Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Misterios de ultratumba (1959)

aka The Black Pit of Dr. M

Some time in what I assume to be the late 19th or early 20th Century, or both at the same time. Psychiatrists Dr. Mazali (Rafael Bertrand) and Dr. Aldama (Antonio Raxel) have made a very scientific - as the film never gets tired to emphasize even though there’s nothing scientific at all to find there - pact: whosoever of them is going to die first will send news from the afterlife in a séance and then help the survivor to die, to experience the afterlife, and then to come back to life, which  somehow may or may not make the returner immortal. Science, I tell you, it’s science!

It is certainly an interesting plan, and when Aldama dies he does indeed appear to Mazali during a séance (that takes place right during Aldama’s funeral, because scientists don’t go to their friends’ funerals, I guess). Alas, he doesn’t have a helpful manual entitled “how to get into the afterlife and back” in hand, but utters cryptic warnings and explains that Mazali will have his way in exactly three months, when a door will inevitably open. Mazali decides that ignoring the warnings and looking forward to the dying is the way to go.

From here on out, the plot becomes increasingly strange (okay, even stranger), for Aldama’s ghost also decides to do the daughter he left behind when she was but a babe a good turn. Being dead and all, he does this in the most creepy way imaginable, of course, entwining his daughter’s fate needlessly with the one God (in his Old Testament guise as a right prick) has in mind for Mazali for tampering in his domain, etc. Also featured are acid-induced madness, a crazy woman with a thing for music and the old chestnut of coming back from the dead in the wrong body (while still playing a mean violin).

At least in its original form (I don’t even want to know what the US cut and dub did to the film), Fernando Méndez’s Misterios de ultratumba is a wonderful example of the Mexican Gothic, the great time when Mexican genre cinema really put its own twist on Universal-style horror from a decade or two earlier, just without the loathing for its audience that mars too much of the Universal output past the handful of certified classics and a few hangers-on. It also gets even weirder than Universal ever dared to be outside the day when the Creature asked for the brain of a little girl.

With the Universal comparison, I don’t necessarily mean to say that Méndez as a director is quite on the level of the best of the Universal guys, but he’s certainly giving the film his all, turning it into a – sometimes crass in its insistence – model of bright lights and stark shadows, creepy close-ups and sets of dream-like artificiality. He’s certainly not subtle with it at all, but Méndez’s use of these expressionist techniques is so unrelenting it becomes effective again, turning everything you’ll see so strange and unreal the whole film feels like a very curious dream. Which is of course highly appropriate for a film that features characters that act (scientifically!) on strange portents, as well as others that have seen each other repeatedly in dreams before they ever met, and whose plot doesn’t seem to follow a straight line so much as circle around repeatedly, telling some very peculiar Catholic cautionary tale in the least logical manner possible.

The film is rather magical in this way, overcoming my general distaste for horror that is quite this earnestly outspoken about its Catholic moralizing – or moralizing in general - by the sheer power of a strangeness that turns even a short dance number into something that looks like a particularly loopy dream, and which never ever stops feeling and looking like a thing made of dream stuff, curiously enough not even in those scenes shot in a bright, natural daylight nobody ever dreams of.

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