Thursday, October 22, 2009


Original Title: Misterios de Ultratumba (Mysteries from Beyond the Tomb)
Year: 1959
Director: Fernando Méndez
Writer: Ramón Obón
Genre: Horror

By day, Dr. Masali runs an insane asylum. By night, he lashes out at the veil between this life and the next, desperate to contact his former partner, Dr. Aldama, has recently died. What follows is madness, tragedy, agonizing violence and the unrelenting horror of infinite damnation.

Umm...okay. That synopsis is as melodramatic as a telenova.

I guess the film itself is a bit also, but I think that's what you run into a lot with the Gothic horror.

Misterios de Ultratumba, or The Black Pit of Dr. M as it is known in the U.S., is a beautifully shot yet strange look into a man's obsession with the afterlife. I was reading today that during the boom of horror films like this in Mexico, the topic of life after death and reincarnation is often touched upon. This is certainly the theme here, as the film opens with Dr. Masali (Rafael Bertrand) using the services of a spiritual medium to contact his recently-deceased, long-time scientific partner Dr. Aldama (Antonio Raxel) and ask him to relay the secrets of beating death. Mazali wants to come back essentially, and defeat the limits of the flesh.

The two had made a promise that whichever of them died first, they must come back and let the other one know how to pretty much not die. Or something... He wants to know what is beyond death. Masali says it is possible because science makes the impossible possible.

I know, just go with it.

Despite it being convoluted sounding, the story is actually quite entertaining. It lends itself to some nice melodrama (wait, is there such a thing?) as it all unfolds, and combine that with the setting of the dark, moody sanitarium and you've got a winner on your hands.

There was not really a weak role in the film. The acting fits the genre, and while some characters are obviously more prominent than others, I thought everyone did very nicely. Bertrand's role as Dr. Masali was the primary focus and I thought he was the strongest. Elmer, the orderly played by Carlos Ancira ended up being a pretty interesting character even though at first he seems like a throwaway.

The direction and in particular the cinematography were the strong suits of the film. Méndez and his director of photography Víctor Herrera put together an amazing story here. The lighting throughout was hard and made the film very contrasty. It fit the creepy mood perfectly, and with the orchestral score, it made for a fantastic atmosphere.

There is a great setup in the halls of the sanitarium itself as the patient's/inmates barred doors line a hallway. When there is excitement, there are arms just reaching at anyone passing by. Nighttime shots were done very very well also. This is definitely a good thing since most of the story takes place in the night.

A problem I have noticed in the past with older films (this is probably a problem more with color films than black and white) is that nighttime shots can appear grainy or hazy or in some cases just look like day time with a filter on the lens. Everything stays crisp throughout thanks to the hard lighting.

The extreme lighting on the gallows stood out the most to me. At times I felt like I was watching an art house film! For some reason the initial setup of this scene made me think of a scene in the film Capote from a couple years ago.

My problems with the film were largely with the story itself, as I already touched upon briefly. some of the twists and smaller plot points don't always make the most sense, but all of it comes together by the end and an interesting ultimate question is raised. Also, the acting, although I said was good, is just different from current film. This is probably obvious to most people who would be reading this blog, but I thought it may need to be pointed out. It was just a different style.

You probably won't be scared by this film as the conventions are a bit dated, and we as a modern audience have become very desensitized, but Misterios de Ultratumba is interesting, fun, and creepy film experience. The amazing lighting and shot compositions carried the film for me.

Definitely recommended to fans of vintage horror, and to anyone else wanting to see some great camera work and a fantastic example of Gothic horror.

Score: 7.25 / 10


Matt-suzaka said...

This one sounds great...I love old black and white films, especially when they are well shot and are Gothic in nature. Some of those screen captures are fantastic and almost enough to make me want to see the movie alone.

Great review, as always!

pickleloaf said...

thank you, sir.

if you're into the old films, i definitely think this one would be a good fit for you