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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Santo vs. the Diabolical Hatchet (1965) review


Santo (himself), Lorena Velazquez (Isabel), Fernando Oses (The Black Hood), Bety Gonzalez (Alicia), Mario Sevilla (Dr. Zanoni/Abraca)

Directed by Jose Diaz Morales

The Short Version: The first of four Santo adventures from Vergara Films revisits what the earlier Rodriguez trilogy from 1961 did by giving the Saintly One an entirely different origin story. Action and imagination levels are extremely high (the Axe Man chopping the opening credits in half is a nice touch), while production values are low, very low (the cramped, cardboard sets). THE DIABOLICAL HATCHET is ultimately too ambitious for its own good; a veritable loaded burrito of tasty ingredients, albeit undercooked. Far from one of the worst, it's creativity brings it close to being one of the best, if not for the budgetary hatchet job.

In 1603, the original Santo has died. Buried by the monks of a local monastery, he is visited by his satanic nemesis, The Black Hood. Swearing to follow him through the ages, the axe-wielding maniac intends to avenge himself on the Silver Masked One for nearly killing him, and for taking away the object of his obsession, a beautiful woman named Isabel.

Shot back to back with ATACAN LAS BRUJAS (THE WITCHES ATTACK [1964]), EL HACHA DIABOLICA was the first of a quartet of horror/fantasy laced Santo movies from penny pinching producer Luis Enrique Vergara and his Vergara Films company; the other two being EL BARON BRAKOLA and PROFANADORAS DE TUMBAS (GRAVE ROBBERS), both produced in 1965. Another Vergara movie, BLUE DEMON CONTRA EL PODER SATANICO (1964), featured a cameo by the Saintly One.

For all its faults and budgetary limitations, HATCHET is one of the more attractive entries in the Santo canon for a variety of reasons. For one, a good chunk of the movie takes place in the 1600s. Opening in 1603, Santo is dead(!), and being taken to his final resting place. Later in the movie the 60s Santo, in spirit form via a time traveling device, goes back in time to learn about his history with the deadly Black Hood. It's here where we see Elizabethan Era Santo (yet to obtain his iconic mask) engaging in some sword duels with his black attired nemesis lusting for the hand of Santo's lady, the lovely Isabel. Not long after, he receives his magical mask and cape (more on that shortly), so it's a bit of a surreal sight seeing 17th century Santo in his familiar ring attire wearing bucket boots! 

Time travel was a concept that found its way into the elusive Santo horror film, BARON BRAKOLA (1965). In 1969s SANTO IN THE TREASURE OF DRACULA, the masked man of many talents displayed a penchant for science; building an actual time machine to travel back to the 19th century where he tangles with Dracula. 

Another script addition -- unusual for this period -- is giving Santo a love interest. He has two, actually. The oldeworld romance with Isabel (played by Mexican Scream Queen, Lorena Velazquez) and in modern times with Alicia (played by Bety Gonzalez). At just 74 minutes in length, neither is explored sufficiently to the point where it makes an impact. In later movies, Santo films were more prone to feature romantic angles and potential liaisons akin to a James Bond movie. In one Santo film, he even dabbles in some voyeuristic intention. In this particular endeavor, romance is incidental. 

Santo's silver mask is, like all Luchadores, a vitally important piece to the Mexican wrestler ensemble. To remove it generally means the career is over. In HATCHET, to remove the mask of The Black Hood means his life is literally over with a quick ticket straight to hell after selling his soul to a demon named Ariman. The Black Hood, however, is more interested in removing Santo's head as opposed to his mask. Moreover, in some other Santo movies the villains are preoccupied with removing Santo's mask than eliminating the crime-fighting luchador. SANTO VS. THE ZOMBIES (1961) is a perfect example of this. 

The Saintly One willingly removes his mask in EL HATCHA DIABOLICA; something you rarely saw in his films. You only see him from behind, and never his face; he does this for his girlfriend, stating she will be the first and last to see his visage. This wasn't the first time viewers were teased with a maskless mystique in a Santo picture. It happened a few years earlier in SANTO AGAINST THE KING OF CRIME, a 1961 production released in 1962. This fascination with separating the man from his guise became a staple in the Lucha genre. Another example is in the ridiculously entertaining SANTO VS. THE MARTIAN INVASION (1966) when one of the muscular aliens is hellbent on taking it off, and does, but only to reveal a second mask underneath! It comes off again -- willingly -- for the well endowed martian babes elsewhere in the movie. Other wrestlers like Mil Mascaras did this in their movies, too.

The themes of good vs. evil are probably at their most tangible in this series entry. EL HATCHA DIABOLICA feels like a stand-alone movie next to the 10+ that came before it. Santo is given another origin; an entirely different one from what was established in the first of a Rodriguez Pictures trilogy, the aforementioned SANTO AGAINST THE KING OF CRIME (1962) -- the first Santo film to do so. In HATCHET, the comic book leanings are even more obvious. We're told Santo's cape is made of an indestructible material, passed down from previous Saints in the lineage; upon weakening, his silver mask replenishes his strength! Believe it or not, his mask has a triangular symbol on it that spells out 'Abracadabra'! The name signifies a monk-like wizard named Abraca (played by Mario Sevilla), a sort of monastic Obi Wan Kenobi.

All this variety in Rafael Garcia Travesi's script (from a script by both Travesi and Fernando Oses) extends to the wrestling matches, too. In many of the Lucha movies the rumbles in the ring were sometimes unrelated to the storyline. For HATCHET, both bouts propel the plot. The first match about ten minutes in is business as usual till the black masked, axe-wielding assassin we saw during the opening 17th century sequence magically appears in the ring (via stopping and starting the camera). The Black Hood assaults Santo, while tossing out both his opponent and the referee as the crowd flees in panic. Things get so wild and wooly, the police enter the ring and fire a number of bullets into the Black Hood who vanishes in the same fashion in which he appeared.

Played by Fernando Oses, the devil-worshiping Black Hood is among Santo's most formidable foes. Sometimes viewed as a shadow on a wall, this axe-slinging maniac -- appearing and disappearing at will -- shows up at inopportune times to separate Santo's head from his shoulders. The Saint uses his head, though; even asleep, he is fully dressed so as to combat the hooded menace at a moments notice. The Black Hood can also possess a body; which he does during the second wrestling bout where Santo gets pummeled the worst of his cinematic career up to this time. Oses was a series regular in front of, and behind the camera. He had his own series in the form of THE AVENGING SHADOW, a string of movies that began back in 1954.

In Mexico at that time, many films were shot in an episodic format. EL HACHA DIABOLICA is one of these; segmented into three 25 minute pieces to formulate a feature-length movie. The titles of these "episodes" are not on this print, but according to Spanish sources, the titles are as follows: 'The Diabolical Ax', 'Terror in the Past', and 'Disciple of Satan'. The reason for shooting a movie in this way had to do with the unionized Mexican movie studios. If you were shooting a full-length feature, you had to do so at a facility associated with the STPC (Sindicato de Trabajadores de Producción Cinematográfica [Workers Union Film Production]). If you were working on TV productions, documentaries, etc, your affiliation was with the STIC (Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Industria Cinematográfica). Naturally, the unions aligned with the latter were much cheaper in terms of capital and labor. This was ideal for producers who were looking to pocket as much money as possible (and with the alleged amount of corruption in Mexico's film industry at that time, they were pocketing quite a lot!). With that in mind, a number of Mexican theatrical productions were shot in episodic format using STIC crews to take advantage of the inexpensive resources.

Even with an array of intriguing ideas and creativity (dig those axe chopped opening credits!), EL HATCHA DIABOLICA has some serious problems. At just 74 minutes, it drags in spots due to some poor editing. Some scenes go on too long, while others seem cut short. The sword duel, for instance; it's shot almost exclusively in a single master shot. No closeups or variance in camera set-ups, just stagnancy. The choreography is fine, but it's undone by an immobile camera. Additionally, the production values are painfully low. When the hooded menace is about to be burned at the stake, he transforms into an equally immobile bat. Most of these movies were shot on shoestrings, and HATCHET's cramped, quasi-grade school play sets are an indication of that. 

As much as this picture has going for it, these drawbacks make it all the more a missed opportunity to be on the same level as such better produced series entries as SANTO CONTRA MUJERES VAMPIRO (1962), SANTO EN EL MUSEO DE CERA (1963), and OPERACION 67 (1966). Nonetheless, EL HATCHA DIABOLICA (1965) remains a great deal of fun. If you're a fan of Lucha movies, the negatives alone fail to impede the entertainment value, and are not enough to lose ones head over.

This review is representative of the Rise Above Entertainment DVD.

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