March 16, 2007

Mi Casa Sanitorium Es Su Casa Sanitorium

Mexican horror movies, I grew up watching them and they hold a special place in my heart. I was intrigued when I heard that someone was rereleasing a series of classic Mexican horror movies, so I did some investigating. Intrigue turned to excitement when I learned that these movies were going to be remastered and restored to their original form, not just rereleased as the heavily edited and badly-dubbed prints made for US consumption. The news and reviews that I found were all in agreement, Casa Negra has done a spectacular job with these films. Of course, you know that I had to have them in my collection.

I watched the first of them last night. Let me tell you, it was like seeing your friend's mom (you know, the hot one) after she went out and got a complete makeover, and even though she looked good before, she looks amazing now and you'd risk a long-time friendship just for a shot at that.

That wasn't autobiographal.*

The Black Pit of Dr. M. (Misterios de Ultratumba)

Let me start this review by saying that the best way to watch the movie is in Spanish with English subtitles, which is great because that's the only way available on the DVD. Supposedly, there are no existing original copies of the film dubbed in English. If you absolutely cannot stand it that way, then you've only yourself to blame for missing out because this movie is worth the effort.

The English title really doesn't have much to do with the movie.

I'm all done with the downside. Read on.

This 1959 movie is simply astounding. The cast is virtually a who's who of famous faces from the Mexican movie industry (including several that we'll meet again in future reviews of the Casa Negra releases), and the acting is uniformly excellent. Unlike many contemporary Mexican horror movies, this one is played straight. There is almost no camp or melodrama, for this is a dark tale.

The main part of the story takes place in a hacienda where Dr. Masali operates a lunatic asylum. The sets here are rich and include a beautifully done courtyard full of tropical plants and misty shadows. Other than the hacienda the sets are almost minimalistic, seemingly dreamlike away from the reality of the hospital.

The overall atmosphere is haunting and gothic, and the details are extraordinary. Shadows and light play in the background in most scenes, and are an integral part of the staging. Two things combine to make it work so spectacularly, firstly the original genius of the cinematography, brought back to life in the beautiful remastering job that Casa Negra did on the film. The movie is in black and white (appropriately, in my opinion), yet looks crisp and brand new. There was a disclaimer at the beginning that due to some damage to the original source materials, portions of the soundtrack were "brassy". I never noticed.

Beatriz Aguirre, the actress who plays the medium, is the official dubbed voice of Angela Lansbury in Mexico. She has won the Mexican version of the Oscar.

Dr. Masali and his collegue Dr. Aldama make a pact that whichever one dies first will let the living one know the secrets of the afterlife. After Aldama dies, they're not even done shovelling dirt over his coffin before Dr. Masali has a medium contact his spirit. Dr. M is warned during the seance that there will be a horrible price to pay, but he brushes that aside in his obsession to know the truth. The deal is made, and Dr. Aldama's spirit will make it possible for Dr. Masali to die and then return to life with his newfound knowlege.

Thus begins a macabre series of seemingly unrelated events and coincidences that lead towards the fulfillment of the pact. More than once during the movie, you are literally told what will happen at some point in the future, yet you don't realize it until it happens and you get that chilling deja vu shiver running down your spine. You can see the ending coming from about two-thirds of the way through, yet there are still enough plot twists and surprises to make it different from what you almost but not quite guessed correctly.

The leading man, Gaston Santos, is famous throughout Spain, Portugal and Latin America, but only peripherally for his acting. He's legendary as a bullfighter of the Rejoneo style, where the bullfight is done completely from horseback.

This is a creepy scare-the-hell-out-of-you movie, not a gory bloodfest. I've intentionally not given most of the story, because you really do need to track this one down (or put it atop your Netflix queue) and see it for yourself.

The character of Dr. Masali is fascinating. Far from the mad-scientist type, his principle weakness (and ultimate undoing) is his self-confidence and utter faith in scientific reason. He truly cares for his patients, although we only meet the violently psychotic. There are few 'wasted' characters in the story. Everyone has an important part to play, even though that part might be small.

Ok, a little more about the DVD itself. Besides the aforementioned music video inspired by this movie, there are a couple of documentaries on the disk about Mexican horror and the industry in general, as well as a wonderful commentary track chock full of trivia and background to listen to as the movie plays.


* You came down here looking for dirt, didn't you? I only wanted to say that "autobiographal" doesn't look right, but the spell checker had no alternatives.

Posted by Ted at March 16, 2007 05:13 AM | TrackBack
Category: Cult Flicks

Try "Autobiographical"
When in doubt try, " "

Posted by: MrD at April 20, 2007 07:56 AM


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