Mexico Macabre

by Charlie Largent Jun 09, 2023

Mexico Macabre
Indicator Series
1958-1963 / 1.37:1, 1:85:1
Starring Abel Salazar, Rosita Arena, Rita Macedo, Rafael Bertrand
Written by Ramón Obón, Alfredo Ruanova
Directed by Fernando Méndez, Chano Urueta, Rafael Baledón

Mexico Macabre shines a light on four unconventional shockers produced in Mexico City between 1958 and 1963. Each film is distinguished by its energetic theatricality and full blooded embrace of the grotesque—a “visceral expressionism” that predated David Cronenberg by centuries. Though Spanish language theaters in America regularly programmed these peculiar entertainments, English-only audiences had to wait for late night television where dubbed versions made the experience all the more surreal. Like TNT’s fabled cult film series, these movies weren’t just “macabre”, they were 100% Weird.

Three of the films were produced by Cinematográfica ABSA; In El espejo de la Bruja (The Witch’s Mirror), El barón del Terror (The Brainiac), and La maldición de la Llorona (The Curse of the Crying Woman). ABSA was the brainchild of actor/businessman Abel Salazar who created the facility as Mexico’s answer to Universal’s classic horror films—a pipe dream that turned a tidy profit right out of the gate with 1957’s El Vampiro.

The fourth film in the set, 1958’s Misterios de Ultratumba (Black Pit of Dr. M), was released under the banner of Alameda films. It’s fitting that this particular movie opens the collection—its story of madness, disfigurement and the transmigration of souls is, like so many Mexican horror films, a volatile mix of  pulp fiction and poetry.

A medieval asylum is the ideal setting for Black Pit of Dr. M. and at times you might think this unpredictable movie was produced by one of the inmates. But even at its most frenzied, the film is never undisciplined. Director Fernando Méndez had a trained painter’s eye and his command of the frame, combined with Víctor Herrera’s lush photography, controls every moment.

The atmosphere is operatic, and every character has a chance to sing—or in this case, scream (Edvard Munch might have been an inspiration).The film’s pathos comes from those screamers, some insane, others merely terrified, but Méndez shows compassion to even the most peripheral characters, including the poor soul who, without warning, will become the protagonist of the film.

The Cuban actor Rafael Bertrand plays Dr. Mazali, the administrator of the sanitarium—and though the even-tempered physician is the voice of reason, he’s also a little “off”, he’s obsessed with the afterlife and fancies himself a Spanish Odysseus, ready to go through Hades to find the answer he seeks. He’s made a risky pact with Jacinto Aldama, a close colleague who is, conveniently, dying—once Aldama has crossed to the other side, he will guide Mazali into the underworld and return him to the living, hopefully in one piece.

The old man keeps his word, materializing at a seance with instructions and a warning—Mazali is granted a round-trip ticket to the afterlife but his journey comes with a terrible price; “think of it as a punishment.” Once Mazali’s wishes come true, he regrets them instantly—Aldama’s parting gift turns out to be a diabolically plotted joke worthy of O. Henry, Rod Serling, and the devil himself.

Squint your eyes while watching The Brainiac and you may think you’re looking at that devil. But a quick dive into medieval Mexican art reveals no clues about the origin of this satanic creature—the star of Chano Urueta’s gonzo shocker resembles the work of a bush league Hieronymus Bosch.

The man playing the Brainiac is also the film’s producer, Abel Salazar. He stars as Baron Vitelius d’Estera, a 17th Century hedonist and the most self-satisfied warlock south of Tijuana. For various crimes against humanity the smug bastard is brought before a tribunal where he’s sentenced to burn at the stake. But before he’s reduced to cinders he places a curse on each judge while boasting about his own inevitable return.

Three centuries later the baron is back, reincarnated as a demonic Mardi Gras figure with a balloonish noggin, enormous bat ears, and a lizard’s tongue designed to slurp the brains out of his victims. Once adjusted to the modernistic pleasures of 1962 Mexico, the baron goes about his revenge, rounding up the ancestors of those judges and relieving them of their gray matter (he stores the puréed parts in a goblet for snacking).

The Brainiac is a standout for reasons other than its freakish monster—for once, ineptitude is a film’s saving grace. If the actors didn’t behave like pop-eyed characters in a Tex Avery cartoon or Urueta exhibited any sense of cinematic style or pacing, The Brainiac probably wouldn’t have maintained its lasting appeal among film fans of a certain stripe.

The Brainiac may have been created in a writer’s room but Rafael Baledón’s The Curse of the Crying Woman was based on a bona fide folk tale—the legend of La Llorona, a wandering spirit who wept for the children she murdered. Centuries later a forlorn figure in mourning clothes is haunting the same countryside and like a rattlesnake, her cries are a warning to travelers; watch your step.

That lonely figure is named Selma, a recluse who lives in a funereal hacienda at the edge of a ramshackle forest. With her coal-black eyes and black crepe cape, she resembles a witch painted by El Greco, gaunt but fierce and formidable. As played by Rita Macedo, she’s also a memorably conflicted character, grieving for the victims she’s buried while plotting her next transgression—a murder that will bring the real La Llorona back to life. That resurrection is strictly a family affair–Selma, well-versed in black magic, has designated her niece Amelia as the host body for La Lorana’s spirit.

The proficient Baledón was versed in all genres from comedy to cowboys and he knew his horror films too (the black-cloaked Selma makes her first appearance leading a pack of Dobermans Ala Barbara Steele in Black Sunday). José Ortiz Ramos’s photography sustains the right mood, a skill he learned on other budget-challenged Mexicali-horror like Santo in the Wax Museum.

Sometimes the right cinematographer can make all the difference. Directed by The Brainiac‘s Chano Urueta, and beautifully photographed by Jorge Stahl Jr., The Witch’s Mirror is a familiar tale with a new twist; Eduardo Ramos is a man who murders his wife Elena to replace her with Deborah, a younger, more alluring playmate.

Deborah’s appeal is only temporary—her face is blistered in a fire and Ramos becomes obsessed with restoring her beauty. Though Franju’s Eyes Without a Face points to the futility of Ramos’s obsession, Alfredo Ruanova’s screenplay finds new life in the old story: the late Elena’s godmother is the witch who put this grisly soap opera in motion, causing the fire that disfigured Deborah and assuring that Elena will rest in peace.

Urueta directs the film with a conviction lacking in The Brainiac and is helped considerably by the ravishing lighting of Stahl Jr. (Hathaway’s Garden of Evil, Buñuel’s Death in the Garden). Isabela Corona plays Elena’s quasi-fairy godmother, a witch with a warmer heart than most. The unfortunate Deborah is played by Rosita Arenas (Amelia in Curse of the Crying Woman) and is charming enough to make us question her miserable fate. Happily Ms. Arenas made an appearance filmed at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in October 2022 and that conversation is part of the superb new Blu ray set from Indicator Series.

Indicator has treated these films with infinite care, and for those who have fond memories of Casa Negra, the home video company who made their mark with Mexican horror, these Blu rays should heal all wounds. Indicator’s transfers are close to impeccable with The Witch’s Mirror and Black Pit of Dr. M. looking as good as they possibly could. The company has added a number of worthy extras including feature-length commentaries and a selection of newly produced documentaries.

Among the notable extras are Preserving a Legacy, the story of Alameda Films, Black Pit of Dr. Méndez, a look at the life and work of Fernando Méndez.

There’s also—gasp—something you can hold in your hands, a 100 page booklet with new essays by José Luis Ortega Torres, David Wilt and Abraham Castillo Flores.

Here’s the complete rundown of extras from Indicator’s site.

Here’s Darren Bousman on The Black Pit of Dr. M.:

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