Considering that the Thursday Horror Picture Show actually falls on Thanksgiving this week, there was never any question but that it would offer some cinematic turkey action. To this end, there is a double dose of Bela Lugosi in two of his less fortunate poverty-row features. First up is the legendary Ed Wood opus Bride of the Monster (1955), which has been mythologized in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). That film captures the cheese-paring nature of Bride‘s creation, but barely scratches the surface of the hysterically funny—and at one point heart-breaking—bottom-of-the-barrel reality of the movie itself. Then there’s the more respectable, but no less screwy, 1940 opus The Devil Bat, which offers Lugosi exacting his revenge on his tormenters with the aid of giant bats and a special shaving lotion. Yes, it’s as crazy as it sounds—and it plays even more absurdly.
Saying that Bride of the Monster is the best movie Ed Wood ever made isn’t exactly showering it with praise, since that’s based on the sliding scale of relativity. In any other context—except that of the true Lugosiphile who understands that to truly love Lugosi is to love bad Bela—this is dire stuff. This is Lugosi as Dr. Eric Vornoff, some kind of unhinged Soviet scientist driven from his homeland and forced to take up residency in a swamp with only stock footage of an octopus and a hulking mute Tibetan named Lobo (Tor Johnson) for company. To while away the time, he continues his experiments for turning humans into “atomic supermen”—with the most economical lab you ever saw. His principle equipment—apart from a refrigerator and a stove—seems to be a photo enlarger and a stainless-steel mixing bowl with sparkplugs stuck in it. It hardly matters since none of his experiments ever survive the attempt.
Everything you may have heard about Bride of the Monster is probably true—except for the myth that Lugosi says, “Don’t be afraid of Lobo. He’s gentle as a kitchen.” (He doesn’t. He clearly says “kitten.”) Yes, the “sets” have laughably obvious painted “stone” walls. Yes, Lobo has a little piece of angora that he strokes. Yes, the dialogue is hysterically bad—as is all the acting apart from Lugosi. Yes, Lugosi “wrestles” with an immobile rubber octopus. And yes, just like it’s requested by the money man in Ed Wood, the whole things ends “with a big explosion”—courtesy of atomic-bomb stock footage. But it also has that one magnificent speech from Lugosi, who seems to be pouring all the bitterness about the way he was used, abused and misused by the movie industry into it—including that famous Freudian slip where the line “Here in this forsaken jungle hell I have proved that I am right” became “proved that I am all right.” Funny thing is, the speech proves exactly that.
The Devil Bat is a happier affair. At least it was made for a (marginally) real studio and has passable production values, even if those values don’t really extend to a believable giant bat. Here Lugosi is Dr. Paul Carruthers (never mind that his accent hardly suggests that name), whose “formoola” for a cold cream is the source for the immense wealth of the Heath Cosmetics Company. The film makes it clear that it’s his own damn fault for having insisted on a lump sum rather than a piece of the company, but he’s worked himself into a vengeance-crazed dither over it anyway. So he does what any reasonable person would—he creates giant bats that are drawn to kill anyone wearing a special aftershave of his own devising (“Now rub it on the tender part of your throat”). Wouldn’t you?
Yeah, it’s pretty funny. I mean we’re talking about a movie with a hero (Dave O’Brien) who says, “It’s not so funny when it’s your jugular vein, is it?” At the same time, you’ve got Lugosi giving it his all—as if he believes he can hold this nonsense together by the sheer force of his will. And in some ways, he nearly does.