Calling forth the spirit of a little known horror picture for the Randolph Scott blogathon.
Supernatural might be kind of an odd film to pick for a Randolph Scott blogathon and it is an unusual movie overall, but for me it’s a very likable one that I like to recommend and revisit often. Scott co-starring with Carole Lombard should be a huge draw in anything, and I would think even more so in a movie that’s so atypical for both of them. The picture falls short of being a great horror movie, and certainly isn’t something in either Lombard or Scott’s career that would win them awards, but it is fascinating and enjoyable due to some effective thrills. Even if you think it’s crazy, you’re bound to get a kick from watching improbable plot threads weave together and seeing all these fine players do good work in a fast and elegant Pre-Code horror picture.
Supernatural is brought to you by the brothers Halperin, director Victor and producer Edward, as well as writer Garnet Weston, the team responsible for 1932’s creepy hit White Zombie. The success of Zombie got them access to bigger budgets and stars but Supernatural was not a bigger critical or box office success, unfortunately. But it’s not for lack of trying. Supernatural tells the juicy story of a female serial killer, a man hating black widow (Vivienne Osborne) who crushes metal cups with her bare hands, so men’s necks are no problem at all. Her unbelievable strength and uncanny threats and powers of influence give willies to lawmen and scientists alike. After Osborne’s execution, her spirit jumps to the body of an heiress played by Lombard, in which Osborne can carry out her vow of revenge on the bogus spiritualist (Alan Dinehart) who gave her up to police (he did it so he could break off their romance, the louse).
Lombard is in an especially vulnerable state, a bereaved and desperate woman who yearns to contact her dead twin brother. During this low time, Dinehart is trying to cash in on her grief and offers to put her in contact with her brother through a seance. Meanwhile, by complete coincidence, Lombard’s close doctor friend (H.B. Warner) just happens to be conducting electrified postmortem experiments on the murderess to determine the nature of her powers and to prevent her spirit from jumping into other bodies (yes I say prevent–oops). One night while he’s zapping Osborne, Lombard and Scott pop unannounced into his lab, and the unlucky Lombard is inhabited by the black widow.
Randolph Scott, playing Lombard’s fiance, is well suited to the role of the suspicious realist who doesn’t believe any of this supernatural malarkey but dutifully tries to protect her from the charlatan psychic. Scott doesn’t get too much to do but does it well, proving himself capable in yet another of the wide range of roles Paramount was giving him during this period. Scott’s fans will find this a bit diluted but still typical Randolph, as he’s charming and solid at all times, desperate and disbelieving when Lombard gets possessed, and a man of action when the murderess needs to be driven out of Lombard’s body. I love Scott as a cowboy but few actors looked as good spiffy and dressed up, so if I can’t interest you in anything else of this plot or genre, you must at least give the movie a whirl to see Scott and Lombard together in such grand style.
Lombard was not happy to be in this movie (the Halperins originally intended her role for Madge Bellamy) and she threatened the filmmakers with epic destruction, which they thought had arrived when an earthquake hit during filming. Still, Lombard does a fine job in this dual role, going from sad, sweet, meek heiress to chilling murderess. She does an impersonation of Osborne’s voice and mannerisms, and was helped in the transformation by arched eyebrows and makeup by Wally Westmore, stop-motion photography and the echoed effect of cutting in closeups of glowing, evil glaring eyes for both women. Supernatural gives you the rare chance to see Lombard as an evil seductress, as she lures Dinehart to his demise, along with her touching scenes where she comforts the grieving dog who brings her late brother’s slippers, or listens wistfully to family recordings. For a genre movie that she hated, it’s actually a rich part that gives her a range of things to do and she does them well.
As a horror picture, Supernatural is not too frightening. The tricks and illusions Dinehart sets up for the seance are interesting, but far from scary; he keeps peeking from his “trance” to see if his victims are falling for it. It gets creepier when this crook is too dumb to realize that Osborne has come back from the dead to get him. But there are other good disturbing bits, so it works for me as a decent thriller. Beryl Mercer does a great turn as Dinehart’s nosy alcoholic landlady who accidentally breaks her booze bottle while pounding on the roaches, peeps in over Dinehart’s transom, opens his mail, and channels a bit of Elsa Lanchester in a juicy death scene when Dinehart poisons her. Vivienne Osborne is really good as the black widow, laughing maniacally and staring daggers; in very few scenes she convincingly scares the pants off everyone. H. B. Warner acts like Dr. Frankenstein when he’s working on Osborne’s corpse, which has on full makeup and manages to sit up and give Lombard and Scott a chilling stare when they barge in on the experiments. Brrrr.
I enjoy the scares, mild as they are, but what I love about this movie is the juxtaposition of setting the horror elements in these highly polished Deco surroundings where you expect Astaire and Rogers to waltz by at any moment. The doctor’s apartment is a vast, roomy lair fit for an Architectural Digest spread, and we get to “walk through” it as the camera follows Scott and Lombard from foyer to glowing lab room. Between that, Lombard’s mansion and the luxury yacht, it’s fun to watch the weirdness unfold in such glamour. It takes most of the movie to get to the possession part and then we race through to the climax in which there are some spooky effects used to depict a brutal death and the final fate of Lombard/Osborne. The film is full of interesting camera angles, tracking shots, and creative touches. It begins with high drama courtesy of a hysterical vocal chorus and sensational newspaper headlines and ends with the spirit of Lombard’s brother blowing magazine pages open to the ‘Honeymoon in Bermuda’ advertisement and nodding his ghostly head in approval. Really, how can you pass all this up? For me Supernatural works because I love horror movies of that era and it checks enough boxes to qualify as one, is a decent thriller even if you find it a wimpy horror, it looks fabulous and has a special kind of star power, even if they weren’t yet the stars we best remember them as, or the type of movie they were best known for making.