Underneath A… – Black Moon (1934)

As far as pre-code horror movies go, Black Moon is definitely underrated and one of the best outside of Universal. A very moody picture, there is a prevalent sense of dread throughout the entirety of the film, right from the first minute until almost the very last. Starring Jack Holt, Fay Wray, Dorothy Burgess and Arnold Korff, there is no lacking for talent and with a top-notch script from Wells Root, cinematography by Joseph H. August and strong direction from Roy William Neill; the movie might not be very long, but it keeps the viewer on the edge of the seat and never lacks at being enjoyable.

It all begins with the sound of drums. Low, sonorous and rhythmic, they get under the skin of those who hear them, but to Juanita, it is the sound of home. Though she might have a child and a husband to call her own and a life far removed from the one she was born to, it is that faraway island that she dreams of, that she longs for and when given a chance to go back, she takes it though much to the consternation of her uncle who did not expect her to come nor wants her there. Eventually Juanita’s husband Stephen arrives to find things are not all they seem. Juanita might seem happy, but those around her are not including Gail, Stephen’s assistant as played by Wray. Soon the nightmare that lies just underneath the seemingly idyllic exterior of the island is exposed, Juanita is revealed and those who are strangers to the area find themselves in the gravest of dangers.

Each of the main players in the game sell their roles well – Holt as the unassuming husband who is doubtful about the entire voodoo thing, Wray as the woman in love with Holt and knowing she has no chance as he loves his wife, Korff playing the uncle who knows about the danger they all face and can do essentially nothing about it and of course Burgess as Juanita, the woman who cannot escape her past nor her fate. Despite Holt starring as the lead, it is Burgess who stands out as she adds to the horror of the film more than anything else, her performance making Juanita far more complex than it seems. In some instances she is manic, dangerous during others and she is always deceitful even when there is no reason to be as such. But one has to feel a sort of pity for the woman as she is a slave to her destiny, to her home and to those drums. A telling moment and a truly outstanding scene was that of her carrying her child as a sacrifice during the last act. Said plot device has been used in many a film over the years – that long, ponderous, fateful tread that certifies certain doom and it was a moment where the audience could see the vast range of emotions playing out over Burgess’ face as doubt finally started to tear through her resolve and beliefs, though in the end it would all be for naught.

Sadly, for a movie all about voodoo, there was really little of it other than the mention of it, of what the natives practice and sometimes do and the eventual rituals where sacrifice comes into play. Most of the horror, aside from Burgess, came from the atmosphere as painted by August and Neill with a slight use of claustrophobia among other things. With comments stating just how much the islanders outnumber the visitors and how escape seems highly unlikely, especially during that last act once again and with that simple shot of the broken boat out in the bay, it being the only way off of the island, it would end up being incredibly effective in establishing just how dire their circumstances were and it would ratchet up the dread and the tension even more.

For something outside of Frankenstein or Dracula, Phantom of the Opera or Nosferatu, Black Moon is a strong entry in the annals of pre-code horror and well worth a look for those seeking either little known horror or just something good to watch.

4 out of 5

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