Originally published April 15, 2015
Nearly every popular celebrity has a horror movie in their past, an idea traced all the way back to the golden era of film; but Supernatural is a unique case, being Carole Lombard’s only “horror” film in her brief career. Directed by Victor Halperin, the helmer of Bela Lugosi’s White Zombie, Supernatural is a bizarre blend of horror and mystery yet it’s hard classifying the film as representing either genre. Carole Lombard and Randolph Scott do their due diligence with this, and while not on par with White Zombie, it’s an entertaining change of pace for both actors with a memorable plotline and crazy twists.
Murderess Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne) is executed for killing three of her former lovers, including multimillionaire John Courtney (Lyman Williams). When John’s sister, Roma (Carole Lombard) is offered a free seance by charlatan “supernaturalist” Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart), she eagerly accepts. However, Paul was the man who turned Ruth in, and her spirit is looking for a little revenge…which Roma helps her enact.
Supernatural was brothers Victor and Edward Halperin’s follow-up to the successful White Zombie. Many members of the cast and crew transferred over to this production, and with a bigger budget Halperin was able to secure two big stars for this new outing: the aforementioned Lombard and Randolph Scott. This was the second of four films Lombard made in 1933 after her roles in Virtue and No Man of Her Own. Lombard was unhappy working with Halperin, though, and found herself wasted as Roma; she felt better suited as a comedienne. Scott was trying to transition from Westerns (a genre he never gave up completely), with this being his fourth of nine films he’d make in 1933.
Lombard may not have enjoyed performing as Roma Courtney, but the camera loves her, as will those watching the film for her presence alone. Her big doe eyes and shellacked blonde hair help her pass for Fay Wray (an actress who wouldn’t be out of place in a film like this), and this role could have become a shrieking mess if Wray took the role. Lombard’s reserved, obviously mired in her grief. The movie has trouble fixating on who’s story this is, but Lombard acts as the heart of the piece, whether she’s the grieving sister solving her brother’s murder – although it’s apparent from the first frame that Ruth killed him – to playing the woman possessed.
Much like White Zombie’s process of “zombiefication,” audiences will have to suspend all disbelief in order to believe the third act twist. Ruth’s execution goes off without a hitch…or so it seems. Dr. Carl Houston (H.B. Warner) believes an evil person’s “personality” can transport out of their body at the time of death and inhabit another. There’s no set-up to this plot device outside of this lone explanation, but once Roma is inevitably possessed, Lombard’s foxier side comes out. Rocking some dark lipstick and a husky voice (always the mark of a possessed woman), Lombard becomes Osborne’s Ruth, intent on giving Paul what’s coming to him. It’s almost a shame this doesn’t happen until the film’s final ten minutes because Lombard stalks the frame like a caged panther (a cutaway to a picture of a panther gives this away to the audience). When all is finally restored, using some fun trick photography of Ruth “leaving” Roma, it’s sad Roma’s stuck being a bland little rich girl again. It seems brunettes have more fun!
Supernatural thrives on its female presence. Lombard takes much of the cake, but one can’t ignore Vivienne Osborne’s performance as Ruth Rogen (pronounced “Row-jin”). There’s a lot of cackling and maniacal laughing in this film, but none do it better than Osborne, who throws her head back and lets out a series of cackles that would make Maleficent blush. Like most serial killers of the classic era, there’s no psychology or exploration into her crimes, and that’s fine; sometimes evil for the sake of evil is all we need. There are a few references to Ruth being a misandrist, but that’s it. Osborne is the scenery chewer of the film, right down to crushing a tinfoil cup masquerading as steel.
The rest of the cast, mainly the men, aren’t quite as colorful as the females. Randolph Scott plays Roma’s good-hearted fiance, Grant. Scott certainly has the looks to be a knight in shining armor; more than Lombard, Scott seems to be the most uncomfortable one in the cast. His overly buttoned up and polished look ruins the facade and we see Scott is acting. There isn’t much to the character; it’s a role which could have been played by anyone and it shows Scott’s limitations. Alan Dinehart is decent as Paul Bavian, the typical psychic charlatan of the film, but Dinehart plays the role with all the smugness it requires.
There’s a mild flirtation with the supernatural in the film bearing it’s name, but Supernatural works better as a showcase for Lombard who flexes her muscles in an unknown genre and does well. Lombard is complimented by a maniacal Vivienne Osborne. At a scant 65-minutes this works great as a double feature with White Zombie and is a unique film to watch.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
Liked the reference to Fay Wray (though I have more faith in her as an actress than you do — I doubt she would have gone into “scream queen” mode unless specifically directed to). One of Lombard’s reservations over making this movie may have been fear of being locked into a persona she wasn’t comfortable in, and one fan magazine story of the time, from Photoplay’s budget sibling Shadoplay, proves that point: http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/629995.html
Haha, true, but I referenced Wray more for her presence in horror films compared to Carole. Thanks for sharing that article. I definitely think Lombard knew what genres she was suited to. She’s good here, but you can tell she doesn’t inhabit the role fully.