Monday, November 16, 2009

Black Moon

It’s always a treat to see a previously unscreened horror film from the 1930s-1950s.

TCM recently showed the rare “Black Moon” (1934), from Columbia Studios, a tale of voodoo and human sacrifice. The fact that it starred 1930s scream queen Fay Wray was another plus. I was really looking forward to this.

Sadly, “Black Moon” proved a disappointment in the horror movie sense, but I was still glad to have seen it. Like so many 1930s movies, it packs an amazing amount of incident in its short 68-minute running time. I may have been disappointed, but I wasn’t bored.

“Black Moon” starts out very promisingly. There’s a close-up of a woman looking unsettled as drums are heard steadily beating in the background. The camera pulls back and we see that the woman herself is beating on the drums, looking as if she’s in a trance while sitting in a very lavish apartment.

The woman turns out to be Juanita Perez (Dorothy Burgess) who grew up on an unnamed island in the Caribbean and is returning for a visit with her husband Stephen (Jack Holt) and young daughter Nancy (Cora Sue Collins). Stephen’s secretary Gail (Fay Wray) is in love with her boss and declines the opportunity to accompany the family on a working vacation, but agrees at Stephen’s urging.

Once on the island, the lure of voodoo overcomes Juanita and the nightly ceremonies cause her to revert to her days as a young woman on the island, where she was a voodoo priestess. She becomes so immersed in her voodoo lifestyle that in a trance she attempts to sacrifice her own daughter.

I really liked Holt’s interplay with his child. This is a very devoted, affectionate father, but not on a high saccharine level. The script shortchanges the Juanita character a bit. She’s a bit off throughout the whole movie, so when the voodoo overtakes her, it’s not too surprising. More contrast to her character would have been welcome.

The horror element is very slight. There’s no attempt to make the voodoo a supernatural entity, apart from some voodoo dolls on display. But there’s an undeniable mood to the story, courtesy cinematographer Joseph August. There’s real menace to the voodoo ceremonies on display here, with the writing bodies silhouetted against torches and fires. August provided the gorgeous black and white cinematography for “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1941) and “Portrait of Jennie” (1948), which are two of the most striking-looking black and white features from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Director Roy William Neill remains one of the great unsung stylists of the 1930s and 1940s. In addition to all but one of the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, he also directed one of Boris Karloff’s best vehicles, “The Black Room” (1935), a fairy-tale horror film that looks much more expensive than it likely was. (Despite Frank Capra and the Oscar sweep for “It Happened One Night” (1934), Columbia was considered somewhat of a Poverty Row studio at the time).

But Fay Wray is lovelier than ever, which is always a plus. Like I said, while it’s never entirely satisfying, it was a real treat to see this one.

The wonderful folks at TCM have been showing quite a lot of these Columbia B’s of late and I’m having a blast watching them. Some of these haven’t been on TV for decades. I still have quite a few to watch on the piles of tapes to get through. There’s another Fay Wray starrer called “Ann Carver’s Profession” (1933), Thelma Todd in “Air Hostess” (1932), Ann Sothern and Neil Hamilton in “Blind Date” (1934) and a Budd Boetticher-directed mystery called “The Missing Corpse” (1944), which is supposed to be quite good. Long live TCM, the greatest television channel of all time.

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