December 19, 2012

Supernatural (1933)

In 1932, siblings Victor and Edward Halperin released their independent horror film "White Zombie", which had actors Madge Bellamy and legendary Bela Lugosi in the main roles. Directed by Victor Haperin, "White Zombie" turned out to be the Halperins' first real hit (they began their careers in the silent era), and its success made them receive an offer from Paramount studios to make a horror film for them. Certainly, this was an offer the Halperins could not turn down, because working for Paramount meant a bigger budget to work, and a better distribution for their work. With this in mind, the Halperins gathered again their crew from "White Zombie" to make the movie that would receive the title of "Supernatural", a story of ghosts that would also include the added value of having in its cast an actress that later would become one of the greatest of her time: Carole Lombard. Unfortunately, the movie wasn't the box office success that Paramount was hoping, finishing with this the Halperin's career with the major studios. Something that's a bit unfair, as the movie isn't really bad.

"Supernatural" begins with the arrest of Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne), a merciless serial killer who is condemned to death for her crimes. Rogen is convinced by Dr. Carl Houston (H.B. Warner) to donate her body to science, as Houston has the theory that a supernatural influence takes place after the execution of a killer. In the meantime, rich heiress Roma Courtenay (Carole Lombard) is mourning the tragic death of her twin brother, situation that's quickly exploited by phony medium Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart). Inviting Courtenay to his establishment, Bavian employs his theatrical skills to convince Rom that he has truly been contacted by her deceased brother. ROma's fianceé, Grant Wilson (Randolph Scott) is decided to prove that Bavian is a fraud, so he asks help to his dear friend Dr. Houston. However, the strange experiment that Houston is conducting with Rogen's corpse takes an unexpected turn when Roma becomes possessed by Ruth Rogen's spirit, whom holds a grudge with the mischievous Paul Bavian.

Based on a story written by Garnett Weston (whom also penned "White Zombie"), the screenplay for "Supernatural" was written by Weston himself collaborating with scriptwriters Harvey F. Thew and Brian Marlow. While certainly the structure of the story is problematic, there are many interesting elements in "Supernatural"'s plot line, the first of those being the fact of presenting a cold blooded female serial killer as starting point for the story. Another interesting point is the contrast done between the characters of medium Paul Bavian and Dr. Houston: both claim to be able of finding life after death, though only devoted scientist Dr. Houston actually makes it, while Bavian is merely a fake psychic. Something interesting about "Supernatural" is that the scriptwriters dedicate screen time for character development, as even when they begin as stereotypes, a defined identity begins to be developed for them as the story unfolds. However, it's worth to point out that this also makes the plot to move slowly at the beginning, while the second half of the tale gets solved in a somewhat rushed manner.

As in their previous film, "White Zombie", director Victor Halperin again employs atmosphere as the main element in "Supernatural", giving great use to the work of his usual collaborator, cinematographer Arthur Martinelli. However, unlike the static style of silent cinema employed in "White Zombie", in "SUpernatural" Halperin uses a more dynamic narrative style, moving his camera through the spaces with great detail, making them integral part of the characters that inhabit them (as different are Bavian's humble apartment from Houston's laboratory and Roma's luxury mansion). Despite the urban atmosphere the story has, Martinelly and Halperin manage to give the film a quite haunting visual style, employing skillfully the lighting and their scenery to create an ominous supernatural atmosphere. However, despite Halperin's achievement of creating a visually strong film, not everything works that fine in "Supernatural", mainly due to problems inherent to a screenplay that feels a tad incomplete, and a cast that'ts a bit irregular.

In "Supernatural" there's the unusual casting of Carole Lombard in a horror role. While by 1933 Lombard still wasn't the big star that she would become, her career was already on the right track thanks to the many comedies she starred during the early years of sound, so Lombard didn't considered herself appropriate to horror. Nevertheless, Lombard was assigned to "Supernatural" despite her disagreements (and the Halperins' as well, as they would had preferred Madge Bellamy), so it's probable that her performance suffered due to those frictions. While Lombard doesn't make a bad job in the role, she surely feels insecure and without the spark she had in her comedies, resulting in her performance being overshadowed by the superb work done by Vivienne Osborne, who plays the sadistic Ruth ROgen. With a great skill to move from subtlety to intensity, Osborne makes the best performance in the film despite not having much screen time. H.B. Warren also makes an effective job as Dr. Carl Houston, taking good advantage of a role that, while limited, allows him good chances to shine.

As Roma's fianceé, young Randolph Scott feels wooden and rigid in his role, lacking the necessary strength to make a good counterpart to Lombard. However, it's actually Alan Dinehart who delivers the worst performance in the film, making a villain without a defined personality. Certainly, the character is interesting by its own right, but Dinehart fails at making him memorable (it would had been interesting to see someone like Lugosi in the role). Despite those problems with the cast, what truly affects "Supernatural" is having a screenplay that feels incomplete in its final act. While Halpering manages to create an interesting group of characters and an intriguing premise (that would be exploited in many films during the following decade), during the second half of the film it seems as if they had cut down the screenplay given how rushed the climax unfolds itself. Also, there are several holes in the plot that remain unexplained at the end, showing that the writers should had worked a bit more on the screenplay (perhaps Paramount's pressure explains this).

Despite its multiple flaws, "Supernatural" is a pretty entertaining and interesting horror film. The Halperins have earned a reputations as "one hit wonders" due to the abysmal difference between the mastery shown in "White Zombie" and the ineptitude of its sequel, "Revolt of the Zombies" (1936) and their subsequent works. But while maybe "Supernatural" isn't up to the level of their legendary zombie classic, it's is proof that Victor Halperin's talent wasn't limited to just one occasion. Sadly, after the box office failure of "Sipernatural" and a lawsuit by the company that helped to finance "White Zombie", the Halperin saw their reputation severely damaged and their resources diminished to the point that their posterior films show a complete lack of interest in filmmaking. Anyways, "Supernatural" stands as an interesting project that allows us to see a quite different side of the legendary Carole Lombard.



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