Monday, 1 June 2015

Supernatural (1933)

Supernatural’s main claim to fame is that it was Carole Lombard’s only horror movie. It’s an oddity, but a fairly enjoyable one.

It concerns the machinations of a phony spiritualist. Now I know what you’re thinking. This will be another 1930s old dark house movie that plays around with supernatural themes but ends up explaining everything away, or even worse giving us a hokey sentimental message about the afterlife. In this case you’d be wrong. Supernatural is an actual horror movie, with actual supernatural themes, and with a few at least vaguely scary/creepy moments.

Notorious serial killer Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne) is about to face the electric chair. Psychiatrists have examined her and come to the conclusion that she’s not crazy, just very very evil. Dr Carl Houston (H. B. Warner) has a particular interest in the case. He has a unique theory about psycho killers. Everyone knows that a spectacular psycho killer inspires imitators, so-called copycat killers, but Dr Houston suspects there’s more to it. What if the copycat killers are actually controlled by the spirit of an executed killer? He wants to get hold of her body after the execution to do some experiments.

Meanwhile heiress Roma Courtney (Carole Lombard) is still devastated after the sudden death of her twin brother John. Dr Houston happens to be a friend of the Courtney family, a circumstance which will have consequences.

Phony spiritualist Paul Bavian (Allan Dinehart) has heard about the death of John Courtney and he sees his chance. Roma Courtney is so distraught it should be easy to gain her trust with a few fake séances and then start bleeding her dry financially. Bavian is an old hand at this sort of thing. Bavian also happens to have one of Ruth Rogen’s many lovers.

Bavian’s plan progresses well despite the hostility of Grant Wilson (Randolph Scott). Grant is a good-natured young fellow who hopes to marry Roma and he’s decidedly sceptical about the supernatural. The second séance has very unexpected results - results that Bavian most certainly could not have anticipated.

These two plot strands, the phony spiritualist and the executed serial killer, do come together and so quite successfully.

It’s quite a challenging role for Lombard, especially after the second séance, and she carries it off pretty well. She has to be scary but in a subtle way and it works. Vivienne Osborne steals the picture with her truly outrageous performance as the terrifyingly evil Ruth Rogen. The other cast members are quite solid, with Allan Dinehart smooth and sleazy as the unscrupulous fake medium and Beryl Mercer having fun as Bavian’s loopy and unprincipled blackmailing landlady.

Director Victor Halperin made a few notable horror movies including Bela Lugosi’s most chilling movie, White Zombie. He knew how to do horror without being excessively obvious about it.

The special effects are simple but effective. Halperin repeats the extreme close-up on the scary eyes thing he did in White Zombie, and it works almost as effectively here. The movie gets bonus points for Dr Houston’s mad scientist laboratory - not in a crumbling gothic ruin but in an ultra-modern apartment building and looking more art deco than gothic.

The good ideas in this movie were to get heavily recycled over the next couple of decades which tends to make Supernatural seem less original than it actually was. 

The very short running time helps - the plot certainly moves along briskly. 

The Universal Vault Series DVD-R provides an acceptable barebones transfer, albeit at a somewhat excessive price.

Supernatural is no masterpiece but it is entertaining and a little bit unusual. Although it has quite a bit in common with the then-popular old dark house movies Supernatural is more fun and it’s a real horror movie. It’s a chance to see Lombard in a different kind of rôle. Highly recommended.

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