Directed by Victor Halperin
Written by Garnett Weston, Brian Marlow, and Harvey Thew
Up to the present time everything that I have investigated has been the result of deluded brains.—Harry Houdini, A Magician Among the Spirits
Spiritualism went into decline, in no small part due to the objections such as those voiced in Harry Houdini's above-quoted jeremiad, right before they started making movies about it, and I suppose Spiritualism had to have declined, if they were going to make movies about it, because religions do not typically like being portrayed as grifts. The ascent of Spiritualism, meanwhile, though stretching back to the 18th century, only began in earnest in 1848, when a couple of sisters in upstate New York, Kate and Maggie Fox, decided to start pranking their neighbors by claiming that their house was haunted; this snowballed into full-on careers as mediums for spirits, though they later admitted what probably ought to have been obvious at the time, that they made it up and were faking the rapping sounds that constituted their ghostly communications, and by fairly primitive means, at that (the Foxes had unusually poppy joints). The ease of this trickery, perhaps, is what led to the fad; when well-trained illusionists and confidence artists got into the act, they found a willing audience who wanted to believe.
Particular favorite targets were the bereaved, and there was always a bump in Spiritualist popularity after a war: Mary Todd Lincoln, who lost a son to the War of the Rebellion, is known to have held seances; Arthur Conan Doyle, who similarly lost a son in World War I, was convinced beyond reason of Spiritualist claims, and destroyed a friendship with Houdini on account of it. Magicians, you see, were particularly leery of mediums, for the latter basically were magicians, except using their talents in a context that stained the whole profession: while stage illusionists told you upfront they were tricking you, daring you to guess how, mediums told you what you saw was real, and suggested a minimum donation—and at this point we're not even so many generations out from harmless kooks and relatively harmless suppliers of kook accessories getting tortured until they admitted to a pact with Satan. The religion itself, apart from the charlatans, grew throughout this period, roping in scientists like Pierre Curie who found it plausible enough to look into, and inspiring the creation of the awesomely-named Society for Psychical Research, dedicated to open minded investigation but, mostly, debunking Spiritualist and similar parapsychological phenomena. As for the Spiritualist community, it was very late in the day organized. Until then, Spiritualism was merely maintained as a set of loosely-defined tenets that, indeed, usually sat alongside its practitioners' Christianity, and only occasionally replaced it; and while Spiritualism was not least attractive because of its promises of bridging the worlds of the living and the dead—maybe even proving scientifically the existence of the soul and God!—it was also attractive because establishment Christianity had in a real sense been in a constant state of moral failure, much as you would expect anything established to be, especially in the 19th century. It was thus an early example in modern history of the progressive-minded but sadly smooth-brained attaching themselves to some manner of woo, such as we see today with the likes of astrology, and even more dangerous stuff; Spiritualism, to its credit as a religion, has as far as I can tell never been dangerous to anyone except its adherents.
You can imagine that such a flamboyant religion, literally founded upon illusionist showmanship (which makes you wonder, huh?), captured the imagination of filmmakers from time to time. Beyond the spectacle, it promised a rich and idiosyncratic vein of human weirdness to be exploited; and so, indeed, there is a line of such films, and this October we're going to be doing a little overview—not exhaustive, I'm sure, just whatever strikes my fancy, one more fun-to-me way of excavating a new tranche of classic cinema. It does, I think, represent an interesting nexus between two genres that were sometimes closely aligned, especially aesthetically, horror and noir. The horror element is more-or-less self-executing: Spiritualism is about ghosts, and whether they're real or not, and whether they're well-intentioned or not, or even just globs of ectoplasm or not, ghosts are still always spooky (and for reasons more complicated than I can fathom—though I'm sure tip-toeing around religious belief and accusations of encouraging superstitions beyond the approved Judeo-Christian kind was a big part of it—they were something cinematic horror rarely broached for a good long while even in movies about Spiritualism). The way it connects to noir is possibly even more obvious, considering that for decades the modal form of the spirit medium in film, right up until paranormal horror exploded as a genre in the 1970s, was that of pure scam-artist scum. The first major film—maybe let's say "first major talkie," to be on the safe side*—to take on the world of discarnate spirits does both—the ghost and the scum—and does them in a petite little package of just 65 minutes.
This was Supernatural, and besides Spiritualism, it was an early case study in indie filmmakers making it, then suddenly not making it, since it was a bit of a box office wet noodle. Said indie filmmakers were the brothers Victor Hugo Halperin and Edward Halperin (Victor being the director on their films, while Edward served as the producer, and as far as I can tell this was not, in fact, a Coenesque subterfuge, and Victor would outright tell you Edward was the less important partner), and the Halperins had just come off of one of the most-famous horror films of the early 1930s, possibly the most-famous of all that didn't come from Universal, White Zombie. It wasn't as widely-celebrated back in 1932, but it had managed a very notable level of profit for a low-budget independent, and though critics then and now can identify a lot of problems with it, there's scarcely any denying that it was a tremendous calling card for Victor's talent at horror. (Ironically, Victor had the talent but apparently not the temperament: later in life he sneered at horror as antisocial trash, one suspects precisely because it was the only place where he ever found success.) But with its creative re-use of borrowed sets, inky photography, and an atmosphere of casual cruelty, topped off of with a beautifully menacing and eyebrow-forward performance from Bela Lugosi, White Zombie amounts to at least a good twenty minutes of all-time great horror—which is, of course, out of a full runtime of 67 minutes, and, as the movie's about lumbering, brainwashed vodoun zombies, you can probably guess how its problems manifest, too. Nevertheless, it was enough to get the Halperins scooped up by Paramount, who'd recently had a horror hit of their own, one of the few other non-Universal Horror films that could challenge White Zombie for that "most-famous" title, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and there's the persistent suggestion that Supernatural, consciously or unconsciously, and obviously by way of very different means, must've been conceived somewhat as "the girl version" (the girl version, perhaps needless to say, gets even hotter when she turns evil). One could add that with its subject of possession by a spirit, it's sort of the converse extension of White Zombie's mind control.
The Halperins' follow-up does not achieve the same bleak-as-hell highs as White Zombie, but it maintains a much stronger average across its similar runtime. If it does hit even close to as hard, then it's in its opening gesture—distinct in this case from its introductory gesture, which is a collection of out-of-context, not-entirely-germane, and quite-possibly-invented quotations from diverse religious figures about the existence of spirits and screwing around with the dead. This is mostly just mood-setting for the kind of overheated pulp we're going to get (not unlike the lightning bolt font for the title credits, which I find completely delightful). But that opening gesture, I was saying, relates the ugly tale of Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborn), presently wending towards its, ahem, electrifying conclusion: an artist and a maniac, Ruth has murdered a string of lovers—three men in all—and has been tried and sentenced to death, and these facts get flung into our faces in an assaultive dissolve-montage of snipped dialogue and overlapping, almost abstract imagery (if not the work of the trendsetting montage designer Slavko Vorkapich, then it's certainly in his style). The peak is therefore one of those images in particular, Ruth's weapon of choice, her very hands, reaching out of the blackness in the center of the collage, and glowing in their photographic treatment as they prepare to throttle the life out of us. Ruth is executed, but not before she agrees to a strange request from one Dr. Houston (H.B. Warner): as the renowned psychic researcher has explained, he has a hypothesis that so-called copycat murders aren't just some quirk of human psychology; they are the direct result of the original killer's spirit, released by violence, spreading its malign influence across society. (That is some too-hot-to-handle pulp right there.) He hopes to do something nebulous to Ruth's soul with electricity, hoping he might at least "prove the negative." It will turn out he's right in theory, but it's not going to work anyway.
For one of Houston's acquaintances, Roma Courtney (Carole Lombard), has recently lost her twin brother John (Lyman Williams), and though her paramour Grant (Randolph Scott) is as supportive as possible, she's practically inconsolable; she will seek out, or rather be sought out, by the medium Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart), presently languishing in a rotten tenement tormented by the mockery of his soused harpy landlady (Beryl Mercer). Bavian is ambitious, though, and he knows a mark when he finds one. Through hook and a lot of crook, he insinuates himself into Roma's confidence and begins his campaign to divest her of her money—but what he couldn't know is that Roma, subsequent to a visit to her friend Dr. Houston's apartment, where Roma evidently entered Ruth's disembodied spirit's sights, she isn't Roma anymore, and it turns out that things couldn't be looking brighter for Ruth despite the handicap of being dead, for she has a certain score to settle with Bavian.
There are a couple of things holding Supernatural back, and one is probably pretty apparent from the plot synopsis, which is that it is so absurdly contrived it feels like its screenwriters weren't even doing it out of excusable necessity to get their story to take the shape they wanted, but out of pure hack reflex—sure, it's "convenient," in the pejorative sense, that the entire cast of characters already forms a continuous loop with basically just a single degree of separation between any of them, but there's not really an awful lot about Supernatural that would need to change if you broke the most-contrived part of that loop: if the whole idea is "free-roaming spirits sit on regular joes and janes' shoulders and make them kill" then an actual face-to-face between Roma and Ruth's body was never a hard requisite. The other thing is more pervasive, but I'm torn on it, because I also love it, and it's the way Supernatural gets to be such a ruthlessly efficient weird fiction short story, concerned above everything else with communicating all its wacked-out ideas about learned scientists attempting to capture murder ghosts and sleazy mediums destroyed by the forces they'd claimed to have mastered. But it's simply too good at things besides that to be so short.
Maybe it wouldn't be better if it were longer; a very large part of its charm, besides its "this story is fucking ridiculous, deal with it" brusqueness, is how astonishingly well it manages its principal characters within that shorthand style. For instance, while I don't really like to use superlatives I'm comfortable enough at least suggesting that it could have the single best scene in a 1930s horror movie that isn't itself horror, with a moment that's surprisingly patient in these circumstances (and perhaps amplified in its effect on the basis that a 65 minute movie is actually willing to spend a decent stretch of valuable runtime on it); so, soon after we've met Roma and learned of her grief, we are invited to understand the void left by a loved one, the open wound that's taken the place of the physical space they used to occupy, in just an astoundingly perfect example of visual storytelling by way of her brother's dog, who gets to basically serve as Lombard's avatar, since while the human being is obliged to intellectually admit her brother's dead, the dog can fetch slippers for an empty chair and express on Roma's behalf her own actual feelings about it, which at the very bottom of things is the same pitiful, uncomprehending confusion, while Lombard herself silently acknowledges the parallel. This kind of work doesn't extend to every character, but even one as functional as Mercer's landlady—her function is to get on Bavian's bad side and die—at least winds up with a beat that might be its own peak, albeit in the field of "30s drunkard comedy," in part because it barely registers as comedy, and more like a lurid expression of the sheer squalidness of her situation, when she thoughtlessly smashes a full bottle of liquor to kill a cockroach and then, by a miracle, gains several dozen I.Q. points to quickly solve the problem of salvaging the remaining booze. (I don't know if Ruth gets a lot of texture for her flailing evil personality, exactly, but she sure gets plenty in concept, which is kind of amazing, insofar as she appears to be damned near possessed of superhuman strength for no explained reason, and there is just something so off-kilter about a movie, even if I don't think it's attempting to make any "point," where the female sex murderer—that it has a female sex murderer in the first place is already wild—relies not just upon physical violence but, quite literally, her bare hands, while the male villain skulks around with female-coded Spiritualist subterfuge and uses the quintessential "woman's weapon," poison, to claim his victims.)
Yet the sense that it could potentially stand another good half hour is pretty insistent—maybe they were thinking in terms of Dr. Jekyll, but they definitely were taking a page from Universal in ramping down the prestige factor that partly animated that film's production, because Dr. Jekyll is in fact a good half hour longer—and it becomes more pronounced as we go along. The film isn't rushed until Ruth possesses Roma—so it's one of those movies, an endemic thing in classic genre cinema, where it gets to the premise just in time to end—and it's kind of impossible not to imagine that there was more potential in the possible complications of Ruth-in-Roma's body than Supernatural actually ever gives us, Ruth-in-Roma's body-wise, at a bare minimum in terms of Lombard, whose drippy grieving rube is actually reasonably good (she manages to let us see how Roma's skepticism gets overcome by her compulsive, desperate hope; and it's more a matter of direction, but it occurs to me that Roma's aviary, where her birds are locked up and not allowed to fly, is some pretty great symbolism), but anyway, Lombard at least looks like she's having more fun being possessed by a sinister vamp. (It's unfortunately true, however, that Lombard was not having fun generally, as she hated this movie and hated Victor Halperin—there's some evidence that Sidney Salkow, "dialogue director," handled the actors most of the time. I can't speak with any confidence regarding whether she was having fun with the startling blocking of Ruth-Roma's incognito seduction of Bavian, where Dinehart straight-up helps himself to one of Lombard's tits—sometimes movies actually are pre-Code, I admit it—but thanks to an editing hiccup you can see her break character with a chortle halfway through the dissolve-out.)
But if, in discussing a film's weaknesses, a lot of it boils down to "there should be more of it," that's a good sign, and Supernatural does an awful lot of affirmative good. The noirish despicability of Bavian, emphasized by his ugly environment, brings us halfway back to the damp nastiness of a White Zombie; and whatever his master plan is, is never really too heavily dwelled upon, but it winds up with a non-trivial body count and a rather strong seance scene, wherein Halperin privileges Dinehart with cutaways to his amused expressions of contempt for his marks. And as far as White Zombie goes, Halperin doubles down on his absolute signature from that film, with a lot of high-impact effects shots of Lombard's eyes, lit like they're aflame, taking up as much of the frame as eyes could and blazing with murderous rage. It climaxes sufficiently and satisfyingly violently—maybe not entirely sensibly, but such is horror's prerogative, and there are indications it's a reshot ending to soften the harsh inevitabilities the first ending had promised—but if it did soften it, I'm not even opposed to it, because rather than upon a note of nihilism it decides to end, instead, with the Goddamn cutest final couple of shots you could ask for. Of the horror cinema of the 1930s, I'd rank it rather high, and a big part of that is just how completely unique it feels, both ahead of its time (having an actual freaking ghost is huge), yet absolutely of its time, in ways that are magnetically appealing in their combination.