Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bela Lugosi Was a Perfumer: Strange Oriental Perfume

Bela Lugosi was renowned for the villainous characters he played in horror movies. When the actor was cast as Dracula, the consummate image of the vampire was forever inscribed in his Hungarian accent.  In "The Devil Bat" Lugosi deploys requisite mad scientist electric shocks to an ordinary bat which alters its size and turns its nocturnal disposition towards the dark side. The experiment includes another protagonist; a men's aftershave formulated with ingredients found in the oriental category of fragrance families.

The movie begins in the laboratory of Dr. Paul Carruthers who is portrayed by Lugosi. The scientist is seen taking a satisfying whiff from a bottle. He closes his eyes, inhales and reveals a smile of satisfaction. The shot is innocuous at first, but when Lugosi saturates a piece of gauze with his fragrance and puts it under the nose of the physically altered bat, the aroma of his intentions is revealed. 

Lugosi programs the bat to smell and kill (frame 7:43) and the scene is as campy as horror films get. Dr. Carruthers speaks and the bat shrieks in response to his words, which are comically reinforced by a pair of lab tongs holding the perfumed gauze under the winged creature's nose, "You hate this strange oriental fragrance even while you sleep, just as you did before I made you big and strong. Now, if you detect the fragrance in the night, when you are finally awake you will strike; strike to kill!" 

Dr. Carruthers, an embittered cosmetics chemist, provides samples of the aftershave to unsuspecting business partners and their family members. The scheme is fueled by his sense of being taken advantage of as his creativity is the source of the company's profits. Were this a modern tale Dr. Carruthers would not give in to his murderous inclinations and instead hand in his resignation papers and open up his own perfumery boutique a la Maison Francis Kurkdjian.

Today there is no shortage of mass market fragrances capable of making humans shriek like a "devil bat." (Many of them are disguised as deodorant body sprays, the low-fi approach to cologne that is popular with adolescent boys who have a tendency to turn up the olfactory volume to the "shrill" setting.) The reference to an oriental aftershave in "The Devil Bat" is a curious one. Historically, men's aftershave formulas are modeled on Eau de Cologne from Europe which is fresh and citrus based, reflecting the "quiet perfect grooming" sentiment in Lenthéric's 1938 aftershave ad. Oriental fragrances are spicy, amber-laced and exotic.

The men's aftershave category in the U.S. was born during the Depression, the same time the oriental category in fine fragrance for women fell out of favor. This is what probably led to the "strange oriental fragrance" reference in "The Devil Bat" which was released in 1940. (Dr. Carruthers touts Tibet as the source for his "secret ingredient" and though he never reveals the ingredient by name he alludes to it's ceremonial use by lamas.) So what would Dr. Carruther's calamitous aftershave have resembled?  Francis Kurkdijan's oriental APOM pour Homme?  We may never know. "The Devil Bat" writers John T. Neville (screenplay) and George Bricker (original story) aren't exactly on speaking terms with the living now. A medium would be required for a round of Eau de Ouija Board and that would take some doing... 

"The Devil Bat" is available on DVD, but is also in the public domain. If you are a perfumista it should be sitting next to your copy of the film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Image of Bela Lugosi as Dr. Carruthers touting the formula for his evil aftershave lotion from "The Devil Bat." Rights revert back to the original owners.

Batty for fragrance? Try Lemon Scented Sticky Bat from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab which is based a blog post written by Neil Gaiman in 2007.

Thanks go out to The Glob who hosts a weekly horror movie program on public access television in Michigan. I grew up on horror movies, but somehow missed "The Devil Bat" during my formative years. The program inspired this post.

The Truth is Stranger than Fiction (or Bela Lugosi is Haunting My House): Two days after completing this post a family of bats hibernating in the eaves revealed themselves with cranky squealing and scrabbling in the ceiling of our bedroom. If you find yourself in a similar situation don't read about bat infestations before bed. Why? This is an excerpt from the Critter Control website
"If you woke up because a bat landed on you while you were sleeping or if you awakened and found a bat in your room, you should try to safely capture the bat by bat trapping and have it tested. The same precautions should be used if you see a bat in a room with an unattended child, or see a bat near a mentally impaired or intoxicated person. The small teeth of the bat can make a bite difficult to find. Be safe and in these situations, try to safely capture the bat, have the bat tested, and seek medical advice. As always the best solution when you need help getting rid of bats and with bat trapping, would be to contact a Critter Control bat removal specialist in your area."