Here’s an idea you might not have considered. What if copycat killers weren’t to blame for their murders? What if every time a murderer was executed their spirit possessed someone and that’s how copycat killers were born?
Spot any holes in that theory? How about the fact that copycat killers don’t only always wait until after the murderer they’re copying dies to kill? It sounds like the kind of defense a lawyer would make if they were desperate and out of ideas, but in Victor Halperin’s Supernatural it’s a respected doctor (H.B. Warner) who makes this statement, and nobody bats an eye.
It’s the little things that can derail a horror movie and, for only being 64 minutes long, Supernatural missteps a lot, from a scene where someone who’s never seen Face Off tries to mime making a face mold, to Dr. Houston and his absolutes. Saying all copycat killers are possessed is dangerous. Saying some are is all the wiggle room a horror film needs to prosper and thrive.
The reason Dr. Houston is even bringing this theory up, though, is because Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne) is about to be executed. While her lawyers were hoping to get her sentence commuted to life in jail (she strangled a bunch of her boyfriends), the appeal was denied and now she’s being sent to the electric chair. Viewers are given this information through a newspaper headline and, if you do ever watch this movie, be sure to pause and read the front page because while the headlines are highlighted in the montage that follows, all of the articles are legible and someone clearly put a lot of time into them.
Enter Carole Lombard as Roma. Her twin brother, John (Lyman Williams), died recently and there’s a spiritualist (Alan Dinehart) who thinks she’ll be an easy mark. Supernatural is the only horror film Lombard ever did and if the film around her is shaky, Lombard’s not. She gets to show-off her dramatic skills, in the scenes where Roma grieves her brother, and completely works an arched eyebrow during the possession scenes.
The other highlight is Beryl Mercer as the spiritualist’s landlady. It’s not a huge role but she’s does a lot. Film historian, Tim Lucas, provides the commentary track for Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray release and it’s an excellent listen, whether you enjoy Supernatural or not. One credit you don’t see too often is dialogue director and Lucas is able to explain what Sidney Salkow’s role was on set. He also brings some clarity to a scene where I thought Roma’s brother was possessing someone. Turns out he was communicating beyond the grave.
Halperin’s brother, Edward, produced both Supernatural and White Zombie and Lucas talks about why their careers didn’t take off. For anyone interested by his references to Harry Houdini and Alfred Conan Doyle (two men who had very different views on spiritualism), Titan Comics’ series, Minky Woodcock, is a great read.
Supernatural is available on Blu-Ray now from Kino Lorber.