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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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