A twitter pal recently reminded me of The Devil Bat, a 1940 PRC thriller in which a vengeful scientist (played by Bela Lugosi) uses radioactive aftershave and trained giant bats (played by comically unconvincing puppets) to dispatch folks he believes wronged him.
The film is standard “poverty row” fare, a mediocre murder mystery given a spookshow veneer and cranked out to fill back forty of a third-run fleapit’s double feature. I’ve watched and forgotten scores of similar flicks over the years, but what makes The Devil Bat stand out is how I first stumbled across it.
During my primary school days, when both of my parents held full-time jobs, staying home sick meant being left to my own devices. Going outside was verboten, as was playing videogames on my Atari 2600, because doing so might give the game away in the case I was faking an ailment (which, more often than not, I was). So I’d gather a thick stack of comics from my collection and crawl into my parents’ room to watch TV from nine AM to five PM.
For some reason, I gravitated towards the seven-hour block of edu-programming broadcast on the local PBS affiliate during the school day. The programs were fascinatingly weird, produced during the last decade and a half, and running a gamut of topics from moral instruction to long division. The cheap sets and dated fashions gave the shows a surreal vibe, like watching a transmission from some unfinished pocket dimension.
On one of these stay-home days, the folks who programmed these blocks dropped in something outside the norm. It wasn’t the usual trippy edu-fare, but a longer program which bundled a creaky old B&W film with period appropriate cartoons, shorts, newsreels, and public service announcements. The idea was to holistically replicate the original theatrical experience, and it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
The episode I caught featured The Devil Bat, and it left me hungry for more. Unfortunately, it was the only episode I ever caught, despite strategically faking additional illnesses in hopes of coming across it again. I mentioned the program to my 1930s obsessed mom, but she had no idea what I was talking about, nor did the various other folks I’ve asked over the decades.
It has lingered in my thoughts as a stray yet vivid memory, one of my earliest experiences with the notion of contexual importance in cultural history, that “lost” ephemera is just as important as the familiar material which managed to filter down through time.
UPDATE: As I was writing this, I suspected that either Ken Reid or Jack Feerick would solve the mystery within an hour of posting. Sure enough, Jack ID’ed the program as Matinee at the Bijou, which apparently ran for five seasons.