As die-hard fans know, Carole Lombard made one horror picture in her too-short but very active career. It was the 1933 Paramount release, Supernatural, produced and directed by the Halperin brothers, Victor and Edward, who were at the time flush with cash from their 1932 independent production, White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi.
White Zombie is the mighty little swimming sperm that erupted into generations of succeeding pictures where the zombies grew ever more creepy, lustful, menacing, intelligent, speedy, and carnivorous, right up to today’s The Walking Dead, which I choose not to watch because death is around us enough without using it as entertainment. I digress. These Halperins from Chicago were the adolescent minds that started the Zombie Invasion by creating some glassy-eyed shufflers who now seem docile and even cute by today’s comparison, and now the brothers set their sights on ghosts and possession with Supernatural.
Readers of Fireball know that Carole Lombard lived and breathed filmmaking. She knew when a pan was better than a tilt, when a close up was better than a wide shot, when less light was better than more light. So imagine her vexation, after working for several top directors, when she tried to understand the vision of 37-year-old Victor Halperin, fresh off his stint working with Bela Lugosi and the undead. Most telling of all the unusual aspects of this picture as viewed today is the relentless series of brightly lit, full-on close-ups of Carole Lombard’s face. The girl who only felt comfortable when she controlled the lighting because of her scars is super-exposed in Supernatural, and truth be told, she looks great. The cheek scar is highly visible in several shots because it’s an indentation in her cheek and casts a shadow, but the blown-out lighting obliterated the other, flatter scars on her face, the one by her left eye and those near her mouth. Carole at 24 going on 25 is shown in Supernatural to be as uniquely beautiful as they came onscreen in that time period. She brims with vigor, her physical powers entering their peak. Why she worried so much about the way she was lit, I don’t know.
Supernatural is the one Carole was making when she entreated the heavens, “Who do I have to screw to get off this picture??” It’s easy to see why. Supernatural fades in to a dark and stormy night and warnings by Confucius and the Bible about the undead. The first quarter of the economical 64-minute run time concerns the pending execution of serial killer Ruth Rogen, a hot little number who manages to strangle her strapping male lovers. The inference is that she gets them drunk and then, does them in. Mad-doctor-sort-of-psychologist Dr. Houston is certain—certain, mind you—that when Ruth is put to death, her spirit will inhabit a nearby living breathing woman and so after execution is carried out, Dr. Houston claims the body, and………
He what? He claims the body? I guess these were simpler times, the 1930s, because you’d think it’d be a tough case that some guy can just claim the body of a headline-grabbing, newly executed serial killer. But next thing you know, he’s got her in his laboratory and he’s experimenting on her.
If you were so inclined, you could spend a week questioning the plot of Supernatural, but it would be a pointless exercise. Just enjoy Carole Lombard as young, wildly rich Roma Courtney, who’s possessed by the murderous soul of Ruth Rogen and bent on putting an end to Ruth’s evil lover, Paul Bavian. I’d tell you who the actors were but you never heard of them.
What I want to know is, how did everyone in this time period, from Roma Courtney to Nick and Nora Charles, get their MONEY? Wasn’t there this thing going on called the Great Depression? DAMN these people were well off. Roma’s digs are so vast that the dolly operators have a tough time keeping up with her. Roma has a yacht, too, which I mistook for a U.S. Navy destroyer.
Randolph Scott is in Supernatural, but I’m not exactly sure why. He’s too good for this sort of thing and yet manages to make no impression as Roma’s boyfriend, a part that could have been played by any guy plucked off any street corner in Hollywood. It’s the kind of role that only becomes necessary in the last reel, and (Spoiler) only for the moment it takes to rescue Carole Lombard’s possessed character from committing a murder.
Ironically, Carole’s off-screen posse included two psychics, and these weren’t money-grubbing Long Island Mediums either. These two refused to take her money and instead hung around Carole and her mom Petey just because. They routinely raised hackles by knowing things they couldn’t know. As a result, Carole should have found some interesting concepts in Supernatural, but the chaos of its production negated any such inclinations on her part.
Don’t get me wrong. Supernatural is a rollercoaster ride of a picture, and if it were made today, it would be all CG and over the top and loud and entrail-strewn and in your face and no fun at all. But because of the times and the stars involved, this thing is a hoot, with enough genuine creepiness to keep an audience onboard for an hour of mayhem thought up by genuine adolescent brains.
This is one of those “pre-Code” pictures they’re always talking about—you know, before the Hollywood Production Code went into effect and pinch-faced censors took over. This doesn’t mean Lombard’s bouncing around naked in Supernatural (unfortunately), but it’s clear that actual sex breaks out in this universe, and that booze is fun, and murder rewarding. Ruth Rogen doesn’t get her comeuppance for being a killer, which the Production Code would soon require. Sure, she’s executed, but then her soul floats free to continue the mayhem, and it’s implied at fade out that she’ll possess again after being driven from Roma’s body. For all I know, Ruth Rogen is still out there somewhere, strangling away.
I hope Turner Classic Movies runs Supernatural soon. If it doesn’t, seek out a bootleg copy and emulate Paul Bavian by pouring a triple shot of hard liquor. It worked for me. Then sit back and enjoy the picture that drove Carole Lombard crazy, the one she didn’t talk about, the one horror picture she ever made; the one that collectors today revere for its rarity. Whatever else you can say about Supernatural, it is hands-down the wildest, most unusual picture to which Lombard’s name is attached. And, oops, I think she just turned over in her grave.