Two doctors make a pact to find out what lies beyond the veil, and to teach the other the ultimate secret. It is Dr. Aldama who dies first, and a mysterious visitation leads his long lost daughter to arrive at Dr. Mazali's estate/mental asylum.What follows is a series of strange events, from deranged patients on the rampage, to murder and its inevitable aftermath. Dr. Mazali may find out the truth of the afterlife, but not how he hoped...
Misterios de Ultratumba (literally Mysteries of the Grave) is an interesting horror film from 1950s Mexico. The plot is fairly basic in theory, but anchored to a fascinating concept, and the strength of this easily makes the film a gripping watch.
Mysteries of the Grave is a fitting and spooky title (even if Ultratumba sounds like a special rumba to me). For its English release though it was changed to The Black Pit of Dr. M. As awesome as a title as that is, it is a little sensationalistic, and doesn't quite make sense.
The main character is ostensibly the villain here, with Dr. Mazali getting the lion's share of development. Also present is Patricia, a young dancer who appears in the dreams of young doctor Eduardo, who soon turns up in the real world. She turns out to be the long lost daughter of Dr. Aldama, and her presence drives Mazali's theories into overdrive.
While the plot may be simple in concept, I was a little confused how the details all come together. I'm not sure exactly what Dr. Mazali's reasons are for anything he does. Yes, he's obsessed with the afterlife, but as it is, he really doesn't do anything wrong. He's not nice by any means, and he's certainly probing too far into the mysteries of life, but it feels like the film is missing an inciting action to make Mazali really deserve what's coming to him.
The mysterious box Aldama's ghost leads his friend to contains only a knife, which states it mustn't be used for evil. Ok, not quite sure why that's all he left, but ok. You can guess what happens next, with the knife being used in a murder. But the strange thing is Mazali isn't the one who used it and killed the madwoman, the scarred man did. But the police don't even entertain the idea that it could've been self defence, and must have sped the execution right through. I guess you can't accuse his staff of favouritism though! They see their employer standing over a dead patient, with a knife dripping in blood, they immediately think the worst! No benefit of the doubt with them.
Overall, the film has a confusing moral. Don't try and find out what happens after you die, otherwise you'll come back to life in the body of a man scarred with acid and accused of murder?
While a motive may not be entirely there, the poetic justice in the finale comes together perfectly, of how hubris can destroy even the most wary.
Dr. Aldama's motives are unexplained, but in an interesting way. Then there's the scarred orderly, who grows to play a large role in events (and does a piss-poor effort of letting the authorities know the truth).
The young couple meanwhile have quite a good romance, borne of mutual dreams (but due to the quick ending, they get no last kiss!). Mazali fancies her too, somehow thinking he's got a chance with his mate's daughter. This goes as you expect from any monster movie.
I really like how Eduardo interprets the events of the climax. He doesn't believe Mazali's story, but instead thinks the real killer has gone mad with guilt and is psychologically recreating his victim's personality.
The cast is effective. Rafael Bertrand is suitably intense as Dr. Mazali, and I was sad to see him replaced once the body switch happens. Antonio Raxel is enigmatic as the ghostly Dr. Aldama, while Carolina Barret does well in her more over-the-top performance. Gastón Santos and Mapita Cortés are the most normal of the cast, giving pretty straightforward and simple performances, reacting well.
The only complaint I have with the cast is one that makes the film quite difficult to watch at times-Everyone looks the same! Dr. Mazali is a middle aged man with short light hair and a moustache. The same goes for Dr. Aldama, and the main assistant. Even the young doctor has a moustache! At least age distinguishes him from the others.
There's plenty of good make-up on display, from the gorgeous ladies, to the unkempt madwoman. Then there are the effects. While a bit cheesy, the scarred make-up looks good, and has a neat design. It's perhaps shown a bit too much, but overall still works well. Other photographic effects are used for the various apparitions throughout, and convince, going well with the good sound design.
Fernando Méndez does a great job with the direction, framing scenes really well, coming up with interesting visual ideas (like when characters will walk right into the ghosts), and having a great face reveal. The film has some almost dreamlike imagery, with a standout moment being the ballerina performance near the beginning.
Music plays a good role here, not only from the typical horror tunes, but also some music box melodies, which is the only thing keeping the madwoman at bay, and one scene where an almost entranced Patricia begins playing the piano.
Misterios is a fairly laidback picture, and low on cheesiness, but it is an old film, and it does have its moments. Most notable is a hilarious moment at the end, when the villain/monster is lit on fire, but pauses to open the door as he runs away!
The Black Pit of Dr. M is one of the more interesting films in the Mexican horror canon. It does fall into a few cliches, but considering they're why we love them, this isn't as big a problem as it could be. It's well worth checking out!...