Saturday, August 8, 2009

Carole Lombard is Supernatural (The Film Isn't)

An excessively silly, and only sporadically interesting, early horror-thriller from Paramount, 1933’s Supernatural is really only worth searching out for fans of its star, the beautiful and extremely talented Carole Lombard, or its director, White Zombie creator Victor Halperin.

Serial Killer Vivienne Osbourne promises revenge before she is taken to the electric chair, a promise that is made good on when her spirit takes possession of millionaire socialite Roma Courtney. Thankfully a psychologist named Dr. Carl Houston, an expert in all things supernatural, is on hand to make sure everything works out the best for Courtney and her doubting fiancée Grant.

Clocking in at just over an hour, Supernatural would have probably been all but lost in time by this point if it wasn’t for the luminous Lombard. The Indiana born Carole Lombard will forever associated with the Screwball comedies that she excelled in before her tragic death in 1942, but like all studio players from the period she had to work in every conceivable genre. Supernatural is Lombard’s one assignment in the horror field, which is fortunate, as she doesn’t in all honesty give one of her better performances, although she is quite good in the outlandish last quarter of the film once the possession takes place.

Supernatural is an early feature for the rather unprolific Victor Halperin. The Arizona born director has just seventeen features to his credit as director, an extremely small number for a studio filmmaker and most of them have all but been forgotten. There are some major exceptions though, such as the brilliant White Zombie (the film Halperin shot right before Supernatural) and the early undead work Revolt of the Zombies (1936). Fans of White Zombie hoping that Supernatural might be some sort of lost horror classic will be particularly disappointed, as the film fails both as a thriller and a mystery at nearly every turn.

The biggest problem Supernatural can’t overcome is the extremely weak script, credited to Garnett Weston, Harvey Thew and Brian Marlow. The very definition of underdeveloped, the writing behind Supernatural feels like it was completed within a day or so and, at best, it does a real disservice to Halperin and Lombard. It’s particularly disappointing as Weston was indeed the mind behind White Zombie, a fact that makes Supernatural feel like a cheap cash-in on a great work.

Lombard isn’t the only great star let down by Supernatural, as a young Randolph Scott is on hand as well as Vivienne Osborne. Working in the film’s favor is the fact that it is a pre-code production, so it is allowed to be much racier than it would have been down the road (Lombard’s breast is even groped at one point during the slim running time).

Supernatural did have an absolutely terrific marketing campaign, as one can see through the film’s striking poster and haunting publicity stills, and it’s a shame that neither Halperin’s direction nor cinematographer Arthur Martinelli manage to do anything as evocative in the actual film.

Supernatural was released on VHS in the mid nineties by MCA/Universal, but it has not been granted any sort of release on DVD. It’s hard to imagine it being released on disc unless it was a part of some sort of Lombard, or early horror collection…both of which would be extremely welcome even though Supernatural would be far from the main drawing point. I haven't been able to find much literature on the film, as the books I have on Lombard barely mention it, but the always reliable Video Watchdog offered a nice review of the film in issue 35 from John Charles for those interested.


dri said...

Oh, I love Carole Lombard.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks! I love Lombard as well and please don't let the fact that I don't like this film much take away from that. I lived for quite awhile in Indiana, and was always proud to be in the same state that gave the world Carole Lombard and James Dean.