In the 1930s, Fay Wray was as close to a female horror icon as Hollywood had; after carving out her niche in 1932’s Doctor X and The Most Dangerous Game, the actress found herself in the movie that would make her a career monster victim, 1933’s King Kong. Taking advantage of a studio system that shared resources like sets and crews, she appeared in an astonishing 21 films between 1933 and 1934. In between classics like The Vampire Bat and The Countess of Monte Cristo, Wray found time to star in a creepy little film in 1934 about voodoo called Black Moon.
Black Moon is the story of Juanita Perez Lane (Dorothy Burgess from Orient Express) who, as a young girl, narrowly escaped the island of San Christopher near Haiti where her parents were sacrificed by the natives in a voodoo ritual. Now, as an adult, she feels compelled to return to the island, bringing her daughter, Nancy (The Scarlet Letter’s Cora Sue Collins), and her husband’s secretary, Gail Hamilton (Wray) with her. The whole group stays with Juanita’s uncle, Dr. Raymond Perez (Arnold Korff from The Haunted Castle), at his plantation on the island. When Juanita’s husband, Stephen Lane (action star Jack Holt from Holt of the Secret Service), receives word that his wife and daughter may be in danger, he commissions passage to the island on a boat captained by a Georgia born African-American sailor named Lunch McClaren (Car Wash’s Clarence Muse). Once on the island, Jack finds that the natives have been buzzing about Juanita’s return and that she has been elevated to the level of a voodoo priestess among their population. As the locals prepare for a sacrificial ritual, Jack and Gail have to find a way to get off the island, with or without Juanita and Nancy.
While Universal Studios and RKO Pictures all but owned the horror market in the 1930s, Black Moon was one of Columbia Pictures’ attempts to cash in on the trend. The script was written by prolific television western scribe Wells Root (“Bat Masterson”) from a story by Clements Ripley (A Devil with Women) and handed off to future Sherlock Holmes series director Roy William Neill (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man). For what it’s worth, Black Moon looks like a Universal horror film; it has all of the creepy nuances and eerie subtleties that have become trademarks of the genre. Cinematographer Joseph August (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) uses a smart combination of bright indoor settings and dim external shots to show the difference between the “good” and “evil” in the film. Add in August’s tasteful use of back projection (the old-timey equivalent of green-screen technology), and Black Moon is a moody film that competes with its legendary Universal counterparts in every way, technically and creatively.
The music in Black Moon is of the utmost importance to the story. The score is made up of stock music by the uncredited Louis Silvers (The Terror) and consists mostly of repetitive hand drumming and religious-style chanting. From the first image of Juanita mindlessly playing a drum to the final scenes of the voodoo ritual, the percussive rhythm is a constant reminder of the pull of the island and the power of the culture. Black Moon is about the influence of the higher power of voodoo, and the music in the film is indicative of the control that the religion holds over its followers.
Made in the same vein as White Zombie and Revolt of the Zombies, Black Moon is classified by many as a zombie film, yet there are no zombies in it. The voodoo followers are rabid and appear brainwashed, but they are very much alive and aware of their actions. The threat in Black Moon comes from the higher power that commands the worshippers and, in effect, Juanita. The voodoo zealots are predictable in their unpredictability; once their propensity for murder and mayhem is understood, none of their actions come as a surprise. Black Moon does not have a real antagonist – it has a mob of them.
Fay Wray’s character, Gail, is an interesting contrast to the character of Juanita. While Juanita seems to be under the control of the voodoo spell, Gail is the voice of science and reason; she acts as a surrogate mother to Nancy, acting with the girl’s best intentions in mind. Wray and Jack Holt have a great chemistry in the film, making Stephen and Gail a more sensible couple than Stephen and Juanita. Because of Juanita’s preoccupation with the voodoo calling, Gail is a better mother to Nancy and spouse to Stephen. The fact that Gail’s interest in Stephen is obvious from the beginning of the film only solidifies Wray’s position as the female lead in Black Moon.
Although most likely unintentional and simply a product of the times, there is a sort of subliminal racism at work in Black Moon. The residents of San Christopher are consistently referred to as “blacks” instead of “natives” or “islanders.” Even Lunch, the lone African-American protagonist, plays more of a minstrel character, helpful but more successful at providing comic relief than actually getting results. For all this unintentional racism, Black Moon does seem to be a fairly respectful view of voodoo religion and culture. While the rituals are most likely not depicted completely accurately, they don’t feel exploited either; instead, the rituals feel authentic, at least to an outsider. With the exception of one voodoo doll, stereotypical conventions are downplayed. As a movie about voodoo, Black Moon stays away from many of the expected paths, resulting in a fresh take on the subject.
Fay Wray would go on to make many more movies, although never as productively as she did in the 1930s. While not one of her more iconic performances, Black Moon is still an impressive film about voodoo zombies, sans the zombies.