Carole Lombard was a Hollywood star who burned brightly and brilliantly and dimmed all too soon. A wonderful actress and comedienne, her career spanned the silent era and into the talkies, and her intelligence and range was often on display even in the most thankless roles. 1933’s Supernatural is a rare departure into the horror genre for Lombard, but it’s a doozy. Directed by Victor Halperin, who also did the seminal horror White Zombie, and co-starring a very boring Randolph Scott, Supernatural manages to pack all the plot you could ask for into a scant 64 minutes. The result is really…something.
Lombard is Roma Courtney, an heiress who just lost her twin brother and is in deep mourning. She’s contacted by medium Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart), who tells her that her brother has been trying to speak through him. Bavian is looking to make some money off the new heiress, but he’s also involved in another case: the execution of Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne), a notorious murderer convicted of strangling three men. Rogen vows vengeance on Bavian, who betrayed her to the police, and agrees to be the subject of an experiment by Dr. Houston (H.B. Warner), who believes that spirits live on after death and can inhabit the bodies of living people. Houston just so happens to be friends with Roma and her fiancé, Grant Wilson (Scott), and performs his experiment on Rogen just as Roma walks in the door. Naturally, Rogen’s spirit possesses her.
Improbably, there’s even more to the plot than that, with accusations of murder, supernatural possession, and pop Freudianism, but it’s difficult to summarize Supernatural without simply giving away the whole plot. It’s an odd little pre-Code horror, the most interesting elements of which are Lombard’s enjoyable turn when she’s possessed, and the novel concept of a female strangler. The sexual aspects of Rogen’s murder spree and obsession with Bavian never quite come together, but Lombard gives her possessed heiress a vampish characterization that allows for some expression of suppressed female sexuality coming out in violence, itself a unique concept in 1933.
The film seems to be missing script pages, as the narrative jumps from one point to the next and fails to explain certain plot points and random character deaths. Stylistically, it’s very much in keeping with the superior White Zombie, with Expressionist elements jumping to the fore in some of the more intriguing set pieces. It’s the smaller, weirder elements that make the film enjoyable, especially the creepy landlady played by Beryl Mercer, who seems to have wandered over from the Jane Eyre set to sink her teeth into Bavian. For a film with so much plot, Supernatural doesn’t make as much of it as it should. The element of spiritual possession comes up very late and could have done with more development. There are numerous unanswered questions as characters vanish into the ether or come up with final act explanations for the plot that don’t quite pan out.
Supernatural needed to be longer to fill out the copious amount of plot with narrative and character development. The film plays like a second picture (which it was – often screened as the second half of double feature), but the few flights of Expressionist fancy indicate something more interesting beneath the surface. Kino-Lorber’s Blu-ray release makes Supernatural look very pretty, and is yet another step in their dedication to releasing the slightly lesser known (but still necessary) classics. The real attraction here is Lombard, wonderful as she plays basically a dual role. It does make one wish she had done a few more horror films to round out her oeuvre.
Supernatural is available on Blu-ray from Kino-Lorber.