless victims, he goes on long tirades about those who “do not understand” his vision of atomic powered supermen. He even gets to mercilessly beat Lobo with a whip! By the time he falls prey to his giant octopus, one realizes we may never see a scientist this mad ever again.
Of course this is an Ed Wood film so there is a school play cheapness to the whole affair. All of the elements are right, but there are just so clumsily executed, but in a fascinating and charming manner. It is a terrible film, but totally enjoyable, and worthy of repeated viewings so you are able to catch more silliness. The making of the film was well documented in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994).
Both The Devil Bat and Bride of the Monster have been newly restored and released on DVD by Legend FIlms. Bride would have seemed a great choice for a MIchael Nelson commentary, but even without that for under ten bucks a piece you can get really nice version of these films that have too long suffered through shamefully poor public domain video releases.