Black Moon (Roy William Neill, 1934)
[note: review originally published 1Dec08]
When I watch pre-code movies, I have a tendency to think in remake; I imagine how the movie would turn out were it made in today’s climate, with the advances in filmmaking technique we’ve seen in the last seventy-five years. That’s quite an impossibility for Black Moon, Roy William Neill’s racially insensitive (to put it mildly) voodoo drama, but man, a modern interpretation would make the almost incomprehensible last twenty minutes scads better. Neill (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man), a potboiler director who never failed to play to the lowest common denominator, was no artiste when it came to camerawork, and nowhere does this show more than during the movie’s extended climax; rather than giving us any one piece of the story, we get a fragment, then a camera fade, then a different fragment, then another camera fade… you get the idea. Seeing a bit more of, well, anything, and a couple of jump cuts would have really helped this. That said, when one plays to the lowest common denominator as successfully as Neill did during his almost thirty years in film (he started in the silents in 1917 and worked straight up until his death in 1946), one does have a tendency to make films that are at least watchable, if not enjoyable.
Juanita Lane (potboiler ingenue Dorothy Burgess) was born in the West Indies, but has relocated to New York for school, and along the way met and married the dashing financier Stephen (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre‘s Jack Holt). But the call of the tropics is never far from her, and when Stephen heads out for a business trip, Juanita and their daughter Nancy (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer‘s Cora Sue Collins) head for the islands. Stephen persuades his secretary Gail (Fay Wray) to accompany them. When Juanita starts getting weird, Gail takes over as Nancy’s de facto nanny and sends a frantic telegram to Stephen to come save his family. But will he be too late?
The first half-hour or so is full of all sorts of thirties melodrama that some how plays better than melodramatic films made after World War II; there’s something harmless about it all, if a little unsettling at times (one has to wonder about Stephen and Nancy’s relationship). A really kind of offensive character named Lunch is introduced as Stephen heads down to the island. Lunch is a black guy from Atlanta who works for the Perez family (Juanita’s uncle and the owner of the plantation that employs a number of native workers); Lunch is in love with one of the island girls, whom he calls a “monkey chaser”. Lunch explains the term, but I’m sure you can figure it out for yourself. Like I said, this is not a movie that would play well if remade today. But then Neill goes into all-fade-out-all-the-time mode, and it makes what should have been a fast-paced, dramatic conclusion into something, well, not. Instead, the movie slows to a snail’s pace just as the action really heats up; a confusing choice, to say the least. Perhaps Neill wanted to make his movie, which was even shorter by the standards of the thirties than it would be considered today, seem longer? No idea.
So when it comes right down to it, Neill’s arguably least-remembered film has something that will get under the skin of almost anyone who watches it. If you’re not offended by the subject matter or its treatment, you’ll be offended by the filmmaking techniques (and god help you if you find both unworkable). Yet still there is something about it that stops the viewer from simply turning it off. The dedicated film buff will see the seeds of a number of more recent drama/horror pictures here (notably I Walked with a Zombie and Fritz Leiber’s remarkable Conjure Wife), while those who are just looking for a way to kill an hour and a half will find it not the best movie they’ve ever seen, and probably not even the best movie they’ve seen this month, but not the worst, either. ** ½