Mill Creek Musings: The Devil’s Daughter (1939)

Sylvia Walton travels from Harlem to Jamaica, where she has inherited a banana plantation.

Sylvia has a half-sister named Isabelle who ran the plantation until her father’s death, but she was disinherited and there’s been no sign of her since the arrival in Jamaica. She isn’t incredibly worried about her sister’s whereabouts, choosing instead to focus on the two men who are vying for her attention… but she can’t ignore the constant sound of drums that keeps growing louder!

And sure enough, she has good reason to be afraid of those drums: her sister, Isabelle, has been scheming and using local superstitions to manipulate her way into getting control of the plantation.

The Devil’s Daughter (1939) is based on George Terwilliger’s 1936 film Ouanga, which was based on Terwilliger’s original story “Drums in the Night.”

(Image: Movie Poster Shop)

(Image: Movie Poster Shop)

I initially chose this film because it has a short running time (only about 52 minutes in the Mill Creek print), but I was excited to find that its cast is made up entirely of black actors. Classic-era films with black casts, produced specifically for black audiences are a topic of interest for me. If nothing else, they’re a great way for me to discover forgotten performers as I do with any Mill Creek/PD film, like the fantastic Nicholas Brothers who I discovered in Stormy Weather and have since become a huge fan of.

The Devil’s Daughter isn’t a Stormy Weather-caliber film in terms of greatness, but it’s an interesting watch nonetheless.

On-location shooting in Jamaica is one point of interest that works in the film’s favor.

The film’s greatest asset is Nina Mae McKinney, who stars as the evil sister, Isabelle Walton. With more than half of the film focused on Sylvia (Ida James), McKinney is criminally under-utilized, but when she does finally appear her screen presence is fantastic. Nina Mae is one of those forgotten talents that I love discovering, and I’ll most definitely be seeking out more of her work in the future.

Aside from Nina Mae’s performance and the location shooting, The Devil’s Daughter unfortunately does not have a lot going for it. The film appears in Mill Creek’s 100 Horror Classics boxed set, but there’s very little horror to speak of. Some harsh words are exchanged between Isabelle and Sylvia, but that’s about the extent of it.

The film is also incredibly wordy. Rather than giving the viewer on-screen action, lengthy sections of dialogue are used to explain the every little thing.

And on top of that, the film’s got stereotypes galore. At one point, Isabelle tells her sister, “You forget my mom was Haitian…” at which point Sylvia becomes terrified of the voodoo magic that will most certainly be released on her by her half-Haitian half-sister. My eyes cannot roll far enough! There are also a couple of stereotypical “comic relief” characters – easily frightened, speaking in a certain dialect.

The Devil’s Daughter is a worthwhile watch for its historical and sociological significance, adding to the viewer’s understanding of how minorities were portrayed on screen in the early to mid-20th century. As a film, though, it’s a dull and wordy mess that has been mislabeled as “horror,” and despite my interest in the film for historical reasons I can only give it a score of: 1/5

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