Wednesday, October 28, 2009


This was once considered a lost film, and therefore some hoped that it might be a horror classic. It’s been found, and while it’s not quite a “classic,” it’s a solidly made thriller (with mild horror elements) in the genre of what I call the exotic jungle melodrama. Dorothy Burgess (at left) is a young wife and mother who was born and raised on the Caribbean island of San Christopher where, thanks to her black nurse Ruva, she was immersed in the voodoo culture of the island. Now, away from home for many years, she sits and pounds a drum on the floor with her 6-year-old daughter. Her husband (Jack Holt), in consultation with a doctor, agrees to send her off on a trip back home to see if it will help her occasionally neurotic behavior (aside from the drumming, we never know that consists of). Holt’s secretary (Fay Wray), who secretly harbors a crush on her boss, goes along with Burgess and the daughter as a companion. A family employee from the island tries to stop the trip but winds up dead, killed by a black man skulking about in the shadows. Burgess arrives on the island and is welcomed by the wildly excited islanders; we soon realize that they see her as something of a long-lost voodoo priestess. When Burgess decides to extend her stay long enough to participate in a voodoo moon ceremony (at which there just might be a blood sacrifice), Wray wires the mainland to get help from Holt. The wireless operator is found hanged, but Holt makes it to the island in time for a grand old blood-and-thunder finale which involves most of the white people holed up in a tower while Burgess is about to sacrifice her own daughter.

There is some argument among film buffs as to whether or not this is a real horror film; as far as I’m concerned, if Val Lewton’s well-made but rather mild voodoo film I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE has horror movie status, this one should as well. Granted, the first third of the movie is standard B-movie melodrama stuff, but the shadowy cinematography in the last part of the film adds atmosphere which is missing from the first half, the voodoo sacrifice scenes work up some horrific tension, and there’s a fairly high body count for a movie with a small cast. Fay Wray, the biggest name here, doesn’t have much to do aside from look worried. Holt, whom I’ve found to be somewhat wooden in the past, is quite good here, and Burgess, though third-billed, is the real star, doing a fine job in a tricky part that requires her to change moods and motivations. Clarence Muse is fine in a supporting role as the “good” native; Madame Sul-Te-Wan is wasted as Ruva. This one doesn’t show up a lot, but the print that TCM shows is surprisingly crisp and clean for movie once thought lost. [TCM]

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