Sunday, January 19, 2014

Supernatural (1933)

Director: Victor Halperin                                Writers: Harvey F. Thew & Brian Marlow
Film Score: Karl Hajos                                  Cinematography: Arthur Martinelli
Starring: Carole Lombard, Randolph Scott, H.B. Warner and Alan Dinehart

An interesting little thriller from Paramount, this was the follow up to Victor Halperin’s artistically successful White Zombie with Bela Lugosi the year before and used much of the same crew. Where the previous film had been an independent production released through United Artists, however, Supernatural was made at Paramount and had to operate within their structure. Halperin and his producer brother Edward had planned on using Madge Bellamy from the previous picture as the star, but the studio forced them to use Carole Lombard whom they had on loan from Fox. She wasn’t happy about the assignment and frequently argued with Halperin on the set. Unfortunately the film wasn’t as successful as the brothers’ first project and the two attempted to recapture their earlier success by making Revolt of the Zombies a few years later, a box-office dud that marked the end of their production company.

In this film Vivienne Osborne plays a murderess who is sentenced to death for strangling three men with her bare hands. Once she’s set to be executed, psychologist H.B. Warner wants to experiment with her body after death to see if he can prevent unexplained copycat murders her death. His theory is that, if left unchecked, her spirit will roam the earth for a while seeking revenge. Alan Dinehart is the man she blames for the deaths, and he is in the process of conning the last victim’s sister, Carole Lombard who has inherited the family fortune, by posing as a spiritualist. Boyfriend Randolph Scott and Warner attempt to warn her away from him, but can’t overcome her natural curiosity. At the same time this obvious fakery is going on, the experiments by Warner are appearing to bear fruit and the inexplicable happenings at his apartments laboratory are the real underpinning of the fantastic in the film.

It’s tempting to say that all early films like this were an attempt to ride the coattails of Universal’s success in the horror field, but that’s because it really seems to be true. The most obvious evidence is the influence of James Whale on the output of the other studios. His infusion of comedy into films like Frankenstein and The Old Dark House are everywhere. In this instance it’s the great Beryl Mercer who is shoehorned into the plot as the Cockney landlady. Why she should be running a rooming house in New York City only makes sense if one realizes she is just a stand in for Una O’Connor. Another connection to Universal’s horror films is the music of Karl Hajos who later penned the score for Werewolf of London.

Carole Lombard does a tremendous job in the film, especially when she is taken over by the spirit of Vivienne Osborne, and it makes her subdued performance prior to that a lot more understandable. It’s also great to see Randolph Scott in a non-western, and he does a good job as Lombard’s boyfriend, the nominal hero in an assertive way that David Manners only wished he could have pulled off. H.B. Warner is also terrific as the old scientist in the Van Helsing role. William Farnum is a bit over the top in his role as the family accountant, but Alan Dinehart’s slimy performance is just right for the part. The dual narrative is what really makes the film, especially when the two threads intertwine and Osborne is set loose in Lombard’s body. Supernatural is not a great film, but it’s certainly nowhere near as bad as some in the genre. See it for the stars and the offbeat story and I think it will entertain.

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