Black Pit Of Dr. M (Misterios De Ultratumba) Review
Dr Harrison Aldeman (Jacinto Aldama) is dying. Surrounded by his friends and family, he prepares himself to cross between this world and the next but as his final moments come ever nearer, a fellow doctor approaches him and quietly reminds Dr Aldeman of a pact that they made years before. Then, Dr Aldeman and Dr Mazali (Rafael Bertrand), agreed that who ever died first would return to reveal to the other the secrets of death and of the afterlife. Dr Mazali accuses Dr Aldeman of reneging on their agreement and watches frustrated as his friend quietly slips away, his body carried out of the room and into the churchyard, where he is buried by torchlight.
Back in his villa, Dr Mazali senses a presence not far behind him. Through the fog and the cobwebs, he sees nothing but is wary of a breath on the back of his neck and of footsteps that he hears in the quiet of the night. Turning and going back inside, he takes his place at the table in his living room, completing the circle with a medium and a colleague, who, with Dr Aldeman's body not yet cold, they intend to make contact with him. As the medium falls into a trance, Dr Aldeman's voice is heard and explains how one can freely cross between life and the afterlife but that it requires a terrible price. Ignoring the warnings of Dr Aldeman, Mazali agrees and demands to know more but Dr Aldeman only offers a piece of cryptic advice, saying that a door will open in exactly three months time and that Mazali must go through it. As the fires burn outside, Mazali remains indoors in fear of hearing any more from his colleague. Dr Aldeman is not yet finished and before the three months pass, many more horrors will be visited upon him, including madness, torture and the dead rising from their graves.
The reputation that surrounds Mexican horror films typically has much to do with their lurid titles, the cheapness of their production and how American producers, directors and actors, unable to find work in their own country, headed south where standards were much lower. Occasionally, though, even a nugget of gold can be found in the mud and The Black Pit Of Dr. M is such a thing. Looking less like a companion piece to something like Brainiac (El Baron Del Terror) and more a work indebted to the atmospheric horrors of Val Lewton and of Herk Harvey's Carnival Of Souls, The Black Pit Of Dr. M does a magnificent job of setting up a chilling premise. What's then most impressive about it is how it maintains that spirit throughout the film, dwelling on all manner of ghoulish behaviour that would, in time, become cliched but has such a sustained attack here that one is quickly drawn into it. The torchlit burials, the single hand reaching out of a freshly dug grave, the cobwebs that hang from every corner of a villa and the insanity that lurks within the walls of an asylum, all these would appear in many a film before an after this one but with little respite, there's a palpable sense of dread in this film.
However, it's also obvious that The Black Pit Of Dr. M came from a time between the films of Val Lewton but before the more grisly zombie films of the late-sixties. For example, Elmera, being an orderly in the insane asylum run by Dr Mazali, has acid thrown over his face by a violent patient but where one might have expected him to have borne a rather ordinary looking piece of scar tissue crafted out of plastic, the film offers a decent look at his face as it burns his flesh. By no means does it have a large budget but it clearly makes the most of what little it had, never more so than in an impressionistic look created by shadows falling across scenes, daring camera angles and a deep focus that creates a feeling of distance between the characters. This is never portrayed better than in a hanging during the film, in which a light in the distance, an entirely artificial one created in the studio, casts a long shadow from the gallows into the foreground of the picture. It never looks less than impressive and even when the story drags, there's still much to marvel at in its imaginative visuals
And yet, there is occasionally the problem that blights many a cheap imported horror, being that of a poor translation. Unfortunately, Elmera, despite what's been written about him earlier, is never referred to by that name. As Frank Coleman points out in his commentary, Elmera was lazily translated as Elmer for an English-speaking audience and so he has remained. On his return from the grave, Elmer is less frightening a figure than the vengeful Elmera. The music that he plays on a violin to the horror of Dr Malazi is less threatening when one remembers how it is the dim-sounding Elmer calling out to his love but somehow the feeling of dread survives. After all, what does one remember of I Walked With A Zombie? I suspect that it's not the feeling of disappointment of its titular creature being a member of the walking dead without a taste for human flesh nor the calypso tune that is played throughout but rather the sense of hope being corrupted and of a wealthy and once-powerful family decaying. When that atmosphere is as potent as it is there and as it is in The Black Pit Of Dr. M, one can easily look past the odd mistranslation and, instead, savour the sense of gloom that pervades the film. When that's as potent as it is here, that's easily done.
The back of the DVD case claims that this release of The Black Pit Of Dr. M has been completely remastered and, if anything, that understates just how good this looks. This is a superb transfer of material that one suspects has fallen into disrepair over the years through carelessness more than bad malice and looks wonderful throughout. With deep blacks and a clarity to the picture that belies its origins and its age, this is an excellent presentation of the film that is probably much, much better than many would think it deserves. Granted, there is some noise in some of the scenes set outdoors, where a fog lingers about the actors but this is a fairly common problem and shouldn't be seen as being a fault of this film in particular.
With such a good picture, it's only fair that the original mono soundtrack has been restored to an equally high standard and so it proves with there being only a small amount of background noise. However, given what obviously went into it, this would seem to be a persistent element that survived the restoration process but as it can be easily ignored, it does negatively affect one's enjoyment of the film.
Commentary: Frank Coleman of 21st Century Art - see more later - is on his own here but where that would normally be one's cue to say how the commentary soon lapsed into long silences, that's not the case here. Coleman clearly has a great love for this film and it comes across in this informative but never particularly serious commentary that, like the writing of Michael Weldon, appreciates the horror in the film as well as the finer points of its production without ever falling to the old cliche of being so-bad-it's-good. Coleman avoids saying that about this film, describing it instead as being a classic of Mexican horror cinema but who is unafraid to talk about the unintentional moments of comedy and the sometimes shoddy effects.
Mexican Monsters Invade The US: This photo essay, written by Rob Craig, concerns producer K Gordon Murray, who brought many, many Mexican horrors to the US during the sixties. With such lurid titles as Wrestling Women Vs. The Aztec Mummy, these films were cheap, grisly and perfect grindhouse and drive-in fodder, leaving a generation of teenagers to get their bloody thrills with them. This is an affectionate piece but doesn't scrimp on the details of Murray's efforts to get these films released in the US despite the obvious enjoyment that it takes in describing his efforts to get them publicised, many of which would have shamed even William Castle.
Biographies: Beginning with an essay on Fernando Mendez before moving on to Gaston Santos, these offer much more than just a standard biography/filmography as you might expect of a DVD release. The essay on Mendez, for example, goes into quite some detail on Mendez's life and pays particular attention to a few of his films, including El Vampiro, El Ataud Del Vampiro and The Monster And The Girl. That on Santos has as much to say about his work as a bullfighter as it does his acting as well as explaining why he didn't become Mexico's answer to Roy Rogers. He couldn't sing, apparently.
English Continuity Script: Written in 1961, this is the script for the dubbed English release of the film, a version of the that has never been seen since and which is now considered lost. Presented as still images over a background image, which makes it more difficult to read than it really should be, this doesn't differ greatly from the subtitles on this Spanish version but its inclusion shows just how comprehensive this package is.
Finally, there is a music video of Black Pit by 21st Century Art, the Original Theatrical Trailer and a Poster and Stills Gallery.