Friday, August 5, 2016

BLACK MOON (1934)



The usual voodoo tale back in the day featured a blonde, Nordic heroine falling under the spell of Creole-speaking blacks in the tropics. 

Columbia's 1934 shocker Black Moon goes a different route, with its leading female character, Juanita Perez, actually yearning to return to the island of San Christopher, where she grew up. Having never gotten the jungle out of her system, we first see her at home hypnotically playing a jungle drum for her enraptured seven year-old daughter Nancy.


My mother, the voodoo priestess.
While today she'd look like a member of a drumming circle, this scene -- along with her Latino name and jet black hair -- were cues to 1934 audiences: whatever happens, this dame has it coming. 

Just to make things more explicit, her husband, Stephen Lane, is rich, kind, a devoted husband and father, a captain of industry, and very white. Even his secretary, Gail, is in love with him. I want to be Stephen Lane.

The only thing wrong with him is that he lets little Nancy accompany Juanita (along with Gail and a nurse) for a three-week stay on San Christopher -- just another example of a man lacking a woman's intuition.


A vacation souvenir you don't want to see.
It's not Stephen's fault entirely. Throughout Black Moon, everyone who tries to warn him about Juanita's evil-eye excursion winds up on the wrong end of a dart gun, noose or, in the case of Nancy's nurse, a hot tar pit. By the time he finally shows up to bring everybody home, all hell is more or less literally breaking out. Typical family vacation.

Juanita, you see, has been spending more and more time on nighttime walks, returning glassy-eyed and woozy. While my excuse for such behavior involves the corner bar on 50-cent shot nights, Juanita has been sucked back into the voodoo world (where, according to Uncle John, her nursemaid Ruva took her to ceremonies as a child, where she first "tasted blood." Trust me, 50-cent shots do the trick better.)

That isn't Alka-Seltzer she's
putting into hubby's water glass.
Once Stephen shoots Kala, the village priest, in order to prevent a human sacrifice, the natives decide he must pay the price. Juanita's attempt at poisoning him goes wrong when it's accidentally ingested by Nancy instead. But like any good doctor, Uncle Jack has voodoo antidote in his doctor's bag. Unfortunately,it's an out-of-pocket cost.


"Just close your eyes, kid, you
won't feel a thing."
Unsatisfied with this bungled murder attempt, the natives kidnap Nancy in order for Juanita, now a high priestess, to make her daughter a human sacrifice. This was a pretty stunning turn of events for a studio movie at the time -- even more so when Juanita brings a saber down at her daughter's head, only to be shot dead by Stephen just in time. Yes, typical family vacation alright.

An extremely entertaining, well-made picture with effective black & white cinematography, Black Moon was wild enough to get it banned in the UK. There's violence aplenty, with the aftermath of the nurse's tar pit death particularly gruesome, while Uncle Jack's treatment of blacks rivals what you'd see at Trump rallies. (Uncle Jack, meanwhile, might be the first person in talkies to utter the immortal line, "The natives are restless tonight." Gee, I wonder why, Skippy.)


"Look, Jack, aren't there any shorts
around here? I'm getting a rash behind
my knees."
Then you have Juanita, who's forgets to wear certain undergarments while wearing slinky, see-through dresses. As usual in pre-code movies, everybody seems to have packed their finest clothes for this hot, humid hellhole that lacks even an Applebee's. Even Stephen and Uncle Jack dine in formal-wear even though they never leave the house. You're white, we get it.



"Remember, boss, I'm on your side."
By the way, just about the only black character who isn't a killer or zombie-maker is the Georgia-born Lunch McClaren. As played by the great Clarence Muse, is as close to a fully-rounded person black you could find studio pictures at the time, being a self-made man with a ferry-boat business, a warm singing voice, and wry sense of humor. He's possibly the only black character you'll see in a mainstream '30s movie who's allowed to shoot a gun with the white folks, and not get fired upon himself. 

Gail, Stephen and Nancy consider
using Trivago for their next trip


Other than Muse, Black Moon's only recognizable actor is Fay Wray, as the faithful secretary Gail, thanks to the previous year's hit, King Kong. Columbia executives were probably thinking, "Hey, let's hire this Fay Wray dish, she knows her way around a jungle." Her hair in Black Moon is black instead of the platinum blonde she's famous for, perhaps so as not to outshine the actress playing Juanita, Dorothy Burgess.

No problem -- Gail winds up with Jack after he shoots his wife to death. That's one way of landing a husband.



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