Judge Paul Corupe very nearly mistook this disc for an olive.
Misterios de Ultratumba
In just a few short months, CasaNegra Entertainment has become the most visible player in the current Mexican horror DVD renaissance, releasing a top-notch series of under-appreciated shockers in loving definitive editions. Though many of these films were previously available on DVD with their campy 1960s dubs, CasaNegra has given these forgotten horrors the respect they deserve, with beautiful transfers, original Spanish soundtracks, and a smattering of extras. With their latest release, The Black Pit of Dr. M, they may have actually outdone themselves, taking a virtually unknown entry in the MexiHorror canon and presenting it as the unsung masterpiece it most certainly is.
Facts of the Case
Residents physicians in a crumbling insane asylum, Dr. Aldama (Antonio Raxel, The Living Head) and Dr. Masali (Rafael Bertrand, Isle of the Snake People) make a death pact-whoever passes away first will try to discover a way to beat mortality, and communicate the secret back to the other side. Masali reminds Aldama of their agreement when his friend is on his deathbed, and before long, Aldama contacts Masali from the spirit world, promising that in three months, he will learn how to cheat death. A series of strange events follow, as Aldama's ghost appears before Patricia (Mapita Cortés, A Thousand and One Nights), the daughter that never knew he existed, and sends her to the asylum, where the unaware Masali promptly falls in love with her and hires her as a nurse. Then, an orderly is disfigured when chemicals are thrown in his face by an insane gypsy woman, and a sharp letter opener is mysteriously left out on a desk one night. When the orderly's bandaged head is unwrapped and he sees his monstrous visage, he attacks the woman, using the opener to stab her to death. But Masali is the one who is accused of the murder, and he is sentenced to hang to death, making him wonder if this is cruel fate, or simply part of Aldama's resurrection plan.
Directed by Fernando Méndez (The Vampire), The Black Pit of Dr. M (AKA Misterios de Ultratumba is a brilliantly stylish film that unlike most of CasaNegra's library, was never widely seen in North America. A triumph of gothic atmosphere with an intriguing, appropriately twisty plot, it is easily one of Mexican cinemas most accomplished films.
Like many Mexican horror exercises of the time, The Black Pit of Dr. M owes much to the Universal horror classics of the 1930s and 40s, and anticipates many of the European visual stylists who would take the gothic terror to a new level-specifically Mario Bava. Méndez was well versed in cinematic horror, and brings a series of impressively uncanny set-pieces to the film that really put it in a class all by itself. Lensed with effective eeriness by veteran cinematographer Víctor Herrera, the asylum itself is a marvel of supernatural imagery, with carefully positioned potted plants that give it a dark, sweltering feeling, and thrashing arms stuck out the tiny windows in each cell door. Also contributing to the film's sense of impending doom are unnerving close-ups of the orderly's Mummy-like skull as he whips his eyes around, a music box used to calm an insane asylum patient before she erupts into violence, and multiple appearances of Aldama's ghost, pulling strings from beyond the grave.
Though the plot is sometimes veers into convolution, it's full of Twilight Zone-like twists that perfectly compliment the film's often grotesque imagery. Rafael Bertrand anchors the film as the increasingly insane Dr. Masali, who becomes obsessed with both Aldama's daughter and the thought of death. He turns in a creepy performance worthy of the finest Universal mad doctor, so much so that it's surprising Bertrand never continued in horror, appearing only in the Mexican late-career Karloff cheapie Isle of the Snake People. It's his performance as Dr. Masali that really drives the film; when he ascends the stairs to stick his head in the noose, thoughts of life after death replaced with sudden desperation (in another beautifully shot scene), you too will come under the film's deftly-woven spell.
CasaNegra Entertainment has once again done an excellent job putting together this DVD. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, The Black Pit of Dr. M sports another clean, vibrant transfer. Contrast is quite good, with solid blacks and an excellent level of detail. The audio is offered in original Spanish mono track with English subtitles, with only a few minutes of distortion during some of the soundtrack's most bombastic moments. Extras include a commentary with IVTV's Frank Coleman, which features fascinating tidbits about the production of one of Mexico's best horror flicks, a photo essay called "Mexican Monsters invade the U.S." that looks at the influence of film importer K. Gordon Murray, an English continuity script, a rock video by Coleman's band, 21st Century Art which repurposes some footage from the film, an essay on Mendez's career by David Wilt, cast bios, and the obligatory trailer and stills gallery. Stuffed in the case are reversible cover in English and Spanish and a "what the hell am I supposed to with this" CasaNegra Loteria game card.
Surreal imagery, an unsurpassed gothic atmosphere and a stand-out lead performance all make The Black Pit of Dr. M a truly undiscovered horror gem. Only four releases in, and CasaNegra has already put together one of the year's best classic horror DVDs, with this hard-to-top Mexican masterpiece.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Casa Negra
• Photo Essay: Mexican Monsters Invade the U.S.
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