Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The best film so far in CasaNegra's Mexican horror series is this 1958 shocker, the diabolical tale of a doctor who dares tread where Man Was Not Meant to Go. Director Fernando Méndez (Ladrón de cadáveres) keeps the contrived plot moving, and an attractive cast helps insure our interest. The story has a monster but relies for its main theme on a rather cruel cosmic punishment.
Dr. Masali and Dr. Aldama (Rafael Bernard and Antonio Raxel) carry through on a mutual pact: The first to die will find a way to let the other visit the afterlife, and return with the knowlege. Aldama dies, and returns in a séance to to tell Masali that if he really wants to carry out the pact, his chance will come in a couple of weeks. But Aldama's ghost warns that Masali will have to pay a price horrible beyond imagination. A patient in Masali's clinic, the Mad Gypsy (Carolina Barret) splashes acid in the face of Elmer, the clinic orderly (Carlos Ancira), who immediately goes off his rocker. Aldama's estranged daughter, impoverished dancer Patricia (Mapita Cortés) is summoned to Masali's clinic by mysterious means, and decides to become a nurse. Masali falls in love with her, but so does his new young intern, Dr. Jimenez (Gastón Santos). On the designated night Masali decides to call off the pact if Patricia returns his love, but before he can declare himself, the disfigured Elmer stabs the Mad Gypsy in revenge. Circumstances lead to Masali being accused and convicted of the crime. He's to be executed exactly three months later, which agrees with Aldama's spiritual prediction. Masali waits for that sign that he'll be pardoned, while the remorseful Elmer prepares a written confession ...
The fanatic Doctor Masali so badly wants knowledge of the Misterios de ultratumba -- "Mysteries beyond the grave" that he voluntarily agrees to suffer unknown tortures of the damned. Thus we're given another highly conservative Mexican horror film about the bloody havoc that will befall any transgressor who defies the laws of man and the Church. The film has soap opera pacing, a ghost story framework, a demented, melted-faced maniac running around -- a little bit of everything. Ramón Obón's script is short on logic but packed with macabre ideas. The reasonably elaborate production generates a spooky atmosphere of high-contrast horror, with the garden courtyard of Masali's clinic curtained in wisps of mysterious smoke.
The title of the (now lost?) television dubbed version was Black Pit of Dr. M, which is meaningless unless the Pit refers to Masali's civilized clinic. Or perhaps the Black Pit is the moral abyss that Masali seems determined to throw himself into, despite the warnings of his staff.
Not that a story like this needs to be completely logical, but we think poor Dr. Masali is the victim of a supernatural swindle, of the kind that Peter Cook's Beelzebub might cook up in the great comedy Bedazzled. Dr. Masali's bargain is that he will be conducted to whatever world exists beyond this one, and be allowed to return. Afterwards he must accept whatever horrible fate his actions will merit -- and Aldama's spirit is insistent that what's in store won't be any picnic. Masali therefore sees himself as a spiritual Prometheus, bringing back to Earthly life the Straight Dope regarding the afterlife.
Frankly, if it were I that heard Aldama's warning in the séance, I'd be convinced that the afterlife is real. I'd mind my own business and follow the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments and the Boy Scout's honor code. But Masali is just too darn curious. (spoiler, partly)
The plotting goes nuts in the last third as supernatural forces conspire to cook Masali's goose. He does indeed 'die' and is indeed 'reborn', but he learns zilch about the afterlife (a seeming rip-off by the spirit world, mind you) and is immediately put into a bind that only Paul Henried in The Scar would understand. The only way to make moral sense of what happens is to accept the proposition that Masali relinquished his spiritual rights as soon as he dared carry through with his pact. It hardly seems fair: The message is that Man was not meant to know certain secrets, and even trying to find them out earns one a ticket to Hell. It's like being punished just for trying to get to the cookie jar .... You're damned forever, and you never even got to eat the cookies.
None of the acting is particularly great but all of the characters are cast to type. Mapita Cortés is a cute focus for the attentions of the male cast, and the various doctors are convincingly sober. Carlos Ancira's miserable Elmer is the story's truly deserving victim; his horror makeup is excellent and something about his dialogue delivery is reminiscent of Peter Lorre. He claws his way out of the grave almost identically to the wicked Javuto of Mario Bava's Black Sunday. If the Mad Gypsy woman looks familiar to genre adepts, it's because her photo has decorated a page in Phil Hardy's Encyclopedia of Horror Movies for the last 20 years. Dr. Mazali finds he can calm the madwoman by letting her hear the sweet song from a music box, a scene that reminds us of John Ford's Two Rode Together made three years later.
CasaNegra's DVD of Black Pit of Dr. M (Misterios de ultratumba) is an excellent flat transfer that could have been made even better with 16:9 enhancement -- the title text blocks frame nicely in 1:77 and a pillarboxed 1:66 transfer would have been perfect. Both studio interiors and country exteriors are well rendered in sharp B&W and the audio (featuring a juicily overdone score) is also without defect. Unlike other CasaNegra releases, the film is viewable only the original Spanish language, as the English dub track is apparently either unavailable or lost. English subtitles are removable.
A photo essay called Mexican Monsters Invade the U.S. uses text to tell us more about importer K. Gordon Murray's work with Mexican horror (although Video Watchdog publisher Tim Lucas assures us that Black Pit was not part of Murray's notorious "dub & mangle" filmography). Film historian David Wilt provides detailed bios for the cast and director Méndez. As a young man, Méndez reportedly handled makeup chores on Dwain Esper's notorious 30s exploitation pictures Marihuana and Maniac. The English continuity script is included as an extra as well, but it's very difficult to read. As with other CasaNegra releases, we're given an original trailer and an attractive 'Lottery Card', the one that suspiciously misspells the Spanish word for dog.
IVTV Founder Frank Coleman provides the audio commentary. He really has little or nothing of substance to say about Black Pit and is soon leaving big gaps in his track. We get to see Coleman in a self-indulgent ten-minute intro to an 'exclusive' rock video presentation by his group 21st Century Art, artlessly using film clips as wallpaper behind the music. The menu caption misspells the word Century. What's next, home movies of the disc producer's children?
Those gripes aside, as a horror film aficionado I'm grateful for this excellent CasaNegra series of rare Mexi-horrors, which I never expected to see in high-quality in their original language. The Black Pit of Dr. M is their most entertaining offering so far. And I love the stylish bilingual reversible DVD covers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Black Pit of Dr. M (Misterios de ultratumba) rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Text extras, commentary, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 10, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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