The island of Portuga in the West Indies: Most of the population lives
from sponge-diving, but that's a mighty dangerous profession, because the
Sea Bat, a giant manta ray, kills divers every now and again, divers just
as Carlos (Nils Asther), latest victim of the Sea Bat. This throws his
sister Nina (Raquel Torres) into despair, and she turns away from her
Christian belief and towards the voodoo rites of the native populace. Nina
is also the prettiest girl on the island, and runs around in very
revealing outfits, which is why all men on the island lust after her,
especially Juan (John Miljan), a cutthroat if there ever was one.
father Antone (George F.Marion), mayor of the island, is worried sick
about the girl, so he turns to the new reverend Sims (Charles Bickford)
for advice. That's a bit of a problem because Sims isn't really a man of
the cloth, he has just stolen a priest's cloths to pose as one, he really
is an escapee from Devil's Island. He does however try to talk sense into
the girl, but gives up way too easily, even when she in one scene
virtually throws herself at him and wants to be lectured. Only when Sims
finds her attending a voodoo ritual, he is shocked (and there are definite
racist undercurrents) and drags her away rather violently. The next day,
during a storm, Nina offers herself to the man who kills the Sea Bat that
has killed her brother. Defying common sense, Juan and a few others go out
into the sea ... but only Juan returns.
Sims stutters himself through
the funeral, going back and forth in the bible and quoting rather
aimlessly, but his sermon has still affected two people: Nina, who
discovers her conscience and suddenly feels bad about sending a handful of
people to their deaths, and Sims himself, who suddenly feels guilty of
pretending to be a priest and being unable to help anybody.
meanwhile has found out who Sims really is and wants to capture him and
take him back to Devil's Island for a handsome reward. Sims decides to get
off the island as soon as possible, but he can't without saying goodbye to
Nina - and in the process he confesses everything to her, which prompts
her to confess her love to him in return, and the two decide to make the
escape together. But then Sims is captured by Juan and company, and finds
himself on a boat to Devil's Island - when the Sea Bat attacks once more,
killing Juan and friend and leaving Sims the last man standing. He returns
to Portuga and into Nina's arms, but by now he knows he has to give
himself up to authorities before long to serve his term so he will clear
his conscience and eventually become a free man.
Boris Karloff plays one
of Sims' friends, but he is only seen in a handful of scenes, and is
hardly above extra status.
There are several good things to say
about this film: The authentic outdoor locations are wonderful and
beautifully photographed, the camerawork is rather fluent with nice
tracking shots aplenty (which was a challenge in early sound cinema,
actually), the underwater photography looks pretty impressive, the cast is
at least adequate, and Raquel Torres brings just the right, steamy
sexuality to the screen.
That all said, The Sea Bat is not a
particularly good film, essentially it suffers from a poor screenplay,
where a cheesy and (even then) old and overused story carries an
unbearingly blunt conservative message. Add to this some direction and
acting that seems to be too deeply rooted in silent cinema to not come off
as a tad ridiculous even in 1930, and a very unconvincing manta ray prop,
and you've got ... well, something that could have been a lot better.