Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Mute Samurai: Episode 6



Tomisaburo Wakayama (Kiichi Hogan), Hama Yuko (O-Ran), Yamauchi Akira (Shiba Gunbei), Nakada Yoshiko (O-Mitsu/Mitsuryu), Tatsuo Endo (Councillor Sakata Gyobu)

Directed by Ozu Hitoshi

Demon Hogan has a fateful encounter with Shiba Gunbei, a samurai bent on avenging a wrong against a British swordsman named Blood. Mirroring his own plight against Gonzalez, the two become friends. Losing his duel against the British fencing specialist, Hogan aids in restoring the name of Gunbei's Itakura Clan, and eliminating two duplicitous usurpers engaged in slavery and illegal trade with Blood.

The pet project of Gosha Hideo and Wakayama Tomisaburo continues with quality storytelling in this, the sixth episode of THE MUTE SAMURAI (1973-1974). It fumbles a few times with some sloppiness, but this being small screen samurais on a budget, not everything is perfect. It's one of the busier episodes containing enough material for a feature film. For the most part, all the elements are balanced out well under the direction of Ozu Hitoshi.

There's a nice collage of scenes that show us what a day in the life of a silent samurai bounty killer is like. It's never boring as the opening minutes attest. Beginning with the pre-credits sequence, Hogan uses a gun to dispatch a handful of ambushers. This six shooter makes regular appearances as the series progresses, and this is the first time we see Hogan using one. Collecting bounties has its own price, and the Demon has a number of folks after him. However, Hogan hasn't lived for as long as he has based solely on his sword skills.

Despite his trail of vengeance, Demon Hogan hasn't lost touch with his humanity, either. As violent as this series is (episode five saw director Wakayama in full-bore Misumi mode), the central characters emotional side never diminishes. We see more of that here. It's especially notable in the way he treats a female character from a previous episode.

Chokui Kinya's script reintroduces a particularly nasty character from episode three, O-Ran, the female leader of a band of butchers that terrorized local villagers experiencing a drought. Director Ozu is no Misumi, and the O-Ran character is now in with a much milder gang of robbers. Upon running across Hogan again, she suddenly decides to change her ways; giving back the money she stole, and explaining she only committed crimes to pay her sisters debts. She's definitely the polar opposite of the way she's depicted in that previous episode; yet O-Ran indeed proves her mettle to Hogan, and seemingly falls in love with him in the process! At first this angle appears to be a subplot, but ends up intersecting, then detouring the path this episode takes at the outset.

Shiba Gunbei (Yamauchi Akira of GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH, BABY CART IN THE LAND OF DEMONS, BULLET TRAIN) is an interesting character. Both men are kindred spirits in that they share so much in common in regards to their predicaments. Gunbei reminds Hogan not only of himself, but of his late father. Hogan is even mistaken for Gunbei early in the show; which is how the two stories connect. The difference between the two men is that Gunbei isn't the swordsman that Hogan is. Also, when Gunbei is fatally wounded by Blood, he doesn't impose his failed mission on Hogan; the bounty hunter decides to finish it because of the debts of blood they share.

Unfortunately, the Anglo's working on this show aren't very convincing when they're required to perform action. In the sword duel between Gunbei and Blood, the camera is tight on the two men with rapid edits (vainly) attempting to cover up for the Anglo performers lack of menace in the choreography. This is compensated during the finale when Hogan does a Django on Blood's hands before he ever has time to draw his rapier. The actor playing him is supposed to be British, but when he speaks, he has an American accent.

For whatever reason, the makers of this episode dressed up a Japanese extra as Blood's black servant. There weren't many black actors working in Japan at this time. Willie Dorsey played the Spanish villain Espinoza's servant in episode two, so likely it might of been viewed as odd to see the same actor playing the same role in a different capacity. Still, seeing an obvious Japanese man with black paint and an Afro is about as odd as you can get.

'Whirlwind of Blood' does close out with a bang as Demon Hogan lays waste to clan usurper Councillor Sakata (played by prolific villain actor Tatsuo Endo), his men, and the British fencer Blood. The choreography is strong and Wakayama looks very powerful in his variety of maneuvers. The makers employ some uniquely creative camera angles that make this episode stand out. Aside from a few weaknesses, this is a strong entry in this well written series.


You can buy the series HERE

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Celluloid Trails: The Unmade Thongor Movie

Conan may be King among the sword and sorcery cognoscenti but there among those barbarians was Lin Carter's Thongor. Forging a style of myriad elements, predominantly of Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H.P. Lovecraft, Carter's series ran for six novels between 1965-1970. Carter, along with L. Sprague De Camp, were responsible for releasing nearly a dozen of Howard's Conan novels through Lancer Books, an American publisher. The two men also created some controversy for themselves by finishing, or even rewriting portions of Howard's works. Around the time of these Lancer Conan compilations, Carter had begun work on his first Thongor novel, 'The Wizard of Lemuria'; and later in an expanded reissue as 'Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria'.

Around 1970, Carter was reported to have been involved in a deal to bring the Conan property off the printed page and onto the big screen. Milton Subotsky (co-owner of Amicus Productions), anxious to dabble in Fantasy films, was eager to translate Howard's works into a motion picture. Some sources state he became interested in obtaining the rights to Conan as early as 1968. However in 1973, the publishing company handling the Conan paperbacks (Lancer Books) filed for bankruptcy entangling all rights in a pool of lawsuits; some of which were levied against the company for failure to keep the books in circulation -- so this early Conan deal failed to formulate. Supposedly, the quotient of sex and violence in Howard's works contributed to Subotsky losing interest in wrangling the rights to Conan; another option were the less gruesome Thongor stories of Lin Carter. While he was determined to make a sword and sorcery picture, there was one man Subotsky had envisioned as a barbarian of cinematic sorts.

Dave Prowse, Darth Vader himself, stated in his autobiography that the Amicus co-owner approached him to play Conan, even though the bodybuilder, actor, and Green Cross Code Man disliked the books upon reading a portion of one of them. As fate would have it, a few years later, Prowse had lunch with Ed Summer (associate producer on CONAN THE BARBARIAN [1982]) to discuss the possibility of him playing the role of Conan the Cimmerian. Not long after, the paths of Prowse and Subotsky would cross once more in regards to sword and sorcery.

After his dissolution with his Amicus partner Max J. Rosenberg in 1975, Milton Subotsky set up Sword and Sorcery Productions, Ltd. built around mounting such a fantasy picture. In their short history, a good many projects went unrealized including a theatrical version of The Incredible Hulk, and The Micronauts. Among these unmade projects was Thongor in the Valley of Demons. Having secured the rights to Lin Carter's character, Subotsky wrote a script based on Carter's inaugural Thongor novel from 1965, 'The Wizard of Lemuria'. Additionally, a nine issue series of Thongor adventures appeared in Marvel Comics Creatures On the Loose line beginning with issue #22 in March of 1973 and ending in May of 1974.

The plot of the Thongor motion picture concerned Thongor and the wizard Sharajsha attempting to thwart world domination by the Dragon Kings via the resurrection of their God. Filled with monsters and elements bordering on science fiction, it was described by talent agent Duncan Heath as a "space-horror film". Among the intended highlights were giant flying spiders, giant snakes, magical swords and stones, a metal boat that flies, druids, princesses, and the Lizard-Hawks. These are just a few things to be visualized in what was an awfully ambitious endeavor. In hindsight, it's difficult to imagine so much being crammed into what was likely to be a moderately low budget picture at best. Subotsky was so enthusiastic over the property, Thongor was envisioned as a trilogy. The production was slated to begin shooting in the summer of 1978, but through this time, there were doubts that Thongor and the Valley of Demons would ever get off the ground at all.

In 1976 the enterprising producer approached Dave Prowse for the second time, but now regarding the title character of Thongor. But earlier that year, Prowse got an offer he couldn't refuse from George Lucas -- his choice of either Chewbacca or Darth Vader in this little film called STAR WARS (1977). And as we all know by now, Prowse chose the Dark Side of the Force. Flash forward to 1978 and Thongor and the Valley of Demons remained uncast. With the film still on course it was decided that stop-motion animation would be used to bring the numerous monstrosities to life.

Modeler Tony McVey (SINBAD & THE EYE OF THE TIGER, SUPERMAN, RETURN OF THE JEDI) built some early models of the Lizard-Hawks (see insert) with the actual animation being handled by Barry Leith, animator of British kids show THE WOMBLES (1975). Tony Pratt (HELL IN THE PACIFIC, THE LAST GRENADE) was the art director while Harley Cokliss (WARLORDS OF THE 21ST CENTURY, BLACK MOON RISING) was on board as director. With storyboards, a presentation book of artwork on the characters in the proposed film (see above), and models being built, Subotsky and his co-producer Andrew Donally planned to begin shooting in June of 1978 and having it all tied up by June of the following year. The only problem was financing. 

United Artists was alleged to foot the bill, but pulled out. The once thriving company was on shaky ground at the close of the decade, and this particular property was likely viewed as a risky endeavor. Stop-motion animation was a time-consuming process, and the number of monsters intended for this picture was unusually high. MGM (who ended up absorbing UA in 1981) had the $15 million CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981) in production at this time, not to mention it had been on the fast track since 1977 and had Ray Harryhausen's involvement, a high profile commodity where the art of stop-motion was concerned. Meanwhile, Columbia had lost interest in the Fantasy genre, and Universal's CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) was in motion; so Thongor in the Valley of the Demons was stalled indefinitely. The heart of the auspicious producer was definitely in the right place, though. Had this first Thongor picture went before the cameras, the first sequel was to have been titled 'Thongor in the City of Sorcerers'.

Subotsky's Sword and Sorcery Productions, Ltd. did get a few films made before dissolving in 1980 such as DOMINIQUE (1979), the television mini-series co-production THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES (1980), and the anthology THE MONSTER CLUB (1981).

In 2001, the rights to the Thongor property were again picked up, this time from American World Pictures with that company's CEO Mark L. Lester (TRUCK STOP WOMEN, CLASS OF 1984, COMMANDO) attached as director for a 2002 release, but have thus far produced no Thongorian results. The company makes a lot of DTV monster movies and exploitation fare like SAND SHARKS (2011), SINBAD AND THE MINOTAUR (2011), and DRAGON WASPS (2012).

Much like Howard before him, Lin Carter left behind some unfinished Thongor business after his death in 1988. However, unlike Carter's and De Camp's editorial expansion of the Conan universe, no one has yet to implement the same practice with Thongor; or actually make the movie of the Valkarthian barbarian.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Celluloid Trails: Journey to the Hyborean Age of Conan the Barbarian (1982)

CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) is one of the iconic examples of fantastic cinema. Regardless of how faithful, or unfaithful it is to its source material, it encouraged many fans to look further into the character than likely would have done if the film hadn't been made at all. Its theatrical success led the charge for an army of village pillaging, head-cleaving clones both domestically and abroad of wildly varying quality. And just as Conan's cinematic journey for revenge was a long and arduous one, the road to getting the film started was just as extensive.

"A CONAN without blood and guts would be like a beach without sand." -- Gerry Lopez, Cinefantastique, September 1981

The notion of turning Conan into a movie began as early as 1970 when SciFi-Fantasy writer Lin Carter was in talks with Milton Subotsky to mount the production. Carter was one of the authors who finished some of Howard's incomplete Conan stories, and had his own Conan-type mythology with his series of Thongor novels. Incidentally, Milton Subotsky attempted to get a Thongor movie off the ground in the late 1970s, but this never came to fruition (but that is another story!)

Edward R. Pressman eventually obtained the rights to the property, which was a tangled tale all by itself. Associate producer Ed Summer had brought the character to Pressman's attention in 1975, but till the license was secured, none of the original source materials could be used. Till then, Summer wrote an initial screenplay intended to take place after the proposed first movie. Since Conan's novels had been out of print for so long (the original publisher Lancer went out of business; another controversial story), and since unfinished Conan tales written by Robert E. Howard were completed, and or rewritten by others (not to mention non-Conan stories turned into Conan stories), it would take time getting clearance for the use of the character. It took Summer and executive producer Pressman two years to secure the property.

"Fan mentality, to a large extent, has a great love of orthodoxy, everything has to be the way the author meant it to be. There is a hatred of creativity and a tremendous admiration for stability and that's very unchallenging." -- production designer Ron Cobb, Cinefantastique, April 1982

With a script written, the search for a director began. John Milius was eyed by the producers from the beginning. At the time, Milius was involved in other projects so the search continued. When the picture fell into the hands of Oliver Stone (Oscar winner for his MIDNIGHT EXPRESS script) in 1978, Summer's script was out and Stone wrote his own. The award winning director proceeded to document an incredibly off the wall storyline crammed with mutants, monsters, mass battle scenes, a love triangle, and a PLANET OF THE APES type world where modern civilization has regressed to a barbarian dystopia. The budget for CONAN was originally allotted at $2 1/2 million dollars, but Stone's chaotic vision (melding two Howard stories, 'Black Colossus' and 'A Witch Shall Be Born') was so ambitious in scope the amount of money needed had ballooned to an unmanageable $40 million.

Feeling more like an overblown version of one of the many Italian CONAN clones, studios showed no interest in it. But the producers pressed on. Obtaining financing with Stone attached as director was unlikely. Ridley Scott, fresh off his success with ALIEN (1979) was one of the directors that ultimately passed on the picture. Other names considered but dropped were Joe Alves (reportedly to have co-directed with Stone), Ralph Bakshi (FIRE & ICE), and John Frankenheimer (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE). Considering the very nature of Conan was a match made in Milius heaven, it didn't take a seer to foresee that the property would find its way back into his hands. At this time, Milius was in pre-production on 'Half of the Sky', a Dino De Laurentiis picture described as a "mountain man movie". Once the door for CONAN was open again, Milius stepped inside and left the mountain men out in the cold. He retained a few items from Stone's nutty script like the villain Thulsa Doom (the main adversary in Howard's Kull stories), and the wolf witch; and brought the budget down to a far more manageable $19 million (some sources list the budget at $17.5 million; and not counting the estimated 10-12 million for advertising).

Over the course of three drafts, Milius expanded on Thulsa Doom's character; jettisoning the demonic, transforming monstrosity of Stone's version, turning him into a supernatural Jim Jones messiah in the form of James Earl Jones. Milius gave Conan an origin story -- something Howard didn't technically do, but did include fragmented anecdotes of Conan's past scattered throughout the various stories. Virtually all the nightmarish imagery of Stone's version was gutted (the cannibalism was left intact, though), and the futuristic element eliminated altogether. 

"Whenever I'd write part of the script, Roy would go over it to see if he could find any discrepancies in the Howard legend.... So he's been tremendously helpful." -- John Milius, Cinefantastique, September 1981

Roy Thomas, one of the most famous writers associated with the Conan comics, was brought in as a consultant to Milius. Thomas submitted some additions, but according to him, little of his input remained. In other sources, Summer states that he and Thomas wrote the original screenplay together till the rights were squared away. Thomas did work on the sequel, CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984).

Roy Thomas wasn't the only Conan artist to want to be a part of the Hollywood version of Howard's creation. Another well known artist, Neal Adams, reached out to the producers before filming began in the hopes of working on the feature. Proclaiming to have gotten a constant runaround from various assistants working on CONAN THE BARBARIAN, Adams decided to forge ahead and do storyboards on spec in the hopes the higher ups would add him to the crew. He drew up an entire opening sequence "similar, in some ways, to the James Bond films" that showcased a Conan who was already of age. Neal Adams never became a part of the production, but in the January 1981 issue of Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian, his storyboards were printed (59 of them) for the readers to see what he envisioned.

"...I was born to play Conan...." -- Arnold Schwarzenegger, Starlog, June 1982

Arnold Schwarzenegger had been signed on in the early stages, even though he wasn't always the only actor considered for the title role. Charles Bronson and Sylvester Stallone were two names being bandied about to play the Cimmerian. One of the Toughest Tough Guys on the planet, William Smith, was said to have been considered for the lead, although he did end up playing Conan's father. Some other names passed around for other roles were Raquel Welch as Valeria; and Sean Connery as Thulsa Doom!

Pressman met with the Austrian bodybuilding champion in 1977 and ingratiated his project to him. Excited at the proposition of bringing this famed character to life, Schwarzenegger stated he was signed to headline a total of five CONAN films. He began training for the role in 1978. Schwarzenegger stated in interviews at the time he dropped his weight down from 240 to 210 (some sources state 250 to 228) in preparation. However, roadblocks impeded the production from officially starting in 1979 -- mostly due to finding proper locations. For Schwarzenegger and his co-stars, this wasn't a case where you showed up and jumped into character. They had to become those characters, get comfortable in their skin. An intense regimen of exercise, martial arts training, and horse riding was required. Both established martial artist Kiyoshi Yamasaki and John Milius himself got his trio of stars into the right frame of mind to perform their roles.

Injuries were commonplace -- Sandahl Bergman nearly lost a finger; Schwarzenegger nearly lost his head in a fight scene, was thrown from a camel, and smashed his head on a rock while jumping in a lake. The trio of thieves had their own stunt doubles, but according to Bergman, "we really didn't use them". Her stand-in is pictured above. The strenuous, and often dangerously hard work paid off in virtually every frame.

"I like Conan. He's a man of honor. His whole life revolves around strength... strength of body, mind and spirit. In the long run, there's no way he can ever lose." -- Arnold Schwarzenegger, Starlog, June 1982

After numerous set backs and false starts, the film did finally go before the cameras on January 7th, 1981. Slated to open in December of 1981, the film was reportedly delayed simply because it wasn't ready for release, although mentions of the films violent content was rumored to have been problematic. Just prior to its release, a rough cut running approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes was shown in the fall of '81. This was possibly the only time the film was ever seen with all the gory sequences intact before they were either toned down (the Pit Fighter sequence initially ran for six minutes!), or discarded. The release date was moved around a few times before CONAN THE BARBARIAN settled into its May, 1982 slot. The rest is history.

The success of the Conan film wouldn't be possible without the written word of Robert E. Howard and the dark fantasy of Frank Frazetta's magnificent artwork. As for the film, Without John Milius, production designer Ron Cobb, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and others, CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) might of turned out a very different film than the influential mammoth of macho movies it became.

Next time, we'll take a look at the unmade Thongor movie in a companion piece article.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957) review



Steven Terrell (Johnny Carter), Gloria Castillo (Joan Hayden), Frank Gorshin (Joe Gruen), Raymond Hatton (Farmer Larkin), Lyn Osborn (Artie Burns)

Directed by Edward L. Cahn

The Short Version: Bulbous-headed, midget aliens whose dismembered limbs can crawl and kill assail a menagerie of characters over the course of a single night in this uncommonly bloody B/W cult favorite of SciFi spoofery. Originally intended as a serious space men movie, the change to comedy was a stroke of genius befitting its low budget. AIP's mini-masterpiece is the signature 'teens vs. monsters' motif, and the epitome of 'little green men' movies.

Aliens land on Earth and immediately attract the attention of local lovelorn teenagers, a traveling salesman, a crotchety old farmer, the military, and a free-roaming bull. A kissing couple on their way home from Lover's Point run over one of the interplanetary interlopers setting a string of incidents in motion that leaves the teens suspected of killing a man. Despite proclamations of "little green men" falling on deaf ears, it's up to the teenagers to stop the alien invaders.

Edward L. Cahn's whimsical story (and all true!) of alien invasionary tactics is the 50s B science fiction version of a fairy tale. The opening credits -- viewed through the turning pages of a storybook -- clue you in that it's not going to be a serious affair at all; although it originally began as typically dour genre fare. The screenplay (based on the story 'The Cosmic Frame' by Paul Fairman) is judiciously dotted with some great dialog and, considering the jokey tone of the film, some surprisingly bloody scenes retaining a bit of that gloomy atmosphere of most 50s SciFi films. 

Reveling in genre spoofery, INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN pokes fun of the "little green men" paranoia popularized in the 1950s over alleged UFO sightings. Cahn's film uses government coverups and unusually devious aliens to act as a source of amusement in telling his story -- a story that unfolds from the point of view of a character writing a book on his alien ordeal (who is actually reading the book caps things with a wonderfully cartoonish coda). Instead of the typical Earth assault, these space men take a more covert route, going to great lengths to frame two teenagers that run over one of the little monsters. If only they'd been driving with their lights on! 

Incidentally, bright lights are the only defense against these big-brained, little-bodied visitors. Played by midget actors, these aliens are a memorable sight with their huge heads and hands (complete with an eyeball on each!). They attack with needles that protrude from their clawed hands, injecting pure alcohol into their victims. Despite heavy doses of comedy, some scenes are strikingly gruesome in showing the aliens repeatedly stabbing some of their victims with their needled claws; the same applies to the alien that's run over, prompting its still-living hand to rip itself from the arm and crawl away to attack again. INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN is the only SciFi movie that pits an alien against a bull with an investigative disposition. This sequence is among the bloody bits as the wild bull gores the alien in the eyeball.

Of special interest to fans of the BATMAN television program, the Riddler himself, Frank Gorshin plays one of the supporting characters here, and the first person to encounter the otherworldly visitors.

INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957) was remade in uneventful fashion by Larry Buchanan with THE EYE CREATURES (1965), a Made For TV film.

Paul Blaisdell, the sinister mind behind some of 'B' cinemas best creature creations was responsible for these green men. The Rhode Island native, like a great many others who dabbled in genre films at this time, showed a keen interest in model building at a young age. After seeing some of his artwork in science fiction periodicals, Forry Ackerman, the creator of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, became his agent. This led to Blaisdell working for AIP designing various aliens and monsters. A great many fabulous 50s favorite is scattered amongst his resume including the almighty Tabonga of FROM HELL IT CAME (1957) and the alien cucumber of IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956). One of his best, most celebrated monster designs is the stowaway martian seen in IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958), another film directed by Edward L. Cahn.

Considered a cult favorite, SAUCER MEN has been conspicuous by its absence on the digital format in the United States. The reason for that seems to be Susan Nicholson Hofheinz, the rights owner to this, and other AIP titles. In 2012, Susan Nicholson (daughter of producer James H. Nicholson) filed a multitude of lawsuits against various companies over use of copyrighted material she lays claim to. One of these suits was against A.V.E.L.A. Inc for selling unauthorized merchandise related to SAUCER MEN. Actually, this case is the most recent one. Since at least the late 90s, Susan Nicholson Hofheinz has made a crusade out of suing various companies (including big ones like Discovery and A&E) for alleged copyright infringement over the use of trailer clips, and or characters from films I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, TERROR FROM THE YEAR 5,000, and INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN. It would appear that most, if not all of her suits have been dismissed. It has also been reported that she allegedly wants a great deal of money for licensing, so that scares off any potentiality of a legit US release in the current market climate. Most of these titles have been released overseas in Europe on DVD.

For fans of 50s science fiction, INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957) comes highly recommended. For a comparative feature from around the same time, it eschews the same darkly comical mentality of Roger Corman's THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960). The change to a serio-comedic affair works to a surprising degree and, along with the memorable Blaisdell alien designs, is key to the films cult status all these years later.

This review is representative of the Italian Sinister Films R2 DVD. The original English soundtrack is included.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Santo & the Legendary Luchadores of Mexican Fantastic Cinema Part 2 of 2

***WARNING! This article contains two images of nudity***


Like other examples of foreign cinema, Mexican horror and fantasy films (like THE VAMPIRE, CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE, and THE BRAINIAC) were imported here and dubbed into English; in most cases by K. Gordon Murray and others via Television Enterprises Corporation. Some of the Mexican wrestling movies were likewise brought over. Of the Santo series, only 4 of the 52 films he appeared in made it to America in dubbed format. Those features being: INVASION OF THE ZOMBIES (SANTO CONTRA LOS ZOMBIES [1961]), SAMSON VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN (1962), SAMSON IN THE WAX MUSEUM (1963), and SANTO VS. DR. DEATH (1973). For the two middle titles Santo's name was switched to Samson; a name Americans would be familiar with since Italian muscleman epics were very popular with youngsters at that time; and both those titles featured an assortment of monsters.

The five NEUTRON movies were dubbed into English as well, and released straight to television through Television Enterprises Corporation. This quintuplet of science fiction films featured a mysterious main character who, like Santo in his first couple of outings, was not a wrestler, but a crime fighting agent combating evil. For the first three movies, Neutron goes toe to toe with Dr. Caronte, a mad scientist who, like Neutron, dresses like a wrestler in his white tights and mask. The first three movies were virtually interchangeable with Caronte attempting to build a devastating bomb and eliminating scientists associated with the device. He also commands an army of prune-faced zombies he keeps inside a trap door in his laboratory; and like so many Mexican genre product, Caronte had a midget assistant to do his light work. The fourth and fifth films saw Neutron tackling a psycho killer and an army of Karate fighting automatons respectively. Curiously, Neutron's costume changed in the last two movies. Similar to American comic book heroes, Neutron hid his identity as detective Carlos Marquez.


The more of these movies you watch, the more you will understand why so few of them made it here in English friendly versions. Some of the ingredients that appealed to Hispanic audiences would be lost in translation to foreigners. Many of these movies could be described as 80 to 90 minute variety specials peppered with wrestling matches, nightclub sequences with jiggly go-go girls and singing groups. For instance, in 1970s SANTO CONTRA LA MAFIA DEL VICIO (SANTO VS. THE VICE MAFIA), the picture opens with a 2 1/2 minute music video with Peruvian pop sensation Jimmy Santy. Singing and dancing atop a precipice overlooking the sea, bikini clad babes boogie down while Santo's participation shows him to be enjoying himself, but never quite displays his Mexican rhythm. The catchy tune of this light opening dissipates by the end with some bloody gun battles. 

After a hard night at the arena clobbering guys in tights, Luchadores need to relax. Watching lovely ladies shake their moneymakers, or some Rico Suave making the women swoon is a nice way to close out the evening. But in the world of masked wrestlers, they are often so busy, they have to go to bed in their wrestling attire to be ready at a moments notice. But I digress. Even in the more digestible of these movies it's not unusual for there to be a scene in a nightclub. One film took this to a whole other level of gratuitousness. In SANTO CONTRA EL ESTRANGULADOR (1963), the storyline centers around a PHANTOM OF THE OPERAish type madman with a disfigured face strangling women at a musical variety theater. This plot is but a disguise to trot out some nine song and dance numbers -- two of which are sang in English. If nothing else, you get a very lengthy view into Latin American nightlife back in the mid 1960s. Made a year before, but released after the "world's first monster musical", THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES (1964), SANTO AGAINST THE STRANGLER unbelievably got a slightly better sequel with EL ESPECTRO DEL ESTRANGULADOR (1963). There's only eight song and dance numbers in that one.

Other Santo films used their plots as blatant advertisements for sporting events other than wrestling. SANTO CONTRA EL REY DEL CRIMEN (1962) is, at times, a showcase for popular Mexican sport Jai Alai that sees Santo and Interpol working together to bust a criminal organization. Meanwhile, Santo is integrated into stock footage of Jai Alai games to give the impression he's participating. The game itself figures into the finale of the movie. Possibly the sportiest of Santo's oeuvre, it might make you go outside and run around the block afterward. The inclusion of such things -- along with the wrestling matches -- likely cut down on the scripting of the actual movie thereby saving some money. These particular films in the Lucha genre are comparable to the eccentricities associated with other foreign movies that are geared towards a local audience. To the casual viewer, this genre style won't be for everybody, but the curiosity value will be enough to attract bizarro cinema lovers, as few as they may be these days.

Possibly what makes the Lucha movies so appealing to their clutch of fans are the cross breeding of styles. In the most popular entries you have wrestling and monsters. Wrestling was the life's blood of a great many Luchador adventure. In his first two movies, Santo is barely in the films, barely has any dialog, and nary a wrestling match in sight. SANTO CONTRA LOS ZOMBIES changed all that by merging the man and his matches while defining the character as the People's Champion. From there on out, virtually every Santo movie would feature at least one arena bout. These matches didn't always have anything to do with the plots of the films, either. 

At times -- and especially in Lucha Libre movies of the 70s -- wrestling matches were little more than a means to pad out the running time when the filmmakers were saddled with the flimsiest of scripts; such is the case with the goofy, and intentionally campy LEYENDAS MACABRAS DE LA COLONIA (MACABRE LEGENDS OF THE COLONY [1974]). Around 30 minutes is afforded to wrestling leaving approximately 45 minutes for the time travel plot that mixes sword duels, Aztec warriors, the living dead, a Crypt Keeper type host, and a sensually venomous performance from Lorena Valezquez as Dona Luisa. Some like SANTO CONTRA LOS CAZADORES DE CABEZAS (1969), and ASESINOS DE OTROS MUNDOS (1971) feature no wrestling matches at all. 

Changing audience trends on the international scene meant Lucha cinema and its champion proponent would need to evolve to remain viable. In the beginning, Santo was this clean-cut hero of the people whose sole reason for being was to save those oppressed by every sort of villain imaginable -- when he wasn't scheduled in an arena somewhere. In his early to mid 60s B/W period, he was seen many times in his secret laboratory; or zipping around in his convertible combating evil, cape flowing in the wind. In some movies Santo was defined as a symbol of religious iconography (his name is The Saint after all). For example, in ATACAN LAS BRUJAS (1964), one of the witch's tries to seduce Santo in an unusually spicy sequence; in another, he repels the villains by outstretching his arms turning his body into a makeshift cross! However, Santo became something of a ladies man as the 1970s drew closer. SANTO CONTRA LOS VILLANOS DEL RING (1966) was the Holy's last feature in B/W, ending his Saintly crusade; well, not actually closing the door, more like leaving it cracked just a bit.

1967 was a turning point for Santo. Two of his best movies were made that year. Both were co-productions (with another Mexican company, Cima Films), both were shot simultaneously, and both were directed by father and son team, Rene Cardona, Sr. and Jr. With OPERACION 67 and EL TESORO DE MOCTEZUMA Santo had officially become a secret agent while exiting the B/W world and entering the one of Eastmancolor. He retained his status as a superhero with a high-tech lab, and used his wrestling career as a front to investigate whatever diabolical plan the bad guys were hatching. From here on out, you saw more of Santo in a suit and tie, or casual wear, and less of him running around in his wrestling tights and cape. You will also see more of Santo actually kissing women as opposed to merely rescuing them before driving off into the sunset. He maintained his decor in that he never shot nudity, or engaged in sex scenes, but seeing Santo with a woman humanized him, pacifying some of that superhero aura his earlier films imbued him with. 


Regarding sex, some of the Saint's movies had risque scenes added showing bare breasts and tame bedroom shenanigans. The most infamous of these is Rene Cardona, Sr's EL TESORO DE DRACULA (1969). The version with the added sexual content ran under the name of EL VAMPIRO Y EL SEXO. As the story goes, Santo never shot such scenes, and these additional unclothed moments were shot for the European market and released in that form. Unlike Paul Naschy's pictures -- clothed for local audiences and butt naked everywhere else -- these racier Lucha movies are harder to find. The most famous, and easily accessible one is Cardona's sexy version of NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES (1969). This alternate cut of EL TESORO DE DRACULA was, according to Film Calderon, kept confined as an agreement between Santo and the films producer, Guillermo Calderon. Film Calderon restored the picture for a showing at a Mexican film festival in 2011 till Santo's son put a stop to it stating it would tarnish his father's name and image since he didn't participate in such scenes of carnality. The restored sexy version was shown anyways on more than one occasion that year. Allegedly, there are upwards of six such sexed up Santo movies (including the awful SANTO CONTRA LOS JINETES DEL TERROR, aka THE LEPERS AND SEX); one of them is a version of SANTO Y BLUE DEMON CONTRA LOS MONSTRUOS (see insert). It's worth mentioning that while both films were shot in color, B/W versions are the most prominent for the former, and the latter has both color and monochrome versions on the digital market.


While there's no denying these movies have a limited audience, Santo's popularity in those days, and the burgeoning market for other Mexican wrestlers to get film careers of their own didn't go unnoticed in other territories -- particularly in Europe. Italian and Spanish producers got together for a short-lived, two film series starring stuntman-actor Giovanni Cianfriglia in SUPERARGO VS. DIABOLICUS (1966) and an inferior sequel, SUPERARGO VS. THE FACELESS GIANTS (1968). Like Santo, Superargo was a professional wrestler and crime fighter all rolled into one.

Turkey even got in on the act with their own Santo impersonator in 3 DEV ADAM (1973), aka 3 GIANT MEN. It featured not only a Santo clone, but a Turkish Captain America and Spiderman as well! Spidey is a villain in this, and it's up to Santo and Cap to defeat him and his crime syndicate.

Going back to Mexico, comic book heroes like Kaliman and Chanoc were two others to translate their printed page adventures to the big screen. Kaliman is a martial arts and mystical arts master that debuted on the radio in 1963, and then in comic form in 1965. There were two movies made in Mexico about him in 1972 and 1976, and both starring Jeff Cooper (CIRCLE OF IRON from 1978). Chanoc was a seafaring adventurer whose comic exploits hit newsstands in 1959. His film journey's began in 1967 for at least eight voyages including one with the Son of Santo in 1981. Neither of these two were wrestlers, but their trajectory is similar to the popular industry of the Luchadores and are possibly indebted to them.

Hispanic Houdini and feats artist Professor Zovek was extremely popular and was a real life success story that reached a pinnacle in the late 1960s. His film career came rather quickly in 1971 with the release of EL INCREIBLE PROFESOR ZOVEK in 1972. Unfortunately, his life was cut short during the filming of his second feature, BLUE DEMON Y ZOVEK EN LA INVASION DE LOS MUERTOS (1973).

Interestingly enough, there were a few Lucha heroes who were created specifically for the screen. The aforementioned superstar Tinieblas was one. Others include the bodybuilder Blue Angel (Orlando Hernandez), and the Superman styled curio, Superzan (Alfonso Mora Veytia). Both characters were created by producer Rogelio Agrasánchez Sr. and had relatively short film careers in a string of movies (usually paired with other, bigger name stars) shot in Guatemala. A number of these were the Guanajuato Mummy sequels. Superzan was unique in that he could fly and had superhuman strength. He headlined two hopelessly ridiculous movies beginning with 1971s SUPERZAN EL INVENCIBLE (onscreen title is SSUPERZAM EL INVENCIBLE), and followed by SUPERZAN E EL NINO DEL ESPACIO (1972). Famous rock and roll singer Johnny Laboriel co-starred as Superzan's sidekick in the first movie. Superzan's career is something of an enigma. There's little available about him. According to Tito Novaro, director of THE CASTLE OF THE MUMMIES OF GUANAJUATO (1973), Superzan trained, and later became a wrestler. It's also stated his in-ring debut was cut short because of an injury during the training process. Blue Angel was a wrestling character in movies only lasting four films in a two year period. Something of a Mexican version of Captain America, he was a replacement for a busy Blue Demon on EL CASTILLO DE LAS MOMIAS DE GUANAJUATO (1973). 

The year before teaming up with Santo in two marvelous movies, famous Mexican actor, the muscular Jorge Rivero (OPERACION 67, EL TESORO DE MOCTEZUMA, SOLDIER BLUE, CONQUEST) played Golden Mask in Rene Cardona's EL ASESINO INVISIBLE (1965), AKA EL ENMASCARADO CONTRA ASESINO INVISIBLE. Unfortunately, this was Rivero's sole excursion into masked wrestling-superhero cinema. The English version of this production ties it into the Neutron series as NEUTRON VS. THE INVISIBLE KILLERS; yet the original movie has nothing at all to do with the character popularized by former wrestler, magician, athlete Wolf Ruvinskis.

The ring wasn't just for the men to toss their opponents around in; the women got in on the action too, much like in the real sport. The most famous actress associated with Lucha cinema, and Mexican genre pictures in general is the stunningly gorgeous Lorena Velazquez. She has ran the gamut from strong heroine, to object of the hero's rescue, to the sinister villainess. Her most famous role is in SANTO VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN (1962) as Zorina, the Queen of the Vampires. She also famously played the luchadora Gloria Venus in the first three of five lady wrestler movies directed by the wildly prolific Rene Cardona, Sr. Miss Venus first appeared in LAS LUCHADORAS CONTRA EL MEDICO ASESINO (1963); or, as it's known here in English, DOCTOR OF DOOM. Cardona the elder helmed four more films related to this series, and a graphically gory unrelated one, LA HORRIPILANTE BESTIA HUMANA (1969); or, as it's known here in English, NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES.

Mexican Lucha Libre movies with their pulpy plots, comic book styled villains, beautiful women, and plethora of monsters have been influential inside the ring of world cinema. With many of them shot in serialized format (for monetary reasons), they often have a look and feel of the 30s and 40s serials of old such as FLASH GORDON and SUPERMAN. They wear their own influences with pride.


All but three of the 14 titles listed below feature fantastical elements in them. There are other films of interest in the Lucha Libre genre, but the films on this list are a good and groovy start in determining whether or not you wish to pursue further adventures of Mexico's manic tradition of masked wrestlers -- the champions of justice and the ring.


A famous professor disappears after returning from Haiti followed by a string of robberies committed by a small army of seemingly invincible zombie slaves. Pulpy fun with Santo battling a hooded menace. 


The Queen of the Vampires must choose a successor before she can join Satan in hell. Choosing a professors daughter, Santo intervenes to stop the ritual from taking place. The ultimate Santo movie, and the most well known example of the form on these shores. Santo battles an array of vampires; some of which can turn into werewolves. Reportedly the best selling Mexican export ever.

Just as good as the above entry. A blend of ISLAND OF LOST SOULS and HOUSE OF WAX with some unusual twists in the mix. Mad scientist makes monsters and waxen figures out of victims. Santo to the rescue. Exciting fights and nice atmosphere enhance this film.

4. EL HACHA DIABOLICA (1964/1965)
Very low budget Santo film has enough ideas for a few features put together. Santo is more of a bonafide superhero in this entry as he travels through time to lay his true loves soul to rest while combating a devil-worshiping enemy that has pledged Santo's destruction.


Santo versus martian musclemen with blonde wigs. Aliens arrive on Earth threatening to destroy it if mankind doesn't dismantle their atomic arsenal. Of course, things don't go well, and after disintegrating a bunch of people, it's Santo to the rescue.

6. OPERACION 67 (1966/1967)

Still low budget, but the most polished and best production values of the Santo adventures belongs to this, and its sequel (see below). A crime syndicate steals the currency printing plates in an attempt to disrupt various Latin American economies. Santo and Jorge Rivero are secret agents sent to stop them.


Sequel to OPERACION 67 finds Santo and Jorge Rivero going after another crime ring that intends to locate and steal the vast Aztec Treasure of Moctezuma. The action seldom lets up. The gorgeous Maura Monti co-stars.


The two titans of the ring clash in this goofy, yet colorfully fun science fiction silliness about a Nazi scientist ruling Atlantis with plans of ruling the entire world.


Santo and Blue Demon vs. a mad monster party of assorted famous creatures. One of the more well known masked wrestler movies, as well as one of the worst in the best sort of way. No real plot just an unstoppable amount of comic book action.


The biggest Lucha hit of them all stars the three biggest wrestling athletes taking on a gaggle of mummies, one of which fought Santo generations earlier. Several sequels followed teaming up other Luchadores. Released in 1972.


Influential Lucha Libre movie packs five wrestlers into a simplistic plot about a vengeful mad doctor out for the Justice Champions blood. This crime fighting quintuplet attempts to thwart his plans while battling an army of superhuman midgets. Non-stop action and about as nutty as they come.


The centuries old Frankenstein's daughter stays alive with a special serum and wants some of Santo's blood that contains special properties to live even longer. Meanwhile, she's hard at work on furthering her father's experiments. Some good performances enhance this nutty movie that is one of the few that depicts Santo as more than human.


Another monster mash cult favorite.Very polished with some atmospheric sequences and a fantastic finale. Dracula and the Wolf Man want 400 years of payback on the Cristaldi family and it's up to Santo and Blue to stop them and their army of vampires and werewolves. Some brutal fisticuffs with street fighter werewolves.

14. SANTO CONTRA LAS LOBAS (1972/1976)

The most serious Santo film is this surprisingly moody horror number about a cult of werewolves reviving their king and obtaining a new queen in between terrorizing an isolated village. One of the most unusual Santo productions. A few unexpected twists are included.

For some, the wacky world of Lucha cinema is manna from heaven. For others, they may find the low level production values intolerable. The diabolical genius of joining a carnivalesque sporting attraction with mad scientists, monsters, and aliens from outer space is a proposition the dedicated cult film fan simply should not pass up.


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