FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
In my reviews for two Halperin Brothers films, WHITE ZOMBIE and REVENGE OF THE ZOMBIES, I thought it odd that the first film didn’t dwell on the sociological theme of black zombies being forced to labor for a white overseer, while the later film did invoke a similar theme with respect to Cambodian victims of Euro-imperialism. I briefly wondered if the theme had been repressed in WHITE ZOMBIE due to American sensitivities about the history of real-world slavery. The nature of Columbia's 1934 BLACK MOON, however, would suggest that not every producer was so reticent.
BLACK MOON is the sort of horror-film seemingly made for Marxist analysis, dealing as it does with the demonization of an imperialized people (the black natives of fictional Caribbean island San Christopher) and the horror of a member of a dominant race (Caucasian in this case) as she “goes native.” I don’t deny that this sort of “sociological mythicity” does exist; I simply don’t believe that sociological myths are as central to human art as Marxist analysts like to think. However, while BLACK MOON has the potential to develop in the other three Campbellian categories—psychological, cosmological, or metaphysical—it really doesn’t develop beyond the matrix of the sociological. I will say that the central myth of MOON is that of Faustian temptation, which exceeds the boundaries of the imperialism theme.
The film opens in America with a seemingly happy family consisting of prosperous businessman Steven Lane (Jack Holt), his wife Juanita (Dorothy Burgess) and their small girl-child Nancy. But though Juanita has been absent from her birthplace San Christopher for roughly five years, she suddenly begins to yearn after the island. She begins playing drums in imitation of the natives of San Christopher, and conveys her intention to visit the plantation of her uncle Doctor Perez. In response he sends an emissary named Macklin to dissuade her. In a conversation between Juanita and Macklin, Macklin reminds Juanita that when she was a child, her black nurse Ruva initiated her into the rituals of blood sacrifice. Juanita was “poisoned by the voodoo,” as Macklin puts it. Juanita refuses to be deterred, planning to take her daughter and daughter’s nanny with her to her uncle’s estate.
Steven, somewhat worried about Juanita’s behavior, asks his private secretary Gail (Fay Wray) to go along on the trip. Gail—who has almost resigned from Steven’s service because she’s secretly in love with him—consents.
Dr. Perez is far from happy to receive his niece, but the natives celebrate Juanita’s return. In time we learn that Perez was responsible for saving Juanita from her black nurse’s ministrations and sending her to America, where she met Steven. Curiously, Perez still employs Ruva on his plantation, which seems rather strange given her culpability in seducing Perez's niece. The closest one can come to “explaining” this lapse is that later Perez tells Steven that at the same time he liberated Juanita he killed the natives’ high priest, which had the (extremely convenient) effect of pacifying the entire native population due to their fears that their gods had turned against them. Now that Juanita has returned, it’s clear that the natives still have plans for her. One of their first acts is to kill Nancy’s nanny so that evil Ruva can take over the child's care.
The natives’ reach even extends, very improbably, to America, in that one of their men journeys there and kills Macklin just as the emissary is attempting to warn Steven. One might think that this event would send Steven speeding to San Christopher, but for some reason—presumably to build tension in the film-- he remains in America until Gail manages to sneak out a telegram to him despite the watchfulness of the natives.
On the way there Steven makes the acquaintance of a sailor named Lunch (Clarence Muse), a black American from Georgia. They bond somewhat because Lunch has a girlfriend on the island, though he like Steven is worried about the influence of voodoo. In an extremely bizarre if brief conversation, Lunch refers to the islanders—including his own girlfriend—as “monkeychasers.” He explains the epithet as a reference to the natives' habit of chasing monkeys to steal their coconuts. I can't help but suspect that the writer who coined the epithet-- possibly Clements Ripley, who originated the magazine short story on which the film was based-- may have really had on his mind the then-prevalent racial fantasy about black people mating with apes.
By the time Steven reaches the island, it’s too late for Juanita, for she's become totally engrossed with voodoo worship. Perez reveals more of Juanita’s strange story to Steven, mentioning that Juanita’s parents were killed in one of many periodic native uprisings, and that Ruva inducted her into voodoo-rites that went on until Perez found out when Juanita reached age fifteen. Steven asks this rather negligent father-figure why he stays on the island despite the repeated trouble. Significantly, Perez states his case in terms of personal courage rather than personal profit, saying that many of his people have died here but that “we have never run.”
With Hunch’s help Steven manages to spy on a voodoo ceremony. He’s dismayed to see that Juanita has become the voodoo queen, dancing orgiastically before a huge crowd of male and female worshippers. The high priest prepares to execute the scheduled sacrifice, who is none other than Lunch’s girlfriend. Steven, who’s brought a gun to the game, shoots the high priest before he can kill the woman. Steven and Lunch flee the area, not seeing that the sacrificial victim is finished off by Juanita (though the camera shows the act at such a distance that it’s hard to make out).
The natives don’t immediately strike back, but rather send Juanita into the plantation house. Steven keeps mum and doesn’t reveal that he knows what she’s become. Juanita brews a drink to knock out her husband, but the girl Nancy accidentally sips it instead, revealing the plot but taking no permanent harm.
The natives attack the house in force. Steven, Perez, Gail and Nancy try to escape, but only Perez gets away. Juanita schedules her husband and her husband’s would-be lover to be sacrificed. Perez manages to come back and rescue the two adults. This leaves the worshippers with but one candidate for sacrifice: the little girl. For the first time, Juanita resists her indoctrination, horrified at the thought of killing her own blood-kin. However, the spell of the drums is upon her, and when the ceremony commences, the only thing that saves Nancy is that Steven shoots his wife from afar. The natives are shocked into docility by their priestess’ murder, and they allow Steven to reclaim his daughter without further violence.
This docility apparently allows Perez to return to power once more, for after Juanita’s killing, he appears back on the island for one last scene, laying flowers upon his niece’s gravesite while surrounded by a couple dozen black natives, some of whom wear Christian robes and sing Christian-sounding hymns. Lunch mans a sailboat in which Steven leaves the island with his daughter and with Gail. By this time, Gail has confessed her hidden love to Steven, making it possible for the “bad wife” to be replaced by a good one.
Strangely, despite the film’s title I recall no mentions of the moon or its phases. Most likely the title connotes the state of total darkness that ensues during the “dark of the moon,” which in turn connotes the idea of black races rising against white mastery. However, this mild poeticism is the only one asserted by MOON’s script. Despite the fact that the plot references such lurid subject matter as blood-sacrifice, brainwashing, racial antipathies and a woman almost committing a Medea-style murder, both script and direction are pedestrian, lacking the sort of delirious quality of WHITE ZOMBIE or Edgar Ulmer’s THE BLACK CAT.
All of the characters—including Juanita, functionally the “monster” of this horror-opus— are treated as little more than bare plot-functions. Their dialogue is never more than adequate to keep the plot rolling, lacking the sort of humanized touches that give the characters their own provisional identity. Juanita, having been polluted by a "taste for blood" at an early age, does not attempt to justify her status as a voodoo-queen, and her one moment of rebellion has no narrative impact. At the same time, she doesn’t glory in her evil, so her execution has no purgative effect.
The racial politics are the most noteworthy aspect of BLACK MOON. San Christopher is patently a stand-in for Haiti, for Perez even comments that the sacrificial cultists are mostly “hill-bandits from Haiti.” But there’s a curious quality to this particular voodoo film as against others from the first half of the twentieth century. Most Caribbean-based voodoo-films tend to portray the natives as largely docile, and voodoo raises its ugly head in the form of just one ambitious voodoo priest, often a rogue white man like Murder Legendre in WHITE ZOMBIE. BLACK MOON does not for an instant allude to any past injustices done to the black natives of its faux-Haiti. Still, Perez emphasizes that their uprisings are a continuing phenomenon, even though the natives can be quelled by a blow to their superstitious fears. Admittedly, by the more racist views of the time, this sort of reaction proves that the black natives “need” to be ruled. Still, the mention of continued uprisings produces the effect of a native population that’s always discontented with the rule of the white masters, even if MOON won’t suggest that there’s any good reason for that discontent.
There’s also a strange elision in the script: why do the black natives want Juanita for their voodoo queen in the first place? Of the various black natives seen on-camera, only two—the nurse and the high priest—are given names and speaking lines, and neither of them justifies their desire to suborn Juanita. I speculate that the implicit motive is one of humiliation: after killing Juanita’s parents, the voodoo-worshippers wish to degrade Juanita by tempting her with the Faustian illusion of power. This would prove that this member of the “ruling class” can be brought down to their level-- which seems a bit like an inversion of the old "natives-need-white-queen-because-they-think-she's-magic."
Still, it's hard to know how much intentionality with which to credit the cultists. At one point, they can be perspicacious enough to send an assassin to kill Macklin, yet at other points, they can become poleaxed whenever someone kills their high priest. It would seem that the writer had no clear idea of his devilish pagans; they act cleverly when it suits the writer’s purpose, and stupidly for the same reason.
This would seem to be director Roy William Neill's second horror film, depending on whether or not the same-year NINTH GUEST can be deemed in the horror genre. His direction is workmanlike here, showing none of the panache visible in next year's THE BLACK ROOM, much less his celebrated Sherlock Holmes films.