VOL. 12, No. 20
RON MILLER "BLACK MOON"
A 1934 voodoo chiller
re-surfaces on video
By RON MILLER
One of the joys about the recent opening up of the cinema vaults by the Hollywood studios for home video customers is the chance it gives us to take a look at some movie esoterica we didn't even know existed.
I recently stumbled onto one such "vaultie"--the 1934 Columbia Pictures thriller called "Black Moon," adapted from a novel serialized in Cosmopolitan Magazine and brought to the screen starring veteran movie hero Jack Holt and Fay Wray, just a year after she achieved cinema immortality in RKO's "King Kong."
To my knowledge, "Black Moon" has never been available on home video. I bought it through the "Warner Archive" section of the Warner Home Video online website, but it also is available through the Sony Home Video website, which normally handles most of the Columbia Pictures classics.
What you get is a beautifully clear and sharp made-to-order DVD in a customized Columbia Pictures container that displays the original poster for the movie (the one we're showing at the top of this column) and the usual plot synopsis and credits on the back of the container.
Now I don't want to suggest "Black Moon" is a bonafide classic movie. It isn't. But it's very interesting because it was stylishly directed by Roy William Neill, who that year also directed "The Black Room" with Boris Karloff and later did the Universal horror classic "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" (1943) and most of the wonderful Sherlock Holmes mysteries starring Basil Rathbone.
Neill gives "Black Moon" a deeply atmospheric feel and an authentic look, especially in the sequences that take place on a jungle island ruled by voodoo worshippers. The pace sags here and there, but the feverish climax certainly wakes you up with vigor.
The storyline, from the magazine novel by Clements Ripley, is about a wealthy American (Jack Holt) whose lovely wife Juanita (Dorothy Burgess) is haunted by the voodoo customs she was exposed to in her childhood on the island of Saint Christopher. She returns to the island, taking her little daughter with her, in hopes of exorcising the voodoo influence. Her husband's secretary (Fay Wray) goes along to watch over her. But soon the island's spell over Juanita increases and she winds up being a sort of "devil goddess" to the natives, drawn to her new role, presiding over human "blood sacrifices."
Ultimately, Juanita's husband rushes to the island at an urgent summons from his devoted secretary, who believes the lives of his wife and daughter are in jeopardy. That results in a bold attempt to rescue them, an almost impossible task once the islanders have driven away all boats from the island.
Holt, who was about 46 when he made "Black Moon," looked a little portly and past his heroic prime, but he was always a strong presence on screen and he comes through in the action finale. Burgess, best remembered as the leading lady to Warner Baxter in his Oscar-winning performance as The Cisco Kid in the 1928 "In Old Arizona," was in her mid-20s in "Black Moon" and serves as a rather sexy voodoo queen.
The surprise to most "King Kong" fans will be the appearance of Fay Wray the year after the big gorilla worked her over. Gone is the blonde hair and the skimpy, figure-flaunting wardrobe. Wray is dark-haired in "Black Moon" and it's often necessary to figure out which actress you're watching. In medium shots, you might easily confuse Wray with Burgess. They were both about 27 and built along similar lines. If Wray was required to do some screaming in "Black Moon," of course, you couldn't miss her.
Some may be shocked by the way "Black Moon" ends, but probably not too disapppointed. The last reel is pretty esciting as natives drive the "outsiders" into their fortress-like tower and the crazed Juanita starts letting the savages in through secret passages.
There was a heightened interest in voodoo in Hollywood during the early 1930s, thanks to the publication of several best-selling books about it and the release of films like "White Zombie" with Bela Lugosi. "Black Moon" wasn't an enormous hit then or we'd have seen it on home video long ago. However, it remains an interesting curio with lots of stylish touches and is well worth the $20 or so you may have to pay to get a copy.
©2011 by Ron Miller. The movie poster is courtesy of Columbia Pictures and Sony Home Video. This column first posted Aug. 29, 2011.
Ron Miller is a former nationally syndicated television columnist and the author of "Mystery! A Celebration," the official companion book to PBS' "Mystery!" series.
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