Where to begin with Mexican macabre cinema

A beginner’s path through the shadowy, sinister and monster-packed terrain of classic Mexican fantasy cinema.

La maldición de la llorona (1961)

Why this might not seem so easy 

Until relatively recently, the fantastical cinema of Mexico has not been particularly accessible to non-Spanish speaking audiences. Anyone deciding to take the plunge now that more vintage examples are starting to turn up on Blu-ray may be surprised by the variety of films on offer in this relatively undiscovered terrain. On the other hand, without some direction, Mexican fantasy cinema’s multiplicity of subgenres and styles may make immersion seem daunting.

Although horror fans will know what to expect going into a Universal monster movie, a Hammer film, a kaiju film from Japan, or a film by the Italian fright auteurs Mario Bava and Dario Argento, Mexican macabre cinema doesn’t have a dominant comparable brand. There are distinct periods in Mexican macabre film history, each with specific and often quite different styles and attributes: for instance, El vampiro (1957), La Horripilante bestia humana (aka Night of the Bloody Apes, 1969) and Más negro que las noche (1975) have very little in common other than their country of origin. 

The best place to start – Black Pit of Dr. M

Directed by Fernando Méndez, Black Pit of Dr. M (Misterios de ultratumba, 1958) comes from the classic period of Mexican fantasy cinema, which stretches from 1956 to 1966. Prior to this, there had been no consistent production of fantastic cinema in Mexico; the sudden influx of fantastic films after 1956 seems to have been inspired by the surprising success of such early efforts as Ladrón de cadáveres [The Body Snatcher, 1956] and El vampiro. Films made in this era tend to emulate the Universal horror style of the 1930s, with atmospheric sets and cinematography in the service of a monster-centric tale. 

Black Pit of Dr. M boasts some of the finest production design and cinematography of the period, and – unlike El vampiro – it is not obviously a Mexicanised version of Hollywood horror films. No background in Mexican culture or history is needed to enjoy it fully, and, unlike pictures such as the outrageous El barón del terror (aka The Brainiac, 1962), it is meant to be taken seriously.  

Black Pit of Dr. M (1958)

In the film’s intriguing plot, one Dr Mazali contacts the spirit of his deceased collaborator Aldama, who reluctantly agrees to assist in Mazali’s quest to die and then be resurrected, while retaining knowledge of what lies beyond. As the agreed-upon date to achieve this approaches, a convoluted set of circumstances orchestrated by Aldama result in Mazali being executed for murder and returning to life, but in an unexpected form. Black Pit of Dr. M thus resembles a ‘pact with the Devil’ tale, with Aldama as a manipulative and duplicitous enabler. 

Superb visuals reinforce the film’s ironic and nihilistic tone: the sets, shot composition, camera movement and lighting are consistently impressive. Black Pit of Dr. M is a very dark film, filled with shadows and fog, and shot on gloomy and almost claustrophobic sets. Only one sequence takes place in the daylight, and only a handful of actual exteriors were used. The pacing is excellent too: understated dialogue scenes suddenly give way to frantic outbursts of violent action.

What to watch next  

There are a number of notable films to check out from the classic and pre-classic periods, including two more by Mendez: Ladrón de cadaveres (Body Snatcher, 1956) and El vampiro (1957). While they’re not as well-crafted as Black Pit of Dr. M, they’re both highly entertaining Mexican takes on more traditional Hollywood horror themes (mad scientist creates monster, and vampire, respectively). 

El vampiro (1957)

Directed by Chano Urueta, El monstruo resucitado (The Revived Monster, 1953) is an atmospheric mashup of traditional horror-movie elements in which a facially disfigured mad scientist transfers the ‘life force’ of a gorilla-creature into the cadaver of a corpse. 

La maldición de la llorona (Curse of the Crying Woman, 1961) makes passing mention of legendary local character La llorona, but only as a hook upon which to hang a superbly directed (by Rafael Baledón), photographed and designed gothic horror tale. 

About half the films featuring masked superhero wrestler El Santo had fantasy elements, and two of the better ones feature not only Santo but fellow hero Blue Demon and a multi-monster lineup: Santo y Blue contra Drácula y el hombre lobo (Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dracula and the Wolf Man1972), and Santo y Blue Demon contra los monstruos (Santo and Blue Demon vs. the Monsters, 1969). They are colourful and fun rather than strictly scary.  El hacha diabólica (The Diabolical Axe, 1964) has a different tone entirely, as Santo faces a hooded, axe-wielding ghost who can appear at any time and try to chop your head off.

The post-classic period (1967 to 1976), characterised by a conversion to colour and a change in style and tone, produced several auteurs who’ve become cult figures in Mexican cinema, including Carlos Enrique Taboada and occasional Jodorowsky collaborator Juan López Moctezuma. 

Taboada wasn’t a genre specialist, although his reputation largely rests on his ghost story pictures such as Hasta el viento tiene miedo (Even the Wind Is Afraid, 1968) and Más negro que la noche (Blacker than the Night, 1975).  López Moctezuma’s masterpiece is Alucarda, la hija de las tinieblas (Alucarda, Daughter of Darkness, 1977), a stylish demonic possession tale, although La mansion de la locura (aka Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon, 1973) and even Mary Mary Bloody Mary (1975, shot in English and featuring John Carradine in a supporting role) are worth seeking out as well.

Cronos (1992)

After 1976, the Mexican government’s disapproval of ‘lowbrow’ cinema, and changes in popular taste, led to a considerable decline in fantastic film production. Over the last five decades, Mexican fantasy cinema hasn’t flourished, but it hasn’t vanished either. Hollywood knock-offs – such as Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th clones – appeared frequently in the 1980s and beyond, from competent directors like Rubén Galindo Jr. (Don’t Panic, 1987), Gilberto de Anda and Christian González.

But there were also the occasional surprises too, including Guillermo del Toro’s debut Cronos (1993) and Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are (2010). Grau also contributed to the anthologies The ABCs of Death (2012) and México bárbaro (2014), and, after some digressions into thrillers and television, has recently returned to fantasy with Rabia (Rage, 2023).  

Where not to start

El barón del terror (The Baron of Terror, 1961) is simultaneously a must-see and a wait-and-see. Do a search for ‘campy horror film’ and odds are this title will turn up. Seeing this hilariously absurdist tale of a vengeful wizard who turns into a grotesque, brain-eating monster as your first Mexican horror movie could give a false impression of what to expect going forward. Watch it, but later.

Santo vs las mujeres vampiro (Santo vs. the Vampire Women, Alfonso Corona Blake, 1962) is another Mexican horror movie that’s relatively well-known internationally. It sees El Santo battling a cult of vampire women and their muscular male henchmen. However, it’s an early Santo film (he made 50 between 1958 and 1981) and he’s more of a deus ex machina than an actual character here, so it’s not the best introduction to this Mexican cultural icon.

These aren’t titles to avoid, they’re simply better when you have more perspective on Mexican macabre cinema and can place them in proper context.

A final warning: in most cases, dubbed versions – from the 1960s K. Gordon Murray adaptations to more recent efforts – are to be avoided. In the case of Murray’s films, they served an important purpose in popularising Mexican fantasy cinema in the English-speaking world, but now that the originals are available with subtitles, these are the preferred versions.  

Black Pit of Dr. M and Curse of the Crying Woman are both available on the new Blu-ray box set Mexico Macabre: Four Sinister Tales from the Alameda Films Vault, 1959-63

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