Psychotronic Ketchup: Misterios de Ultratumba [The Black Pit of Dr. M] (1959)

Misterios de Ultratumba [The Black Pit of Dr. M]
Director: Fernando Méndez // Mexican, 1959 [DVD]

Cinema 4 Rating: 7

Old Mexican horror movies get a bad rap. If you say to your friend, “Hey, I watched this old Mexican horror movie last night,” most likely that friend will first groan, and then expel a small chuckle and reply, “That must have been pretty damn crappy,” or some such declaration of the movie’s inherent badness. Part of this is most likely due to the fact that the bulk of Mexican horror movies seen in America, like Japanese kaiju, were seen dubbed with ridiculous accents by American actors, and were also largely cut up and reedited upon release. It also probably has something to do with the fact that most of them were, inarguably, pretty damn crappy. Possibly fun, but pretty damn crappy.

The problem with assumptions like this that pass into the “common knowledge” spectrum of popular thought is that their acceptance pretty much extends outward to encapsulate all examples of the genre, good or bad. To tread back to the Mexican horror genre, even a halfway decent film will get sucked into the vortex with all the other Paul Naschy, Santo and Aztec Mummy films, immediately thought of by the bulk of the population aware of them as "bad," circling about in this downcast oblivion. And even I, who recognizes openly that even out of such belittled areas great things can grow, spent a small amount of time gnashing the pearlies over the thought of spending time sinking into The Black Pit of Dr. M, also known as Misterios de Ultratumba, and initially released in 1959. Truthfully, I knew little – actually, nothing – about the film before slipping it from its case and inserting it into my player.

And this is what I found: a lost minor foreign classic of mood and design. It’s no great shakes story-wise: some basic horror folderol about Dr. Mazali (the “M” of the title) seeking to discover the secrets of the afterlife, and determined, via the ministrations of his already deceased partner in science, to come back from the dead upon his own demise. Mazali is, essentially, an atheist who nonetheless hungers for a peek into the afterworld. Of course, his plans get slightly altered when the daughter of his dead partner is mysteriously summoned by her father’s ghost (whom she had never met in her life, and thus, did not recognize) to collect her inheritance. What she does not know is her interference in the doctor’s life is just one small dizzying step in her father’s elaborately spiraled and possibly malignant plan to fulfill Dr. M’s odd request.
Where this all leads I will allow you to discover, but I will briefly touch on the look and mood of the film itself.

Yes, this is one of those “everything in the stewpot” type of films. Naturally, because Dr. M is a man of science, we are allowed to step into his laboratory throughout the picture, but we also are given glimpses of the attached insane asylum, and numerous ominous trips into the cemetery to attend funerals of various characters. There are ghosts, séances, mysterious amulets, a disfigured man who slowly evolves into a monstrous killer, hypnotism, knife murders and, eventually, a visit from the living dead. One would think all this busywork would be enough to fill an audience’s interest, but the filmmakers chose to render all this action in relatively grand style, an incredible feat given the obvious low budget of the film. I have noted previously, when watching the popular Mexican “Wrestling Women” films of the ‘60s that it seemed as if the filmmakers had stopped watching horror movies with the demise of the Universal line of horror classics. There were obvious nods there to the great Gothic Universals, and here, in Dr. M’s world, such influence is brought to a mount as seriously close to art as these films are going to get.

Things might be a little too clean, though; that the camera wishes to pan through nearly every gorgeously rendered set in delirious reverence subtly reveals the damning fact that hardly any of these perfect worlds are actually lived in by the characters. There is a certain aspect to a cluttered existence that might seem unromantic, but which can reveal a little bit more soul in the person that lives there, rather than appear as a fussbudget trapped in a completely antiseptic womb. But this is only a momentary distraction, and as the camera does take to its traveling through the lab set and so on, one can only show appreciation for the attention to detail. Even the cobwebs sparkle with perfection.

And dare I say that eventually this leads to an amazing graveyard sequence, where what would have been just a moribund corpse revival had this film actually been the sort of below-average Mexican horror fare that undoubtedly many inexperienced viewers have proclaimed it as, is turned somehow artful to a cunning degree, and also serves as an almost accidental tribute to those great gothic Universals of years past. I will admit that even up to this point, I was still a doubter poking about within this film, enjoying the sights but skeptical of the outcome. And then, with the mere lightning flash-aided crawl to the grave’s surface of the doctor in the guise of the living dead, I was struck by the thought that, at least for this film, the slow, inexorable plot crawl paid off in spades. In fact, it pays off several times in the film’s second half, but none so more thrilling than this moment. (And if you feel that I have given away anything in the way of spoilers, I cringe for your skills as a film detective, because surely by this point in the film, you know where it is going. That’s not why one attends such a film as this.)

Of course, certain people will never be able to see past all of the ghosts and zombies and mad scientists, and will always think “That’s a pretty damn crappy movie.” These are people who divide their movies into immediate sensations, and they are the most susceptible to the impulse to proclaim the cliché, “So bad, it’s good.” And more often than not, nearly all horror and science-fiction films of any sort of vintage fall into this category for them, and they never care one whit that even within the most downgraded of genres, or in much impoverished genre-country of origin combinations, there might be some sort of art to be achieved. Much to the consternation of these type of people, The Black Pit of Dr. M climbs away from its own name and achieves this very level.


Ultratumba seems like it would translate as something sillier than 'Otherworld, beyond(the grave),' but thats what it means.

Sounds interesting, although I would probably have also assumed, apparently wrongfully so, that it would be bad. Another one to add to the list.

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