Wednesday, January 21, 2009

'Misterios de Ultratumba' (1959)

I saw this dvd at CD Warehouse, under its fanciful English title: 'The Black Pit of Dr. M.' It's a Mexican horror flick from 1959, and I was curious to see if it followed in any way the Dr. Mabuse canon. There are vague similarities, but I think they're coincidental: the main character IS a Doctor M. - Doctor Mazali - and he is a psychiatrist and runs an insane asylum. But although you can stretch the similarities a little way - Doctor Mazali is excessively ambitious and unscrupulous - I don't think he's a proper Mabusian anti-hero. He's not really evil, despite the often-repeated fact that he's an atheist. He's not trying to conquer anyone or rule the world, he's really an unbalanced scientist, trying to acquire more knowledge than is good.

I thought this might be a funny/bad movie (what are your first thoughts when you hear the words 'Mexican horror film'?) but I was surprised to find that it's really a quite artistic straight horror film. It doesn't have expensive special effects, as you might expect, but it makes up for it with spooky, atmospheric sets and really excellent photography.

The movie starts out at Dr. Mazali's insane asylum, where his colleague, Dr. Aldama is on the point of death. Dr. Mazali reminds him that they had made a pact - whichever of the doctors was the first to die, would find a way to come back and tell the others the secret of how to go to the next world while remaining alive. No sooner is Dr. Aldama dead than Dr. Mazali, Dr. Jimenez and a medium are busily conjuring him up from the grave. Dr. Aldama does return (invisible to everyone in the room) and through the medium tells Dr. Mazali that there is a way to do what he wishes, but it will entail great suffering and punishment. Dr. Mazali is resolved to go through with it, and the spectre disappears. I have to say, the scenes of Dr. Aldama as a ghost are very effective, even though they're so simple - just a lingering fade-out - but these appearances and disappearances happen in the courtyard full of shifting moonlight on hanging mist, and they're quite eerie. Throughout the movie, there are very effective night scenes full of moving shadows and mist; the shadows of tree branches reach out and wave over walls, through windows and over faces, as if there were a storm going on, even though the scene is quite still.

The next important event is the "treatment" of a mad gypsy woman, who is tranquillized by a music box. Unfortunately, the box lid closes at the most inappropriate time, and she goes berserk, fighting off doctors and orderlies before flinging a bottle of acid into the face of Elmer, one of the orderlies. He becomes terribly disfigured, and the face makeup is really quite repulsive, even if it looks a bit like sheets of cotton with plaster over them have been applied to his face. It doesn't matter too much, though, because the actor playing the role is very effective in his horrified reaction when the bandages come off - a nice slow process, building up the suspense - we see him from the back, then he leaves the scene, screams, breaks a mirror which STILL doesn't show us what the damage is, then we see him from the back again, then FINALLY he turns round.

In comes a girl, Dr. Aldama's estranged daughter, and also the hero, a young doctor joining Dr. Mazali's practice. They provide the obligatory romance angle, but don't affect the plot too much. The main plot is how is Dr. Aldama's promise going to be fulfilled? It happens through a very nice "inevitable" series of events - Elmer murders the gypsy in revenge for his disfigurement, and Dr. Mazali gets the blame. He is tried and convicted of murder (offscreen - we're just told that several months have gone by and all the appeals have been exhausted) but is convinced that he will not die, because he trusts Dr. Aldama's promise. Then comes the best scene in the whole movie, as Dr. Mazali is led to the gallows. It's all spooky silhouettes against a sharp backlighting, with the gallows and noose floating in black shadows. I guess this is a sort of film noir effect, but it seems almost too stylized. It reminds me of a 'Twilight Zone' episode called 'The Obsolete Man', with long, sharp shadows and a feeling of doom and hopelessness. I don't know just what sort of style you'd call this - expressionist/noir maybe, but it looked very original.

Meanwhile, Elmer is racked with guilt because an innocent man is about to be executed, so he writes a letter to the governor confessing that HE is the real murderer, but...he collapses from a heart attack at the top of the stairs and falls to his death, and the exculpatory letter blows away! Elmer is quickly buried without a coffin (at his own request, apparently). Back to the gallows, and Dr. Mazali is freaking out at his approaching death, and the trapdoor cuts off his screams as he demands that the real murderer pay for his crime. I'm sure you can guess what happens next: Dr. Aldama's promise comes true, as Dr. Mazali is reincarnated in Elmer's body, and proceeds to claw his way out of the grave in the best zombie fashion.

When he comes stumbling back to the insane asylum, nobody is very glad to see him, and he has some work to do to convince the young hero doctor that he really is Dr. Mazali in Elmer's body. The final twist comes - Elmer's letter confessing to the crime is found, and Elmer/Mazali is seized so that he can pay for the murder of the gypsy!

It's really quite a good little horror film.

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