Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Black Moon (1934)

Black Moon belongs to one of my very favourite horror genres - the voodoo movie. Even better, this 1934 Columbia production is a pre-code voodoo horror movie. And the cast includes the first of the great scream queens, the one and only Fay Wray.

Juanita Perez Lane (Dorothy Burgess) was brought up on the island of San Christopher in the Caribbean. There is a dark secret in her past relating to this island. We know it involves voodoo, because at her flat in London she still hears the voodoo drums. And she has an obsessive desire to return to San Christopher.

Juanita is married to Stephen Lane (Jack Holt) and has an eight-year-old daughter, Nancy. For some reason Juanita wants to return to San Christopher alone. There are two thousand people on the island, only two of whom are Europeans. One of these two Europeans, the overseer, is sent to London to warn Stephen that on no account should Juanita be allowed to return to the island. The overseer is murdered before he can deliver this message.

Stephen does however manage to persuade his secretary, Gail Hamilton (Fay Wray), to accompany Juanita and Nancy.

When they get to the island they find that things are very uneasy. The drums have been beating regularly, always a bad sign. The plantation on the island is owned and managed by Juanita’s uncle Dr Perez (Arnold Korff). He fears that another native uprising may be imminent.

Gail is a sensible girl and she managed to get a message to Stephen advising him to come to San Christopher at once. He arrives on a schooner skippered by ‘Lunch’ McClaren (Clarence Muse). Lunch is a black man but he has no time for the blacks on San Christopher - he fears them, and with good reason. But Lunch is a brave man and agrees to land on the island with Stephen Lane.

Things on the island rapidly become more unsettled. The full moon is approaching (a time when blood sacrifices are made to the voodoo gods) and Dr Perez pleads with the Lanes to leave the island before then. Stephen agrees, but Lunch’s schooner is stolen. Another bad sign. And Nancy’s nurse, Anna, is murdered. Now Nancy has a native nurse and it’s obvious (to the audience at least) that this new nurse is deeply involved with voodoo.

It’s also obvious that Juanita is deeply involved with voodoo. That’s her dark secret. Her parents were murdered and she was raised by a native nurse, and raised in the voodoo cult. And she is a keen, if deeply naïve, devotee. It’s clear that her loyalties are not to her husband or to Dr Perez but to the voodoo priest.

Things go from bad to worse and soon the handful of Europeans, along with Lunch McClaren but minus Juanita, are holed up in the tower that the Perez family built long ago for such eventualities. Lunch has lost his girlfriend to voodoo - she was offered as a blood sacrifice. There are never any doubts as to where his loyalties lie - he hates voodoo with a passion. He is Stephen Lane’s only reliable ally, and the only one who had been brave enough to accompany Stephen to witness the bloody voodoo rites.

Dorothy Burgess is truly frightening as the obsessed Juanita, a woman caught between two cultures who cannot see where her devotion to voodoo will lead her. Fay Wray this time has the less crucial female role but she gives it everything she’s got and she’s excellent. And she doesn’t scream in this movie - Gail is a courageous and resourceful young woman. She also has a secret, a secret that has little bearing on the main plot but does explain her motivations.

Jack Holt isn’t the most exciting of heroes but he’s quite adequate. Arnold Korff is excellent as Dr Perez, a man who knows far more about Stephen Lane’s wife than Stephen himself knows. Clarence Muse makes the most of his role as Lunch McClaren.

Roy William Neill, as always, does a fine job as director. This movie captures the steamy and ominous atmosphere of the tropics rather wonderfully.

Columbia’s DVD presentation is barebones but it’s an excellent transfer. Both the DVD and the movie are highly recommended. It might not be quite in the same league as the classic  I Walked with a Zombie but this is still a terrific voodoo horror movie.


Kho said...

Couldn't agree more with your assessment. It may not be as good as IWWAZ or White Zombie but I enjoyed it immensely. Neill really did a terrific job and I want to see more of his movies.

dfordoom said...

Kho, The Scarlet Claw and The Pearl of Death are excellent Roy William Neill movies. They're Sherlock Holmes movies but they have a definite gothic flavour to them.