Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Voodoo was the sensational subject of several early shockers, among them the Halperin Brothers' White Zombie (1932) and Val Lewton's Jane Eyre revision, I Walked With a Zombie (1943). Turner Classic Movies recently treated viewers to an obscure Columbia entry, Black Moon (1934), in this extraordinary subgenre. The topic is invariably suffused with enough racial and religious heresies to raise the hackles of any Sensitivity Policeperson, and Roy William Neill's film of an obscure Clements Ripley potboiler is a case in point. ("Love Battling Against the Sorcery of the Jungle!" bellowed the movie's memorable poster.) That this minor but fascinating picture is unavailable on home video is indeed a pity, but perhaps TCM's noble programming efforts will bring it back into some corner of the public consciousness.

Jack Holt headlines as businessman Stephen Lane, whose neurotic wife Juanita (Dorothy Burgess) was initiated into the Afro-Caribbean path as a child on the island of Saint Christopher by her native nurse Ruva (Madame Sul-te-Wan, the first black actor to sign a motion picture contract), after her parents were murdered in the island's most recent native uprising. Juanita, against the wishes of her uncle, Dr. Perez (Arnold Korff), journeys back to St. Christopher with her tiny daughter Nancy (Cora Sue Collins), Nancy's nursemaid, Anna (Eleanor Wesselhoeft), and Lane's secretary, Gail Hamilton (Fay Wray, who secretly loves her employer), in tow. Danger's already afoot in the States, where the overseer of Dr. Perez's sugar plantation is knifed by a native at Lane's office before he can warn the husband of what awaits Juanita on the island. Mrs. Lane, you see, is still in thrall to the Voodoo clan, which requires a blood sacrifice every now and then, and the next full moon is three weeks away.

Juanita first appears in closeup, her face ominously half-shadowed, playing a rada for Nancy as the camera cuts to worried reaction shots of her house staff. ("She's at it again," one of them remarks.) She's a woman torn between two worlds, who feels "only half-alive" under the influence of her "cold" European-American heritage. Juanita assures her uncle that "the past is dead" and "the natives have forgotten long ago," but, as he corrects her, "the natives never forget." Mrs. Lane comes alive only when she's reunited with Ruva and St. Christopher's holy man, Kala (Laurence Criner). Soon Anna turns up dead in the local lava pit, and Ruva, who encourages the child to play with knives, replaces her as nanny. (The island's wireless operator has earlier been hanged after telegraphing Lane.) Juanita's husband shoots Kala as the high priest prepares to sacrifice the ladyfriend of the Georgia boatman, Lunch McClaren (Clarence Muse), who brought him to St. Christopher--unbelievably, the cultists do not immediately set upon the men--and blood restitution must be made by Juanita, who, after herself executing the schooner captain's gal, is expected to slay her husband, and--when her efforts to drug him fail--her daughter. The natives invade Perez's mansion and bring Nancy to the sacrificial site, but Lane plugs his wife before she slaughters the child so that Ms. Hamilton can assume her rightful place at his side.

Black Moon mightifully manifests the Caucasian fear of "going native" among African populations, as well as--more mutedly--the dread of miscegenation. Burgess adeptly projects Juanita's duality, warm one minute and darkly distant the next; she's an early and dramatic specimen of postmodern white pathology, entranced by the call of the Other. Although repulsed by the thought of sacrificing Nancy, she's nevertheless willing to kill the girl, and her ultimate objective is to rule St. Christopher once she has her uncle eliminated for oppressing "my poor natives." "Tragic woman is less moral than man," Camille Paglia asserts in Sexual Personae. "Her will-to-power is naked. Her actions are under a chthonian cloud." Juanita is Underworld Exhibit A, and she's certainly one of the more interesting villainesses of Hollywood's Golden Age, comparable to Myrna Loy in such culturally disreputable delights as Thirteen Women and the incredible Mask of Fu Manchu (both 1932). Proud and magnificent in peekaboo priestess gear, she writhes ecstatically as the red sect celebrates her, while her husband observes, hidden and humiliated.

Wray, who spent the first half of the decade hopping from island to island (The Most Dangerous Game [1932], King Kong [1933]), makes a charming surrogate mother for Nancy, but Holt (who previously starred with Ms. Wray in Frank Capra's Dirigible [1931]) has little to do except look bewildered--and, in the case of his secretary, act oblivious. Korff is quite convincing as a man navigating the minefield of another potential uprising ("Six times the blacks have tried to wipe us out. I suppose you're acquainted with the Negro superstition that seven is their lucky number"), lapsing into Lugosian intensity as he recounts of Burgess, "She tasted blood!" at a childhood sacrifice. He rules his island, three-fourths of whose population consists of "hill bandits--fugitives from Haiti," by force, and possesses as much contempt for the natives as they have for him. Muse, who appeared in White Zombie and also held an international law degree, bulges his eyes in the best Mantan Moreland tradition, while Madame Sul-te-Wan is a model of understated menace.

Multiculturalists may cringe, but it's significant that the natives want Juanita, rather than one of their island sisters, for their Queen Mother; it seems that the trophyism of European beauty prevails even in the densest jungle. Voodoo, alas, is depicted in the most negative light, though arguably the diasporic polytheism suits the natives better than the alien belief system of Judeo-Christianity which has colonized the spirits of so many Third World peoples--and, for that matter, Western Man. There's also an abundance of intraracial superiority on the part of the Georgia native Lunch, who ridicules the islanders as mere "monkey-chasers" (which doesn't, however, stop him from wooing one of them). He's especially prone to crooning "Roll, Jordan, Roll," further opposing Voodoo with That Old Time Religion, but enthusiasts of the faith will at least be relieved that no zombies are employed.

Neill, who followed this film with such classics as The Black Room (1935), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and several Sherlock Holmes adventures, keeps Wells Root's script moving at a brisk sixty-eight minutes. Louis Silvers supplied the uncredited music, a hypnotically harmonious mix of drums and chants. Joseph H. August's cinematography superbly employs positive and negative spaces; particularly pleasing are his compositions of the sacrificial ritual as the natives tremble in possession of their ancestor archetypes, as well as a smoke-filled siege in the island's tower. Black Moon isn't goody-goody by any stretch of the imagination, but this bungle in the jungle offers an amusing, and illuminating, look at a bygone era of filmmaking.