Supernatural (1933) ***
It’s true, the really old American horror movies are, for the most part, not to my taste, but one of the things that keeps me watching them (beyond brute completist obsessiveness) is the fact that you never know when an intriguing hint of future genre developments will turn up. This is especially true of the smaller studios and independent producers, who had to work harder to come up with things their audiences hadn’t seen before in order to make up for the limited budgets available to them. Supernatural, which was made by the Halperin brothers, creators of the terrific White Zombie, appears to be just as much of a first as the Halperins’ earlier prototypical voodoo movie (although it was released through Paramount, which obviously makes it significantly less indie than its predecessor). This time, it looks like the Halperin boys have invented the supernatural killer subgenre, turning out a film that looks to my eye like a distant— and greatly superior— ancestor of such comparatively recent movies as Shocker and The First Power.
Supernatural is doubly remarkable for making its serial murderer a woman. As the movie begins, Ruth Rogen (Dragonwyck’s Vivienne Osborne) is on death row for the strangulation slayings of three former boyfriends. Rogen is a nasty piece of work, completely unrepentant and utterly without apparent fear of the gallows. There is one thing she wants, though, before squaring up accounts with the state. It seems there’s a certain man she’d like a moment alone with; she won’t say why, but I’m guessing the mystery man has been wise not to answer any of the letters she’s sent out to him.
Meanwhile, a researcher into psychic phenomena, by the name of Dr. Carl Houston (H. B. Warner, from The Phantom of Crestwood and All that Money Can Buy), has taken an interest in Ruth Rogen. As he points out to the warden of Rogen’s prison, the execution of notorious killers is often followed by an outbreak of crimes similar to those for which the dead felon was executed in the first place. The accepted theory is that these are copycat crimes, committed by unbalanced individuals who kill in an insane effort to achieve for themselves the notice and recognition given to the original killers. Houston has a different idea, and he’d like to enlist Ruth Rogen to help him test his hypothesis. Houston suspects that these so-called imitation murders are actually the work of the dead killers, that the souls of these murderers remain abroad in the world for a short time after their deaths, giving them a fleeting chance to claim more victims by commandeering the bodies of weak-willed, but otherwise innocent people. The warden doesn’t quite buy Houston’s theory, but he doesn’t see any harm in releasing Rogen’s body to the doctor so that he can conduct a few experiments— assuming it’s okay with Ruth herself, that is.
The night after Houston finagles the strangler’s cooperation, somebody sneaks into the parlor of a sprawling mansion elsewhere in the city. The intruder finds the casket of 24-year-old John Courtney (Lyman Williams) in the mansion’s parlor, where it is set up for the young man’s viewing. The mystery man makes a plaster cast of Courtney’s face, and then sneaks out of the house. The prowler turns out to be sham spiritualist Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart, from A Study in Scarlet and The Sin of Nora Moran), and in case you hadn’t figured it out by now, he’s up to no good. A conversation with his alcoholic landlady, Mrs. Gourjan (Beryl Mercer), whom he meets on the street on his way home, brings to light the information that he had been involved with Ruth Rogen, and strongly implies that Bavian is the man whom Ruth has been so eager to see before she goes to her death.
So what does Bavian want with a cast of John Courtney’s face? That’s easy— he wants to use it in an elaborate scam to separate John’s sister, Roma (Carole Lombard, who died in a plane crash only nine years after Supernatural was filmed— she was all of 34 years old), from as much money as he can. The Courtneys, you see, are a fabulously wealthy family, and all that money is now under Roma’s control. Bavian sends the grieving woman a letter in which he claims to have heard from the restless spirit of her brother, who has some kind of urgent warning he wants to communicate. The letter also invites Roma to a séance at Bavian’s flat. Roma’s boyfriend, Grant Wilson (Randolf Scott, from the 1935 version of She), doesn’t like the sound of it, and neither do Nicky Hammond, the Courtney family lawyer (William Farnum, from The Undersea Kingdom and The Mummy’s Curse), or Dr. Houston, who turns out to have been a friend of Roma’s late parents.
Nevertheless, Roma is the open-minded sort, and she decides to check Bavian out. By this time, we have been shown in no uncertain terms just how big of a bastard the spiritualist is, in that we saw him poison Mrs. Gourjan in response to the old lady’s attempts to blackmail him with her knowledge of his phony dealings. So we have some idea what’s coming when Roma stops by his flat with Grant, and the three sit down to conduct the séance. Okay, that explains why Bavian wanted a cast of John’s face— he needed a way to fake a visible manifestation of John’s spirit, and in the very low light of the séance parlor, a wax effigy hidden behind the sliding door of a cabinet across the room would be fairly convincing. The “ghost” tells Roma that Hammond killed John, and then vanishes. Roma may not exactly leave Bavian’s place a believer, but she’s certainly a lot less skeptical— and a lot more suspicious of her lawyer— than she was when she arrived.
While all that is going on, Ruth Rogen is executed according to schedule, and her body is turned over to Dr. Houston. In fact, the doctor is conducting an experiment on it when an extremely frazzled Roma and an extremely angry Grant show up at his house looking for advice. The couple force their way past Houston’s butler, who futilely tries to stop them from entering the laboratory, and so they get to see Rogen’s body as it seems to come briefly alive under electrical stimulation. Then Houston notices that he has guests, and shuts his experiment down, explaining that he is working on a way of preventing the killer’s soul from getting loose in the world to do mischief. But while Houston talks with Roma and Grant about their recent experience with Bavian, a number of small things are going on unnoticed by anyone, which strongly suggest that Houston is too late to accomplish his stated mission, and that Rogen’s spirit is already on the prowl.
It’s too bad for Bavian that he’s a quack, because if he were a real spiritualist, he might have some inkling of the danger he’s about to put himself in. Bavian agrees to come to the Courtney mansion for a follow-up séance in a room he can’t possibly rig with flamboyant trickery beforehand. And in addition to Roma and Grant, Dr. Houston and Nicky Hammond will be there to take part in the séance as well. Bavian isn’t worried, though; like all flim-flam men, he has a deep bag of tricks, and with a little sleight of hand, he is able to substitute some of his gadgets for innocent objects in the house. Most importantly, he brings along a handkerchief on which he has written, “You’re in danger— Hammond did it,” in heat-sensitive invisible ink. Bavian lays this handkerchief (which is supposed to be one from Hammond’s pocket) on top of the table lamp before he goes into his “trance,” and moments later, the “message from John” appears. Roma freaks out when she sees that, and falls into a dead faint. And wouldn’t you know it, by the time she comes to, Ruth Rogen has set up shop in her body.
Meanwhile, Bavian continues to play right into Rogen’s hands. He uses the same poison needle ring that he killed his landlady with on Hammond, whom he seems to have just recognized as a genuine obstacle to him getting his hands on Roma’s money. Then, in the chaos that erupts in response to the lawyer’s “heart attack,” he allows Roma to sneak him out of the mansion, and lead him off on some mysterious errand in town. All I can think of to explain this behavior on Bavian’s part is wishful thinking— he evidently thinks he’s about to get laid. Imagine his surprise when Roma takes him to Ruth Rogen’s old apartment! Crafty as he is, though, it seems that Paul Bavian is a frightfully dense man, and he still doesn’t think anything is particularly amiss, at least not after “Roma” explains that she and Ruth Rogen were old friends. Dr. Houston understands what’s going on, though, and he leads Grant off in pursuit of the possessed woman, with a little help from the real ghost of John Courtney. Not that any of this is going to do Bavian a whole lot of good, mind you...
It may not be as good as White Zombie, but Supernatural still sits comfortably above the median for Hollywood horror films of its era. For one thing, the Halperins seem to have specialized in ridiculously short movies, and with a running time of a mere 65 minutes, there’s just no time for Supernatural to drag the way many of its longer and more expensive contemporaries do. The uniqueness of its subject matter in the context of the times also does wonders for the film. But its greatest strength is the talent of its two female leads. First, let us consider the character of Ruth Rogen. The notion of a female serial strangler still seems novel today, and Vivienne Osborne gives an extremely strong performance, absolutely stealing the show every time she’s on the screen. Granted, she’s a bit on the hammy side, but there are good ways and bad ways to overdo it, and Osborne always does it right. She even makes Rogen’s potentially silly habit of crushing things in her hands whenever she’s bored or mad genuinely disconcerting. As for Carole Lombard, it looks at first like she’s going to be the usual bland Hollywood leading lady, memorable only for being unusually pretty and unusually blonde. But everything changes once Roma gets herself possessed by the strangler. Lombard makes just as convincing a Rogen as Vivienne Osborne, and does an excellent job of mimicking the latter woman’s mannerisms. You’d never believe it on the basis of her performance during the first half of the film, but Lombard’s rendition of the killer is actually scary (or at least it would be if you met her in the real world). Considering the perennial shortage of actresses who can give a really commanding performance, it’s doubly sad that Lombard died so young— future generations of filmmakers needed her.