Voodoo and witchcraft-related horror films often simmer with a whole gris-gris bag of subtext vis-a-vis gender, race, and psychology: usually a white dolt lands on a voodoo island for gold or research, a cute young (white) woman from the village betrays the gods to be with him and they escape in a boat as the island erupts in flames and all the black monsters die except the grinning ferryman who spirits them away where they can breed and uphold the status quo and in later years go "Voodoo? Harumph!". If the woman who betrays her people for the white visitor is not white, however, she dies to save him or heads off to the volcano to do the right things at the last possible moment to appease the miscegenation-phobic censors. If she does live, you must imagine Carl Denham lecturing at a feminist studies group: "She was a queen in her jungle world, but she threw it all away to follow a handsome stranger home to to his own lands, and here she is, barefoot and pregnant, for your own amusement!" A daughter is given birth to and her black maid plays the voodoo drums, activating an inner desire in the girl to return home to the island, to be sacrificed or kill someone else as needed.
Few places is this gender/class/race subtext more glaring and yet consciously progressive than Columbia's rare and hard-to-find BLACK MOON (1934). With its mix of horror-action and white man's burden-coded proto-feminism it just may be the least racist and sexist of all 1930s zombie movies --a kind of pre-Lewton Lewton where women understand the supernatural realms instinctively while the men try to keep it all buried via tactics like condescension, humiliation, beatings, and threats, none of which work a damn.
Keeping with the subjugation motif, Fay Wray gets second billing in MOON but is the most recognized name, having tangled with Kong on Skull Island the year before. However, on this particular forgotten island the white man's colonialist 'authority' is long established via racist French sugar cane plantation owner (Arnold Korff) who still holds sway, barely, over a seriously restless native voodoo-obsessed population. His young niece (Dorothy Burgess) left the island years ago for New York City and he decides she can't return, lest it excite the natives. While a kid she apparently did some serious mystic bonding with the locals and now the drums are calling her to return, return, with her own young daughter (and Wray, Holt's adoring secretary) in tow.
The voodoo scenes turn out to be surprisingly respectful of the tradition - and the drumming and singing is awesome, with day-for-night shots of black bodies drumming and dancing, old wizened faces staring off into the distance, jet black arms and noses brightly highlighted via glistening sweat or oil. The unsung master of stereotype transcendence, Clarence Muse, is on hand as the charter boat captain who takes old Jack Holt to the island; Muse is worried about his own girl, a local who's become much to mixed up with the voodoo scene. (See my ode to him here). Somehow or other all the racist crap of the era seems to just melt away around Muse. For his presence alone the film is worth seeing. He even forms a kind of interesting bond with Holt; they are just two normal American guys wondering what's got into their women.
The film is spooky right from the opening with servants in the voodoo lady's New York City apartment, shuddering at the sound of Dorothy Burgess teaching her infant daughter to play voodoo drums; a strange man who works for the colonialist uncle shows up with the message he doesn't want Burgess to go to the island--the natives are too agitated--she tells him ring off and he's killed on his way to see the husband to tell him to get his wife locked down. What's cool is we want her to go to the island, so the native skulkers are killing the messenger for our benefit. The natives are clearly the good guys up to a point, as we bristle at the idea these scowling white dudes are going to decide where Dorothy Burgess can and can't go.
Lacking any kind of central figure to care about aside from Wray and Muse, the film is a little too reliant on atmosphere and expectation. The ominousness builds up for the big ceremony but it's a bit of an anticlimax for all that. The kid's maid is killed early on when she keeps objecting to the child being given things like knives and voodoo dolls to play with, but we don't see the murder or the body. Wray wires for Holt to come and take them home but the wire operator is killed before he can send it. Even so, we side with the voodoo set because we're waiting for something genuinely 'bad' to happen right up until they try to sacrifice Muse's girl, becoming a bit like the thugees in GUNGA DIN. But we do like Holt's relationship with his little daughter. They have a genuine bond and he's not a simpering sort, he's a rough and ready 70s dad type and she loves it.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 shares a lot of BLACK MOON's deep subtextual feminism. Here the dad is a self-satisfied liberal authoritarian pretending to be fun, hip, gentle family man. He scoffs at the supernatural while his wife and maid know better, which only makes him resentful and furious, forbidding any mention of supernatural goings-on in his presence.
Like its forerunner, PA2 was a huge hit in theaters, and like BLACK MOON has a great set-up with only mild yield: the initial ghost attack looks enough like an ordinary break-in that it compels dad to install security cameras and as our subjects sleep through the night these security cam images--a ghostly lit pool with the cleaner snake slithering around the surface; the crib room with the German shepherd guardian (the dog's not much for supernatural detection, surprisingly); the big L couch petit bourgeois living room--take on a creepy life of their own as our eyes nervously scour the scene in search of some uncanny element or movement. Andre Bazin would surely approve!
Why the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films work as instant pop culture artifacts is their William Castle-ish utilitarianism - they are here to provide bonding moments of shock in the cinema on Saturday night, or to creep out couples on their couches, couples similar to the couples depicted. The films show the modern American family to itself as it really is and thus reveals the awful difference between how 'scary' we look on video vs. the pretty people we see in the mirror. The dad thinks he's a hilarious righteous sex machine but we see he's an asshole, etc. These people are the American family that the sitcoms and TV want to portray, but all the corpses the screenwriters can dredge up in the family garden pale in comparison to the unstoppable demonic ghost possession in the real time found footage usually edited out of TV shows.
It's important in these films that the endangered family be upper middle class; success makes the dad 'dependent' on the prevailing reality and culture. He's got something to lose. He knows hungry proles are eyeing his spot. A white trash redneck sleeping in his pick-up truck has nothing to lose by embracing new paradigms and is thus way more likely to be down with the supernatural. But in the American upper middle class suburban wasteland, the unconscious uncanny is ghettoized so deep that when dad finally sees the tape and learns the truth instead of stepping up he becomes a fractured, incoherent mess, worse than useless and ripe for possession.
Just as BLACK MOON is less about race oppression and more about gender oppression, each one a metaphor for the other, so too the PARANORMAL films convey the freak-out that occurs when the rational left-brained know-it-all douche bag dad types are forced to confront the truth in inarguable form, on security cameras, that nothing can ever completely protect their children - their kids will always be exposed to danger, forever and ever! Not even the TV set can provide a respite. It sums up the last 20 years of gradual attack on dad's nervous systems that a media hawking pedophiles and danger lurk in every corner has created, but the liberals say don't get a gun, trust the government to take care of it, but they aren't. It's a two prong attack designed to sell SUVs and home security systems, and when a threat comes right through all the defenses money can byy the dad can only vehemently deny it doesn't exist, and persecute anyone who says otherwise, firing the hispanic maid who tries to smudge the place, citing the smoke as bad for his kids' lungs, a bit like the white guys trying to fire the maids who give the daughter voodoo knives. When TV finally shows the PA dad the truth, he completely dissolves. He can't rectify his soft-hands liberal self-righteous intellect with the harsh reality of the beyond.
Such a realization is the apocalypse of the American family. One thinks back to the "they're tere" moment in POLTERGEIST, and if you compare the relatively level-headed acceptance of Craig T. Nelson as the dad in that film vs. the gone-to-pieces dad in PA2, all you can do is weep for the incredible dissolving father. The ghosts came through the TV static in that 1980 pre-cable film (when white noise static and station sign-offs still existed), but in PA2 this is the age of digital cable, so the ghosts are outside the box, looking in, watching an American family on a camera that can never sign off. Where a 5 AM shot of an American flag would mean the end of another broadcast day now we have digital cable, and it never, ever sleeps. Shark Vacuum!