Tuesday, 18 September 2007

The Black Pit of Dr M (1959)

If you see The Black Pit of Dr M (Misterios de ultratumba) expecting something in the so-bad-it’s-good or the amusingly camp categories you’re in for a surprise. This 1959 Mexican production is a serious horror film, and a very good one. This is no camp classic - not that I have anything against camp classics, in fact I adore them, but The Black Pit of Dr M is not that type of movie. It reminds me quite a bit of the Val Lewton RKO horror movies of the 40s – there’s the same emphasis on atmosphere, and the cinematography and set design have a similar feel. Like Lewton’s movies it has at times almost a film noir feel. You can also see the influence of the best of the Universal horror classics of the 30s, and there are definite touches of Expressionism. There is nothing cheap or shoddy about this production. While it was undoubtedly made on a very limited budget, it doesn’t look low-budget; in fact it looks classy and very very professional. I doubt that anyone could teach Víctor Herrera, the director of photography on this movie, anything at all about the use of shadows and fog and noirish photography. I don’t think anyone could teach director Fernando Méndez anything about directing horror films either – he does an extremely assured job.

The plot is delightfully twisted and nasty. Don’t worry, I’m not going to reveal any spoilers – this is much too good a movie to ruin for anyone by doing that. The movie starts with three eminent doctors who make a pact with each other that whoever dies first will find a way to get a message to the others, revealing the means by which a person can travel to the world of the dead and return to the realm of the living, and thus reveal the secrets of the world beyond the grave. As you might expect in a horror movie, things don’t work out as nearly as they had hoped! The acting is very competent and it’s nice to see all the players in a horror film taking their roles seriously – there’s no scenery-chewing going on here. Rafael Bertrand is particularly good as Dr Masali, the man who receives a communication from the afterlife from the deceased Dr Aldama. The movie is essentially an exercise in psychological horror, with very little reliance on gore. The special effects are simple and used sparingly. And I can’t recommend the Casa Negra DVD too highly – the picture and sound quality are both absolutely superb, and the extras include an exceptionally good commentary track. It’s great to see a fine movie getting a high-quality DVD release. I’m looking forward to buying more DVDs from this company. Overall this very entertaining, very stylish and genuinely chilling little movie is a must for any serious horror fan.

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