Monday, December 15, 2014

Friday, May 12, 1972: The Black Pit of Dr. M (1956) / The Phantom of Crestwood (1933)

Synopsis: In 19th-century Mexico, Dr. Mazali  (Rafael Bertrand) and Dr. Aldama (Antonio Raxel) have made a pact: the one who dies first will return from the afterlife and tell the other of what awaits beyond the grave.  One night Dr. Aldama falls gravely ill, and Dr. Mazali reminds him of his promise.  Soon Dr. Aldama dies.  On the evening the his funeral, Mazali summons his friend Dr. Gonzales (Luis Aragon) and a medium, in order to summon Dr. Aldama's spirit.  Contact with the spirit world is made, and Dr. Mazali asks if it is possible for him to travel to the afterlife and return to his own body.  Yes, says Dr. Aldama through the medium; but there is a terrible price to be paid for such a transgression against God's laws. However if Mazali wants to go through with it, he can take the journey into the afterlife at precisely 9:00 pm on the fifteenth of the month. After that, he is told, there will be no more opportunities to travel to the other side.

Meanwhile, night club dancer Patricia (Mapita Cortez) becomes agitated when she sees a young man in the club whom she recognizes, even though she has never met him. She has seen him in her dreams, just as he has seen her; troubled, she quits her job and returns home.  There she meets the late Dr. Aldama. She is not alarmed by this because while she knows she is Dr. Aldama's daughter, he left when she was still a baby, and does not remember him, nor has she ever seen a photograph of him. He asks her if she is in possession of a locket.  Patricia says she is, and Dr. Aldama tells her there is a secret compartment within it. He tells her how to open it, and Patricia discovers the hidden compartment and what is concealed within it -- a tiny key.

Aldama tells her to take the key to Dr. Mazali, who will know what to do with it.

Later, Dr. Mazali meets with Patricia and she gives him the key, saying the man she met was a representative of her father.  Dr. Mazali shows her a portrait of Aldama and Patricia confirms that this is the man she met.  Opening the box, they find Patricia's birth certificate, some jewelry clearly meant for her and a letter opener that bears a strange warning: "May the fire of hell consume the one who uses me for evil"....

Comments: Mexico isn't known for its film output, let alone its fantasy and horror films (aside from the unavoidable and deeply peculiar Santo series), but the Black Pit of Dr. M has a sumptuous look reminiscent of Hammer's period pieces and a creeping sense of dread that was clearly influenced by Universal's golden age.  It was directed by Fernando Mendez, who made a spate of similar horror films around this time, including El Vampiro and El Ataud Del Vampiro (both 1957).

There's no question that Dr. Mazali's decision to monkey around with the occult is not going to end well for anybody; but pure scientific curiosity is what drives him, not a desire for power or revenge or eternal life, which so often motivated the protagonists of Universal mellers. 

This film is also distinguished by a pretty densely-plotted script and performances that are skillful but perhaps a bit stodgy, with Rafael Bertrand providing a great deal of gravitas as Dr. Mazali and Luis Aragon functioning capably as his Dr. Watson. Mapita Cortez is excellent as the increasingly baffled Patricia. Mexican performers tend to be a bit over-the-top but we see an unusually understated cast here, with the exception of Carlos Ancira, playing Elmer the orderly, whose face is hideously disfigured with acid and who spends much of the movie skulking around Dr. Mazali's compound like a monster.  His performance is a bit remiscent of Pablo Alverez Rubio's hysterical scenery-chewing in the Spanish-language Dracula (1931). Throughout director Mendez does a very good job of building an eerie atmosphere of suspense, and overall this movie is a nice change of pace from the poverty-row programmers we've been seeing lately. Unfortunately the print I watched was a subtitled Spanish print, so I can't comment on the English dub. 

The Phantom of Crestwood

Synopsis: Jenny Wren (Karen Morley) is a professional gold-digger who has grown tired of her racket and has decided to retire.  Her disillusionment stems from the recent death of Tom Herrick (Tom Douglas) a young man whom Jenny had strung along --  until she discovered that his wealthy father had disowned him because of their relationship.  Jenny dumped Tom on the spot, telling him that the only thing she'd been interested in was his money. Despondent, Tom threw himself off a cliff and Jenny has been haunted by his death ever since.

She plans to leave her lavish Los Angeles apartment behind and sail away to Europe. A prospective buyer for the apartment appears unannounced, a man who goes by the name of Farnsbarnes (Ricardo Cortez).  In fact, the man is a career criminal named Curtis who has been dispatched to find incriminating letters known to be in Jenny Wren's possession. 

Jenny needs a retirement nest egg, so she visits bank manager Priam Andes (H.B. Warner) and instructs him to throw her a farewell party at Crestwood, the Andes family retreat, and to bring along three of his business associates --Eddie Mack (Richard "Skeets" Gallagher), William Jones (Gavin Gordon) and Senator Herbert Walcott (Robert McWade) -- each of whom is on the list of her wealthiest clients.

When the men arrive -- not suspecting a shakedown -- Jenny demands that they pay her a total of $150,000 as a farewell gift.  The men balk, insisting that they are unable to raise that kind of money. But Jenny is undeterred.  They will find a way, she says -- because if they don't, she will release enough evidence of their indiscretions to ruin them all.

Curtis arrives at Crestwood with a few of his henchmen. At just about the same time a ghost appears  -- the ghost of poor Tom Herrick. Moments later Jenny ends up dead, the back of her neck punctured by one of the hefty steel darts used in the game room. 

Now Curtis, fearing he'll be accused of the crime, must play detective in order to find out who killed Jenny Wren, and unmask the Phantom of Crestwood....

Comments: I've never seen a TV print of The Phantom of Crestwood, so I don't know if it included the original pre-credits sequence featuring the NBC radio orchestra and announcer Graham McNamee. It would make sense if the scene were deleted; TV viewers in the 1970s wouldn't have heard of McNamee, the radio drama referenced, or the contest connected with both.

The contest was a marketing gimmick applied to the theatrical release of The Phantom of Crestwood when it premiered in 1932.  NBC radio had broadcast a version of this old-dark-house thriller, but without an ending.  Listeners were encouraged to send in their own ideas for how the mystery should be resolved. The winning entry, it was promised, would get a cash prize.  The studio hoped that this would get listeners excited about going to see the movie and find out if "their" ending was picked. 

The movie turned a solid profit for RKO, and probably would have done so regardless of the marketing campaign.  The Phantom of Crestwood is a ripping good yarn, one that actually works better with the gimmick set aside.

Like a lot of pre-code Hollywood movies, this one seems particularly daring because films became so tame after the Hayes Office was established.  The script here is fairly explicit in identifying Jenny Wren as a top-dollar escort, and when she demands that Priam throw her a farewell party at Crestwood, his scandalized look is priceless.  We are given to understand that Jenny has been to parties at Crestwood many times before -- but always as the entertainment, never as a guest. Now she will be there as an equal to Priam and the other men who had rented her affections, drinking their wine and rubbing elbows with their wives.

Jenny's decision to turn the tables on the wealthy bankers and politicians who had been using her no doubt struck a chord with Depression-era audiences, who would have enjoyed seeing the high rollers sweat it out for a change. 

Karen Morley leads a very strong cast here.  Morley's character is killed about a third of the way through, but that doesn't cut significantly into her screen time; she appears in numerous flashback sequences as each murder suspect describes their last interaction with her.  Ricardo Cortez, who played a lot of mobbed-up types in his career, is very engaging as Curtis, the smart and dogged gangster who missed his calling -- he would have made a great homicide detective. Pauline Frederick is appropriately starchy as the Andes family matriarch, and Anita Louise is quite convincing as Karen Morley's kid sister.  Louise was still a teenager when she appeared in The Phantom of Crestwood, and her career was a long one, stretching from the silent era into the age of television; she went on to play the mother on the series My Friend Flicka in the 1950s, and was doing guest shots on TV well into the 1970s.


kochillt said...

The K. Gordon Murray Mexican horrors made the rounds in Pittsburgh in the late 60s, slightly before my time, with the only one I recall being BLOOD OF NOSTRADAMUS. THE BRAINIAC turned out to be a disappointment, but THE BLACK PIT OF DR. M was a pleasant surprise, loaded with atmosphere and devoid of the usual clichés to be found amongst the undead vampires and mummies. The original title translates as MYSTERIES FROM BEYOND THE TOMB, its English-dubbed print believed lost. I haven't yet caught THE PHANTOM OF CRESTWOOD, but enjoyed seeing Karen Morley in SCARFACE and THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, both opposite Boris Karloff.

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