Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Black Pit of Dr. M

The Black Pit of Dr. M
Original Title: Misterios de ultratumba
Directed by: Fernando Mèndez
Mexico, 1959
Distributed by: Casa Negra Entertainment

Say Mexican horror and images of Santo taking on a league of Vampires, Wolfmen, Aztec Mummies and many others comes to mind. After that the fantastic gothic noir movies of Guillermo del Toro, the action flicks of Robert Rodriguez pop up, and finally the surreal wild cinema of Juan López Moctezuma and Alejandro Jodorowsky drop in as reminders that Mexican genre cinema is much more than the masked wrestler taking on a series of foes.

But there’s much more than that. Much, much more. We just have to scrape past the success of Cronos, El espinoza del diablo and El orfanato and keep digging deeper than the Midnight movie madness of Moctezuma and Jodorowsky, and wave cheerio to the masked Lucha Libra heroes as we burrow deep, deep into the past history of Mexican cinema, back to a time between 1957 – 1966 when Mexican Fantastic Cinema was at it’s peak, Rodriguez was not yet born and del Toro was a mere infant.

Fernando Mèndez started out working the back lots of low budget studios in Los Angeles back in the 1930’s after following his uncle to the US or work in the industry. After a stint with legendary exploitation movie producer Dwain Esper – for who Mèndez worked as part of the make up department on both Maniac 1934, Marihuana: the Devil’s Weed 1936 and probably more. He finally found his way back to his native Mexico and started writing and directing movies in the drama, comedic, western and action genres.

In the late fifties he started bringing horror traits into his movies, directing a string of horror themed movies that would become classics of Mexican horror, Ladrón de Cadávres (The Body Snatcher) and El Vampiro (The Vampire), both 1957 and the masterpiece Misterios de ultratumba (The Black Pit of Dr. M) 1959, some of the most successful Mexican movies of all time.

Mèndez The Black Pit of Dr. M, scripted by Ramon Obón El ataúd del Vampiro (The Vampire’s Coffin) 1958, El Grito de la muerte (The Living Coffin) 1959, La Loba (The She-Wolf) 1965 and many more – is a dark and mordant little tale of death and irony with some great visuals and a really great atmosphere.

As Dr. Jacinto Aldama [Antionio Raxel] lies on his deathbed, fellow colleagues Dr. Gonzales [Luis Aragón] and Dr. Mazali [Rafael Bertrand – who at the end of his career would play Zorro twice and star in Juan Ibáñez La muerte vivente (Isle of the Snake People) 1971, most famous for being one of Boris Karloff’s last pieces.] stand round the bed reminding Aldama of their agreement. Dr. Mazali explains for Dr. Gonzales that they agreed that whoever died first would come back to the flesh after death to reveal what happens in the afterlife. Said and done a séance is held after the funeral and the sprit of Aldama tells Dr. Mazali and Dr. Gonzales that he will return before the end of the month, and the sign will be a closing door. Afterwards as Dr. M walks the yard of the sanatorium he feels a presence, it’s of course the ghost of Dr. Aldama keeping a close eye on his former colleague. With the three doctors set up, Méndez introduces the two young protagonists of the piece, Patricia [Mapita Cortés, who does a lot of gazing out of frame starry eyed] and Dr. Eduardo Jiminez [Gastón Santos – Now Santos is an interesting character as he actually was – and sometimes still is – a rejoneador, a bullfighter that fights the horned beasts from the back of a horse and not on the ground. This is what got him into the acting racket to start with, as he was sure his riding skills would be advantageous to him as an actor in westerns. But fate had other plans for him and he would end up typecast as young naïve heroic characters in the horror genre instead.) Both characters end up arriving at the Sanatorium of Dr Mazali. Patricia because the ghost of Dr. Aldama showed himself to her, revealed that he’s was her long lost father and tells her to go to see Dr. M, Eduardo because he’s to take on an internship with the doctor.

As they both arrive at the sanatorium, they realise that they are strangely draw towards each other due to those lusty dreams. At the same time Dr. M makes some attempt at coming off as a quite sympathetic character, as he instead of taking the usual precautions of sedating the mad Gypsy woman [Carolina Barret] who is going wild in one of the exam rooms, produces a musical box which calms the mad woman. It works and Dr. M does come off as a likeable character, contrary to what the title would have us believe. But there’s still much to come and characters do change if the scriptwriter knows his trade…

Unfortunately the ghost of Dr. Aldama has to get his spectral fingers in the works and makes the lid of the music box slam shut causing the gypsy woman to go bonkers all over again. This time the unfortunate orderly Elmer ends up having a bottle of acid smashed into his face before they can seize the Gypsy woman once again. Elmer, now this movie would have been nothing without the great character of Elmer. Played by Carlos Ancira, Elmer is the dark force o the movie, as you will see shortly.

Carlos Ancira – The Dwight Frye of Mexican Horror was constantly cast as sinister sidekicks and henchmen in the likes of Méndez The Living Coffin 1959, Federico Curiel’s La maledicíon de Nostradamus (The Curse of Nostradamus) 1960, where Jess Franco regular Jack Taylor plays Igor. Jamie Salvador’s La Señora Muerte (Madame Death) 1969 against John Carradine. He was the mad scientist in Gilberto Martínez Solares’ Santo el enmascarado de plata y Blue Demon contra los monstrous (Santo & Blue Demon against the Monsters) 1970, and Rene Cardona’s Santo en la venganza de la momia (Santo and the Vengeance of the Mummy) 1971. Carlos Ancira was also the narrator of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s debut feature Fando y Lis 1968.

Ancira is possibly at his absolute finest here in Fernando Méndez Misterios de ultratumba. His scarred face reveal scene of the film is one of the great highlights of the movie. Keeping Elmer with his back to the camera, we see how Dr. Gonzales removes the bandages – he grimaces in disgust. Elmer moves out of frame, screams and there’s a cut away of a mirror being shattered against the floor. Still with his back towards the camera Elmer hides his face in his hands, groans and whines is repulsion as he curses his hideous appearance. He walks backwards right up to the camera and spins round revealing the appallingly scared and disfigured face and curses them all. It’s a terrifying moment and Gustavo César Carrion’s score goes wild. A scene that definitely takes a rightful place in the annals of Mexican genre cinema.

Everything that is needed to make up this great movie is in play: there’s a promise, or curse depending on how you look at it pending – the one of Dr. Aldama’s return on the 15th of November at nine o’clock to show Dr. M how to return from the dead. There’s a budding love interest between Patricia and Eduardo, and a brooding conflict as even Dr. Mazali is nursing affections towards the beautiful Patricia. A scared angered and frustrated Elmer hell bent on taking revenge for being hideously disfigured, although the Gypsy witch has escaped form her cell, and Dr. Gonzales merely stands by watching in a confused state of fear and fascination.

Eduardo and Patricia meet to and from during secret meetings, Patricia is afraid to tell Dr. Mazali about her and Eduardo’s feelings towards each other as he’s just offered her a spot as Nurse at the sanatorium. As mentioned above, Dr. Mazali too has strong emotions for the young woman, and confides in his friend Dr. Gonzales. Although only Eduardo is the only one to make it to fist base with her. Elmer roams the grounds timing his revenge on the Gypsy, and when she breaks free from her cell he seizes the opportunity. But as fate would have it, it’s exactly at the dreaded deadline Dr. Aldama has set. As all the staff search for her, Dr. Mazali sees how Elmer runs from the offices, and as he enters he finds the Gypsy with a knife through the heart. Aldama’s spirit slams shut the doors and as the Gypsy dies in the arms of Dr. Mazali, Dr. Gonzales and the rest of the staff breakdown the doors. Needless to say Dr. Mazali is sent to the gallows for the obvious murder of one of his patients… but we know better, and there’s a great little scene which provides some cynicism as Elmer sits down to write a letter of confession, only to be struck down by a heart attack as he leaves to hand over the confession to the men of justice. He rolls down his stairs and the letter blows out of his hand and into the wind.
Now this would seem like a great pessimistic climax to this grand movie, but wait there’s more Obón and Méndez haven’t quite finished twisting the plot yet and they are going to take us even deeper still before it’s all over and done with…

Waiting desperately on death row for Aldama to reveal the powers and how to come back from the dead, Dr. Mazali is walked out to the gallows. As he stands there facing death in the thunderstorm above, he screams out: “Let me have justice! Give me the murderer! The murderer – give him to me!” and down he goes, to his certain death. Or is it, because in the next second, a pair of hands ram themselves out of the just buried Elmer’s shallow grave! Dr. Mazali has succeeded! He has returned, his soul is now in the flesh of another… ironically through, as the hideously disfigured Elmer. Back at the sanatorium Dr. Gonzales, Eduardo and Patricia mourn their old friend Dr. Mazali as the ghost of Dr. Aldama lurks in the background. Mazali now reincarnated as Elmer burst into the room. The woman are terrified, as even the men, but Mazali tries to explain to the one man who knows of their agreement that was struck in the opening scene. Mazali explains to Dr. Gonzales that he’s back, his lust for life and love for Patricia has brought him back. But nobody is going to have it and even Dr. G has some trouble believing that it actually is Dr. Mazali. Then a final sinister twist as Aldama’s ghost tips over the photograph of Dr. Mazali only to reveal a letter stuck to the back of the portrait. You guessed it; it’s Elmer’s missing confession. Eduardo reads the letter and confronts Dr. Mazali refusing to realise that he Doctors soul is inside the body of Elmer. In his frustration Dr. Mazali cold punches Eduardo and Dr. Gonzales before snatching Patricia and taking her screaming and hysterical to the surgery.

Patricia obviously rejects him due to that horribly scared face, so he sadistically decides that he’s going to scar her so that nobody will want her either, well at least nobody but him. The strange things men do for love huh? Eduardo won’t have any of that, especially not when it comes to the woman he loves so much, so he busts down the door to the surgery jus tin the nick of time and engages in a fist fight with Dr. Mazali before snatching a lantern off the desktop and chucking it at the frenzied doctor who goes up in a blaze. A shocked Dr. Gonzales watches his friend die before gazing up into the skies, as he knows that both Doctor Aldama and Mazali succeeded in their bizarre attempts to beat death. As the movie ends the narrator from the opening returns and leaves the viewer with a sharp warning not to tamper with the powers of god but leave that which is unknown unknown…

The Black Pit of Dr. M is an outstanding piece of Mexican horror cinema. It has a great little script, really tight and effective as it twists and warps the narrative around and forcefully changes good characters into bad ones and vice versa. It’s a beautiful blend of Gothic horror and German Expressionism, with wonderful visuals, some crazy effects, really great characters, amazing make up on Ancira as Elmer the monster, and a really dark and scornful plot with a harrowing twist at the end that makes this piece of Mexican genre cinema a must see classic.

The Score by Gustavo César Carrión is terrific, at times is gigantic and ominous, at times soft and tender and in-between that, organ galore that gives a splendid aura of cheesy old school horror and omnipotent creepiness. Carrión scored the most of the great Mexican genre pieces of this time period, Miguel M. Delgado’s Santo y Blue Demon contra el doctor Frankenstein (Santo & Blue Demon Vs. Dr Frankenstein) 1974 among them, and won several awards for his great music. Just like no Hammer film is complete without James Bernard’s creepy orchestrations, no Mexican genre film is complete without the magnificent scores of Gustavo César Carrión.

4:3 Full frame – and the restored print is dazzling. It looks absolutely great.

Dolby Digital Mono, Spanish dialogue, English subtitles optional.

Mexican Monsters Invade the US – a photo essay on Mexican movies that where imported to the US, Biography on Fernando Méndez by film historian David Wilt, the English 1961 continuity script, Theatrical Trailer, Poster and Stills gallery and a commentary track by IVTV founder Frank Coleman.

US trailer and Carrións superb score.


Ninja Dixon said...

I need Micke to bring in one more copy of this movie now :)

CiNEZiLLA said...

You sure do good sir. You sure do!


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