"The audience roars uncomfortably in their seats!"—Wrestling Announcer
Some film genres simply defy explanation. Turkish science fiction. The career of Steven Seagal. Mexican wrestling movies.
Wrestling movies? From Mexico? Yes, as American wrestling hit its popular peak in the 1950s, its success apparently impressed promoters on the other side of the Rio Grande. Wrestling performers, many of them wearing masks, became huge cultural icons. And nobody—but nobody—was as big as El Santo. Born Roberto Huerta, El Santo was known for his silver mask, which never came off, and his unbroken winning streak in the squared circle. Like a few sports figures in American culture, say, O.J. Simpson and The Rock, El Santo figured he could make a go of it in the movies.
But Mexican wrestling movies are unlike anything else on Earth. A Santo film typically goes something like this: El Santo fights a wrestling match or two. In between, he fights zombies, or vampires, or mad scientists, zipping around like a secret agent in his convertible. Sometimes, he dresses in a coat and tie; sometimes he wears no shirt at all. And he never takes off his damned mask.
It all sounds fairly simple, like the plot of a comic book movie. But there is a surreal aesthetic to these movies that must be seen to be believed. First, El Santo is not an actor. He is El Santo, professional wrestler, playing El Santo, professional wrestler who fights evil in his spare time, in a movie. The audience never questions this. Continuity is not an issue: he might fight Dracula in one movie, only to have Dracula turn up a few years later with absolutely no reference to the earlier movie. Sometimes El Santo works for the police; sometimes he is just a good citizen doing his duty to fight the minions of evil. And he never takes off his damned mask. Even when he eats. Even when he kisses his girlfriend. Even when he wears a turtleneck sweater with a sport coat—or worse, a cardigan—over it. He never takes off his mask.
And sometimes he hangs around with other wrestling pals who never take their masks off either. It must be some sort of fetish thing.
Although a few El Santo movies trickled over to the United States over the years in terrible dubs (usually changing our hero's name to "Samson"), these bizarre pictures have mostly been reserved for cult collectors on this side of the border. Mystery Science Theater 3000 even showed one. My friend and I like to watch them in the original Spanish (which he speaks and I do not) and make up our own translations. But Rise Above has picked up the rights to several Santo films for DVD, as part of their "Santo Collection." In color (the prints are in surprisingly good shape) and mono sound, these discs are all packaged with a "Best of Santo" clip show (two minutes), a few photos, and trailers plugging both authentic Santo releases and some cheesy looking brand new "El Santo" movie. Do not be fooled by this imitation: the real El Santo died twenty years ago (his son briefly took over the role). The new film also smacks of a "deliberately campy" cult film—always a very bad sign.
Real Santo movies take themselves quite seriously, at least on the surface. Take the 1973 picture, Santo y Blue Demon contra Dracula y el Hombre Lobo. El Santo, the "multitude's idol" long before that so-called "people's champion" currently trying for a big film career, fights El Angel Blanco against a blue background on a soundstage. A wrestling announcer and background noise substitute for a real audience, but it is pretty clear to us that El Santo is probably a little past his prime for any real wrestling (he was in his mid-50s when this was made). Meanwhile, Torgo's chunky cousin Eric (Wally Barron) resurrects Dracula (Aldo Monti) and wolf-man Rufus Rex (Augustin Martinez Solares), who, in spite of being dead for 400 years, is still sporting a mustard-yellow wide-collar disco shirt.
El Santo, with his best pal Blue Demon (played by, you guessed it, Blue Demon), volunteer to help out Professor Cristaldi—or more accurately, help out Cristaldi's daughter and niece from the evil forces who want revenge for…oh, let's just say the plot really does not matter much here. There is fighting and wrestling and wooing of pretty girls. And isn't that what you want for your money? Santo and Blue Demon versus Dracula and the Wolf Man (whew!) is a pretty good entry in the series, considering El Santo's age when he made it. It takes itself totally seriously, trying to conjure a spooky atmosphere, and somehow collapses into entertaining camp. Dracula and Rufus hatch a sneaky scheme to lure the Cristaldi family into peril, but our masked heroes figure it all out in time to beat down those naughty undead. Although, after our heroes have defeated the bad guys (why do they have that convenient pit filled with wooden spikes in their lair?), there is still another 10 minutes of wrestling—El Santo and Blue Demon versus El Angel Blanco and Renato the Hippie—to enjoy. Santo gotta pay the bills, after all.
If the 1974 installment Santo y Blue Demon contra el Doctor Frankenstein is less successful, it is only because it seems a bit too knowingly silly. Jorge Russek plays Irwin (!) Frankenstein, who must be Jewish, because he seems to have created a wrestling zombie Golem. In his mad scientist play lab, he tries to switch the brains of two women, because…um, I guess he saw it in a Mickey Mouse cartoon once. When the experiment fails, he does the obvious thing: he reanimates the two women and sends them out to kill their families. Hell, that's what I would do too. When asked why, he bluntly states, "Because I want to terrorize society, and show the police the kind of genius they're dealing with." If you are nodding in approval, then you can follow the plot of this movie with ease.
Okay, so the first experiment did not work. Plan B: use El Santo's brain. After all, wrestlers must be amazingly smart, so his brain will be perfect for switching. Meanwhile, El Santo and Blue Demon, who have apparently dumped their girlfriends from the previous movie and settled down into the sort of relationship that masked wrestling men in Mexico can dare not speak its name, are jointly raising their ward Alicia (Sasha Montenegro), who is both pretty and a successful bacteriologist. When Irwin's plan to catch Santo fails, he send Golem in to wrestle our hero in a professional match. Vince McMahon could not write a script this bizarre. The whole business is, even by the standards of a Mexican wrestling movie (if such a thing even has "standards"), rather a stretch, and everyone involved, even our usually taciturn hero, are just a bit too aware that nobody in the audience is buying the story. Comparing this to one of El Santo's earlier, more serious efforts is much like comparing Sean Connery's Bond to Roger Moore's, where the winking at the audience reaches a psychotic twitch. The analogy is a fair one: James Bond movies always bordered on parody, even from the beginning, but they at least kept a straight face when Connery starred in them. By the time Roger Moore started dressing like a clown and stopping madmen with killer orchids, all pretense was gone.
Mexican wrestling movies, even with their low production values and surreal touches (lounge music theme songs, the omnipresent masks), work best when they keep a straight face. Perhaps by the 1970s, El Santo was too tired of the undead-fighting grind to take it seriously any longer. Rise Above might have been better off introducing the English speaking world to some of his earlier efforts, when he was younger and fitter and drove that nifty Aston Martin. But if you want to sample the weird world of Mexican wrestling movies, these inexpensive editions are not a bad place to start. Keep your fingers crossed that Rise Above makes more of these pictures available here soon. Viva El Santo!
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