Movie Information

In Brief: White Zombie (1932) prompted Paramount — still a tentative player in the horror genre at the time — to give Victor and Edward Halperin a one picture deal with the studio. Though lacking a major horror star like they'd had with Bela Lugosi in White Zombie, the arrangement gave them studio backing and access to a cast they otherwise could never have put together on their own. The result was Supernatural — one of the oddest of all classic-era horror films. Its very oddness — and the lack of a name horror star — doomed it to failure then and has kept it in obscurity to this day. It starts off with a bang — even its opening credits are scary — with its story of serial killer Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne) agreeing to give her executed body to scientist Dr. Carl Houston (H.B. Warner) for his experiment on "malignant spirits" — which she sees as a chance, however slim, to have her revenge on Paul Bavian, the phony spiritualist who sold her out to the police. It's then that plot gets too convoluted for its own good as it ties this — and Paul Bavian — in with heiress Roma Courtney (Carole Lombard), who is grieving over her dead brother. That Ruth Rogen will find her way into Roma Courtney's body is a given, but getting her there seems overcomplicated. Nonetheless, the film's atmosphere is often astonishing, especially when dealing with Bavian's seedy boarding house and Rogen's degenerate apartment. It may never become one of the great horror films, but it often gets frighteningly close.  
Genre: Horror
Director: Victor Halperin
Starring: Carole Lombard, Allan Dinehart, Vivienne Osborne, Randolph Scott, H.B. Warner, Beryl Mercer
Rated: NR



The biggest problem for modern audiences with Supernatural stems from a natural pre-conceived notion of Carole Lombard as a skilled comedienne — something of which there is no sign here. But the truth is that Lombard didn’t become the Lombard we know until Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century (1934), where co-star John Barrymore taught her to cut loose and be something more like her real self. At the time of Supernatural she was merely a Paramount contract player — otherwise she’d never have been in a relatively low-budget movie like this. Lombard was still very much finding her way in these early films — even in her one film, No Man of Her Own (1932), with future husband Clark Gable, there’s very little of the Carole Lombard she’d become. Supernatural makes matters more difficult by giving her a thoroughly humorless — even somewhat dreary — role as a grieving sister. The biggest demand it makes of her — other than undeniably being decorative — lies in her playing the part when her character becomes possessed by the evil spirit of Ruth Rogen. She’s not bad in that capacity, but neither is her possessed vamping especially remarkable.




What makes the film work is really found in its occasional shock effects — one of which is extremely creepy — combined with its utterly straight-faced acceptance of the supernatural and the overall atmosphere it generates. The convoluted plot that brings Roma Courtney into the position of being possessed by the executed murderess probably does the film no favors, but it holds a peculiar fascination — and more than its fair share of coincidences. That Rogen wills her body to Dr. Houston for purposes of experiment — and her chance, as she sees it, of getting revenge on Paul Bavian — is one thing. That this just happens to occur at a time when Bavian is out to prey on Roma’s grief is also fairly reasonable. That Roma and her boyfriend (Randolph Scott in a thankless role) just happen to be friends of Dr. Houston and just happen to call on him at just the precise moment for Ruth Rogen to enter Roma’s body … well, that’s a bit much.




Much of the reservations one might have about the plot are diminished by the sheer grimness of the action, especially as concerns Alan Dinehart’s portrayal of Bavian. He lives in the most rundown boarding house imaginable with the most perverse landlady, Madame Gourjan (Beryl Mercer), ever conceived. (The prying old gal — and would-be blackmailer — is also a first class dipsomaniac who calls the roaches that infest her apartment her pets.) The air of sleaze that pervades their scenes together is almost palpable — and sinister in a way we rarely see. This is almost matched by the aura of evil in Rogen’s apartment. None of this is in the least subtle, and that’s probably why it works. The Halperins — whose two main films, this and White Zombie, are nothing if not odd — were never subtle, in part, I think, because their movies were strangely old-fashioned even when they were new. They play like lost silent movies with dialogue added, and every movement, every look seems to be underlined for maximum impact. Whether this was intentional is hard to say. The amount of control they had over Supernatural is unusual. Not only does the film have “An Edward and Victor Halperin Production” on the ending credits (unique for the era as far as I know), but, like White Zombie, it has a wall-to-wall soundtrack score, which is very unusual for 1933.  Nothing that the Halperins made after Supernatural is especially noteworthy, but it’s only fair to note their later films were all made on a shoestring.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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