Carole Lombard Features in this Story of Revenge From Beyond the Grave
DIRECTED BY VICTOR HALPERIN / 1933
BLU-RAY STREET DATE 4/7/20
KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
As an actress, Carole Lombard is best known for her roles in screwball comedies such as Twentieth Century. In Supernatural, newly released on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber’s Studio Classic label, she takes a turn in a horror movie. Paramount, The studio responsible for Supernatural, Paramount, didn’t often dabble in horror in the 30’s. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1932 was their most prominent foray into the genre. Supernatural doesn’t quite reach the level of the Fredric March classic, but it is an interesting genre exercise from an experienced horror director (Victor Halperin previously helmed White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi and Madge Bellamy).
Lombard stars as Roma Courtney, a wealthy heiress who has recently suffered the loss of her twin brother. Alan Dinehart plays sleazy ‘spiritualist’ Paul Bavian who hopes to prey on Roma’s emotional state by bilking her out of as much money as he can. Bavian has a few skeletons in his closet, however, including the fact that he was once the lover of Ruth Rogan, an artist who has been sentenced to death for killing three men by strangulation. Rogan is convinced that Bavian betrayed her, and vows her revenge from beyond the grave.
Dr. Houston, a respected psychologist and (we’re told) psychic, gets Rogan to agree to donate her body to science following her execution (there is a lot of plot in this 64-minute movie!). He is convinced that the soul still lives on after death, and will sometimes possess a living being. As he runs his experiments on Rogan’s corpse, Roma comes to visit him, and is seemingly contaminated by… something unseen. Free to wander the Earth once more, Rogan plans to fulfill her vow and kill the unfaithful Bavian.
Halperin makes some striking artistic decisions right out of the gate. The opening minutes of the film is a whirlwind montage of overlapping images and sounds that take us from Rogan’s arrest through her defiant outbursts during her trial, ending in a shot of Rogan’s eyes leering out at us from the screen. It’s an economical, and almost experimental way to get past a lot of backstory, and it gives Supernatural a huge jolt of energy from the get-go.
Halperin gets to show off other technical skills elsewhere, as spirits from the afterlife, such as Roma’s brother Johnny, pass through the our world, unseen by the characters, as superimposed images. As Roma mourns her loss following Johnny’s funeral, his ghostly form floats through her bedroom. Shortly after, their dog fetches Johnny’s slippers and lays them at the feet of his favorite chair.
When Roma becomes fully possessed by Rogan’s spirit, an interesting transformation takes place on Lombard’s face. Her features become subtly harder and take a darker tone, giving her a more sinister appearance. This is all done in camera, through the use of contrasting colored makeup and lens filters. The same technique was used in March’s Dr. Jekyll, and although this transformation is much less dramatic, it is effective and Lombard’s performance completely sells that her body has a new occupant.
Supernatural was released in 1933, before the Hays Code took full effect. As a consequence its plot contains several elements that simply would not be allowed just a few years later. It is heavily implied that Rogan murdered her victims while engaging in sex with them (one newspaper describes it as an ‘orgy’ suggesting that she killed all three at once!). Bavian even gets to cop a feel while pitching woo with the possessed Roma. Though it’s still tame by modern standards, there’s sex and violence all over Supernatural.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the movie is its recurring theme of duality. Characters and situations are repeatedly mirrored in one another. Bavian attempts to speak with the dead, but his performance rests in supernatural ritual and is fraudulent. Dr. Houston, on the other hand, attempts the same, but uses science! Roma and Johnny are twins, and when he dies she becomes unmoored from her life. The movie posits that everyone has both a body and an eternal soul, which separate upon death. Even King, Roma’s dog, has a mirror. As he seems to be able to sense the hidden spirit of Johnny, Bavian’s dog will growl and bark when Bavian’s landlady will come snooping around to spy on him.
Randolph Scott plays Roma’s love interest, Grant Wilson, though the movie does him no favors. He’s not as stiff as other lugs have been in such thankless roles (think of David Manners in Dracula or Bruce Cabot in King Kong), but that’s only because of Scott’s natural charms. William Farnum has a fun turn as Hammond, the manager of Roma’s estate who has a foodie’s passion for the culinary arts. Vivienne Osborne plays the Earthly form of Ruth Rogan, in a performance that really lets her relish chewing the scenery.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray of Supernatural comes packaged with a feature-length audio commentary by film Historian Tim Lucas, as well as the usual collection of related trailers. It’s presented in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio in 1080p and has English subtitles.