Cast & Crew
Roy William Neill
Cora Sue Collins
Stephen Lane is mystified by his wife Juanita's coldness toward himself and their daughter Nancy. Juanita, who was born and reared on the island of St. Christopher, located near Haiti, is obsessed with the drum beats of her native land, and so Stephen sends her to a psychiatrist. Juanita is diagnosed as having a neurosis, and when she demands to return to her home, Stephen acquiesces, although he insists that she take along her secretary Gail to care for Nancy. Macklin, the overseer of Juanita's uncle's estate, visits her and begs her not to return to the island, for he knows that as a child she was initiated into voodoo rituals and was elevated to a prominent position within the cult. Juanita refuses to listen, and when Macklin threatens to go to Stephen and expose her, he is killed by the native who accompanied him. Juanita is happy to be back in St. Christopher, but gradually becomes more cruel toward Nancy. Juanita's uncle, Dr. Perez, warns her to avoid becoming involved with voodoo again, but she arrogantly ignores him. Worried about Nancy, Gail sends for Stephen, and after her message is sent, the radio operator is murdered. By the time Stephen arrives, Nancy's nurse has been killed and Juanita has begun behaving even more strangely. While the drums beat one night, Juanita disappears, and Lunch, a kindly black, leads Stephen to a voodoo amphitheater in the jungle. There Stephen is horrified to see that Juanita is high priestess in a cult of human sacrifice, and he shoots a priest in order to prevent the murder of a girl. He also learns that all of the whites on the island are to be murdered except Juanita. Perez, Nancy and Lunch flee to Perez's home, a portion of which is fortified. Juanita leads an attack, but Perez, Gail and Stephen escape to Perez's yacht. Nancy, however, is taken to be sacrificed by her mother. Stephen follows her into the jungle and kills Juanita, then flees the island, engulfed in slaughter, with his daughter. As she follows on another sailboat, Gail realizes that Stephen loves her and that she will be able to take the place of Juanita in his heart.
Roy William Neill
Cora Sue Collins
Anna Lee Johnson
William H. Dunn
Black Moon (1934)
After surviving the deaths of her parents during a mysterious voodoo rite, Juanita (Dorothy Burgess) grows up to form a normal family with her husband, Stephen (Jack Holt), and her daughter, Nancy (Cora Sue Collins). Accompanied by their nanny/secretary, Gail (Fay Wray), they return to the island of San Christopher where the lure of "the drums" still flows in Juanita's veins, and the locals seem to regard her with an unsettlingly intense reverence...
For horror fans, the biggest draw in Black Moon (no relation to the bizarre 1975 Louis Malle film of the same name) is the presence of Fay Wray, one of the screen's first bona fide scream queens whose diverse filmography across many genres is still best remembered for her quintet of films released between 1932 and 1933: Doctor X, The Most Dangerous Game, Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Vampire Bat and her most famous role as Ann Darrow in King Kong. This film would actually prove to be her horror swan song (not counting the eerie mystery The Clairvoyant one year later), though she remained a busy actress until 1980. Wray had little recollection of even making Black Moon, claiming in a Starlog magazine interview that it's "a film I've almost erased from my consciousness... I've never seen it."
Oddly, the film forces her to split time with another female lead, the ambiguous Juanita played by Dorothy Burgess. The beautiful niece of veteran actress Fay Bainter made her auspicious film debut above the title in 1928 with the Oscar-winning In Old Arizona, a slot she had earned thanks to several years of acclaimed stage appearances. However, the rest of her career was far more inconsistent thanks in part to a violent car crash in 1932 in which she was one of the drivers. She continued to work steadily but suffered serious psychological side effects, eventually retiring from the screen eleven years later to return to stage work in which she remained until her death in 1961.
One performer almost universally singled out for praise in Black Moon is Clarence Muse, cast in the potentially demeaning "comic negro" role of Lunch McClaren. Racial attitudes of the time are often a dicey proposition with modern audiences, and this film provides plenty of disconcerting material with its depiction of an entire island full of black residents constantly trying to butcher the handful of white overseers over a century-long struggle. Writer John T. Soister offers his own take on the McClaren role (an American black man from Georgia offered as contrast) in Up from the Vault: Rare Thrillers of the 1920s and 1930s, praising him as "adventurous, articulate, and very quick to distance himself from the locals... He can be humorous without being foolish, and his conversations with Jack Holt's character are man to man, not white man to black man; their relationship remains refreshingly condescension free... Purposefully or not, the screenplay subtly contrasts the American black man with the Caribbean black man. The former is in every way more independent and responsible and less easily led than his island counterpart." Holding a Juris Doctor degree and boasting considerable musical theater skills, he was one of the most in-demand black actors of the 20th century, graduating to mainstream Hollywood films such as Watch on the Rhine and Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (both 1943) and remaining active onscreen until shortly before his death with late-career roles including The Black Stallion (1979) and Car Wash (1976).
A veteran filmmaker since the early silent era, director Roy William Neill was a hired hand on many productions like most of his peers, usually for programmers such as As the Devil Commands and The Circus Queen Murder (both 1933). His proven skill with macabre material here led to another more high-profile Columbia film in 1935, the Boris Karloff dual-role classic The Black Room. He soon jumped ship to Universal Pictures where he helmed the stylish Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943, but that same year also marked his most indelible contribution to cinema as he was brought on to direct the Basil Rathbone mystery, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. He went on to helm nine more Sherlock Holmes films including the series' most horrific later entry, The Scarlet Claw (1944), which essentially serves as a culmination of Neill's previous experience in the genre.
Equally significant behind the camera here is the film's cinematographer, Joseph H. August, a regular collaborator with Neill on most of his Columbia films of the period. The following year August became a noted industry name with his work on John Ford's The Informer (1935), followed by an increasingly impressive string of assignments including Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Gunga Din, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (both 1939), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), and his final film, the ethereal Portrait of Jennie (1948). Oddly, both August and Neill died at relatively young ages less than a year apart from each other from exactly the same cause, a heart attack; Neill passed away in December of 1946, while August followed him in September of 1947.
The revival of interest in early Hollywood horror films which brought fame to filmmakers like James Whale and Val Lewton has yet to bring much attention to Black Moon (dismissed upon release by The New York Post as "a humid melodrama"), though it has found its champions in some quarters. The now-defunct Scarlet Street in particular made a canny observation about its status as close ancestor to Lewton's undeniably superior I Walked with a Zombie (1943), to which it owes "an undeniable debt." However, horror fans should keep their expectations in check for, as a disappointed Bryan Senn noted in his review of the film, it contains "no zombies, no hexes or curses, no talk of vengeful spirits or voodoo gods, not even a single ceremonial snake rears its sacred head. The story might just as well have taken place in the wilds of India as a tale of religious upheaval or in darkest Africa as some Tarzan movie subplot." Whether viewers would now see a voodoo film made without these staples as a failure is, of course, a matter of personal taste, but compared to the flood of voodoo horrors unleashed the following decade from the likes of studios like Monogram, it offers a distinctly different take on the subject from an industry quickly adjusting to a new set of restrictions and audience expectations.
Producer: Harry Cohn
Director: Roy William Neill
Screenplay: Clements Ripley (story); Wells Root
Cinematography: Joseph H. August
Music: Louis Silvers (uncredited)
Film Editing: Richard Cahoon
Cast: Jack Holt (Stephen Lane), Fay Wray (Gail Hamilton), Dorothy Burgess (Juanita Perez Lane), Cora Sue Collins (Nancy Lane), Arnold Korff (Dr. Raymond Perez), Clarence Muse ('Lunch' McClaren), Eleanor Wesselhoeft (Anna, the nursemaid), Madame Sul-Te-Wan (Ruva), Laurence Criner (Kala, the priest), Lumsden Hare (John Macklin)
by Nathaniel Thompson
Langman, Larry and Finn, Daniel. A Guide to American Crime Films of the Thirties. Private Release, 1995.
Senn, Bryan. Drums o' Terror: Voodoo in the Cinema. Midnight Marquee, 1998.
Soister, John T. Up from the Vault: Rare Thrillers of the 1920s and 1930s. McFarland, 2004.
"Fay Wray Remembers King Kong." Starlog #194. September 2001.
The Internet Movie Database
Black Moon (1934)
Fay Wray (1907-2004)
She was born Vina Fay Wray, in Cardston, Alberta, Canada on September 15, 1907. Her family relocated to Arizona when she was still a toddler so her father could find employment. When her parents divorced, her mother sent her to Hollywood when Fay's eldest sister died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. The reasoning was that Southern California offered a healthier climate for the young, frail Wray.
She attended Hollywood High School, where she took some classes in drama. After she graduated, she applied to the Hal Roach studio and was given a six-month contract where she appeared in two-reel Westerns (25 minutes in length), and played opposite Stan Laurel in his pre-Oliver Hardy days.
She landed her first big role, as Mitzi Schrammell, in Erich von Stroheim's beautifully mounted silent The Wedding March (1928). It made Wray a star. She then starred in some excellent films: The Four Feathers (1929), the early Gary Cooper Western The Texan (1930), and one of Ronald Coleman's first starring roles The Unholy Garden (1931), all of which were big hits of the day.
For whatever reason, Wray soon found herself in a string of thrillers that made her one of the great screamers in Hollywood history. The titles say it all: Doctor X, The Most Dangerous Game (both 1932), Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Vampire Bat (both 1933) and, of course her most famous role, that of Ann Darrow, who tempts cinema's most famous ape in the unforgettable King Kong (also 1933).
Wray did prove herself quite capable in genre outside of the horror game, the best of which were Shanghai Madness with Spencer Tracy; The Bowery (both 1933), a tough pre-Hays Code drama opposite George Raft; and the brutal Viva Villa (1934), with Wallace Beery about the famed Mexican bandit. Yet curiously, the quality of her scripts began to tank, and she eventually found herself acting in such mediocre fare as Come Out of the Pantry (1935), and They Met in a Taxi (1936).
With her roles becoming increasingly routine, the last of which was the forgettable comedy Not a Ladies Man (1942), she decided to trade acting for domesticity and married Robert Riskin, who won two Best Screenplay Oscars® for the Frank Capra comedies It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). When Riskin died in 1955, Wray found herself working to keep busy and support her three children. She landed supporting parts for films like The Cobweb (1955), Hell on Frisco Bay (1956) and Tammy and the Bachelor (1957). She also found work in television on such popular programs as Perry Mason and Wagon Train before she retired from acting all together in the mid-'60s.
To her credit, Wray did remain reasonably active after her retirement. She published her autobiography, On The Other Hand in 1989 and was attending many film festivals that honored her contribution to film, most notably in January 2003, when, at 95 years of age, she accepted in person her "Legend in Film" Award at the Palm Beach International Film Festival. Wray is survived by a son, Robert Riskin Jr.; two daughters, Susan and Victoria; and two grandchildren.
by Michael T. Toole
Fay Wray (1907-2004)
Contemporary sources indicate that Clements Ripley's novel first appeared in Hearst's International-Cosmopolitan. The Motion Picture Herald review commented: "In that the colored natives involved in the film are rather harshly pictured as blood-thirsty worshippers of black gods who indulge in sacrificial orgies, the film May meet with objection in those situations where colored people make up a portion of the patronage."